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 currentRegeneration 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’.
We must choose our engagements with the strategists, and the terms of our engagement very carefully. We are currently paying the price for allowing our strategies to be far too dependent on continued and unsustainable state funding. We must make sure that we don’t give the state such power and control over our futures again. Over-reliance on the state has proven to be just ‘bad strategy’ We must not sell ourselves to the funders while we call ourselves community development workers – unless they fully embrace the principles of community led regeneration – whether they are convenient to the politicians and bureaucrats or not.
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.