Fiddling while Rome Burns…Again?

As someone who remembers the Small Firms Service, Manpower Services Commission, The Training Agency, TECS, Business Links and the establishment of RDAs, I refuse to be overly exercised by the development of Local Economic Partnerships.

We know that they will have significantly reduced budgets.  We know that they will be led by some concoction of ‘private’ and ‘public’ sector with a seasoning of social enterprise for good measure.

We can be relatively sure that they will have considerable bureaucratic overheads – necessary to ensure openness, accountability and probity and that they will tie themselves up in the same debates about economic development policy that have raged with sterility for decades; picking winners, encouraging start-ups, clusters, sectors, creative classes, beautification, yada, yada, yada.

We know that they will be very heavily influenced by professions allied to construction and engineering. Planners, place-makers, architects, developers who can throw big money at making sure they retain the lion’s share of public spending even as the spending pie shrinks.  One just needs to look at the key ‘Partners’of the current Regeneration and Renewal National Summit to see the evidence.

We can also be sure that they will embrace a strategic, top down approach to economic development that pretends that economic development happens in a bubble that is disconnected from cultural and social development.  No doubt these too will get their own shrivelled strategic bodies.  The paradigm of economic growth as an unmitigated good will hold sway in the strange world of economic development.  Ideas of sustainability and steady state will not be seriously entertained (unless of course they paradoxically provide opportunities for growth).  Visions will be developed by the anointed, and most of us will see the world of economic development at best, ‘through a glass darkly’.

Facilitation is unlikely to get a look in.  Whole person approaches will be ignored (economic development will continue to speak to homo econimicus), co-creation is as close as we will get to responsiveness and bottom-up. And let’s be clear, co-creation as conceived by the state is nowhere near responsive and bottom up.  It still asks ‘how do we engage people in the agenda of the state’ and not ‘how do we engage the state in the agendas of the people’.  For me this is the ultimate deceit that lies at the heart of ‘Big Society’ and that needs to be carefully and thoroughly outed.

We can also be sure that those who actually live in the communities and give their time and skills to help make things better will be expected to do so for free as budgets for community development shrink and are increasingly targeted at problems (obesity, crime, drugs etc) that see humans as essentially degenerate instead of at the development of aspiration, hopes and dreams which see people as essentially good and progressive.

So I refuse to be exercised.  LEPs will evolve.  They will be largely ineffective in spite of the fact that they will be stuffed to the ginnels with good, committed, well meaning people.  And in a decade they will evolve again.  The sign-makers, website developers and letterhead printers will rub their hands with glee.

I will put my energies into supporting bottom up, responsive approaches that honour peoples humanity, that build social capital, that value the contributions of all, regardless of sector, ambition or potential.  And I will keep looking for genuinely innovative approaches to the thorny question of progress?

In practice this means helping others to develop initiatives like Bettkultcha, Cultural Conversations, TEDx Leeds etc (we are blessed with a resurgence of such civic endeavour in Leeds) that holds real promise to nurture something very exciting.

But I will also endeavour to provide some contributions of my own.  For me this means trying to develop Progress School and Innovation Lab as places to foster radical personal and organisational transformation.

And just perhaps we might be able to persuade those in authority to trust us, to support us, to help us.

Who knows?


  1. MIke,

    Here’s a story to support your case for bottom up economic development.

    In the boom of the 90s there was little appetite for reforming capitalism but Russia had suffered an economic collapse. The top-down approach stewarded by Harvard disregarded democratic governance and trickle-down ended with the mafia. The fiasco was described in the article ‘How Harvard Lost Russia’ by David Mclintick

    P-CED arrived proposing a bottom up localised people-centered initiative in the city of Tomsk. This delivered proof of concept for the model, private investment for social and financial ROI.

    With $6 million funding a microfinance bank created 10,000 micro businesses and many spin of social projects.

    With no other advocacy for social finance in 2004, it was neither understood nor valued here and we’d been obliged to return to Ukraine. Radical now was then economic heresy then.

    We now practice “localised people-centered economic development on a global basis” but can’t be heard here, in spite of already ‘taking it global”

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