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The Battle for Municipal Enterprise PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Thursday, 16 January 2014 16:00

As historians and cultural editors expound the past glories of Victorian municipal endeavour and consider re-purposed futures for those mighty town halls built to articulate the strength of local economies, you might imagine that the battle for Municipal Enterprise is over.  But all is not yet lost.

“It is more important than ever for Southampton and Portsmouth’s economic recovery that Whitehall hands over power to local people who can decide how to invest millions of pounds and build a stronger economy in the region.”  Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg as reported in The Business Magazine, December 2013.

Hi-tech buildingSaint Nicholas is not alone in pushing for an economic rebalancing of investment and enterprise that would provide counterweights to the fevered economics of London and the financial sector.  The January edition of Prospect magazine noted that the UK’s major cities are already massive generators of prosperity but, in contrast to their international competitors, they have very little control over their resources.

The news this week that Birmingham must now consider selling off their investment in the NEC (news that came on top of the recent increase in social housing rents) on account of Local Authority funding cutbacks from Whitehall, must sound like yet another nail being hammered into the coffin of Municipal Enterprise.

In 2012 Lord Heseltine was determined to leave ‘No Stone Unturned’ in his search for local prosperity with recommendations principally articulated in the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships.  In the spirit of this new age, Partnership is the new mantra – a healthy collaborative collision of private enterprise and town hall clout that may be supposed to herald a new economic and community renaissance. 

"Councils have a vital role to play in driving economic growth by helping create the right infrastructure and environment at a local level to enable business to succeed, from maintaining roads to helping companies cut down on their energy bills”.  Cllr Peter Flemming, Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board.

This Friday marks the start of the next phase in the RSA’s City Growth Commission – a shift from collecting the evidence to sifting it for vital clues to managing the explosive growth of city-based economies and all the pressures that arise from the strains on infrastructure.

The current government may be a coalition but internal battle lines are becoming clear.  In the supposed (and convenient) cause of creating export potential it is Vince Cable’s department that bangs the drum for Smart Cities and technology-based economic medication.  Support for rebalancing local public sector procurement in favour of local suppliers (and a greater retention of the money-go-round within local economies) comes from those who really understand the practical economics of community development as opposed to champions of bland leaders seduced by big numbers.

"Small businesses are the heartbeat of our local economies. Today's report shows the benefits of working with local firms - for every £1 spent with a small business 63 pence is reinvested locally”. Local Government Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, commenting on a study by the Federation of Small Business.

One of the delights of our increasingly digital world is that we are all empowered to better understand alternative ways of developing new community values.  It is not difficult to see the value of a different balance between diminishing administrative donkey-work and enlightened municipal enterprise.  Brand-leading bullies may be affronted by new and unexpected market entrants and complain of ‘free market distortion’ but ‘disruptive’ innovation cannot be suppressed simply to maintain ‘business as usual’ shortcomings.  Ideas and experiences are now more-easily shared between city, enterprise and community leaders and, despite all resistance to intellectual immigration, many of the best initiatives are ‘not invented here’.

That is why Community Study Tours and the Intelligent Community Forum provide valuable platforms for knowledge transfer and fresh thinking.  That is why folks recognise that stale arguments about Urban versus Rural development are more easily resolved when great cities acknowledge their wider responsibilities for the health of their hinterlands.  It is why local leaders see great value in adapting the generalised notions of remote Regulators to the specific and more acute conditions and priorities of their communities – particularly in environments that are subject to rapid revisions of citizen expectations..

“Beyond 2018, there should be rolling five yearly targets to improve the ‘service level floor’ in response to services evolution.  Local communities, i.e., local citizen and business interests, as well as the service providers, could define these ‘service level floors’.”The need for a clear communications infrastructure policy’ – report from the Foundation for Information Society Policy.

Battles are not what they used to be. In the modern era of state-sponsored policy development warfare there are no rules.  Opposition is often fragmented and has difficulty in left and right-hand coordination.  Tactics from the top are expressed in thinly disguised ideologically-driven campaigns built on the assumption that ‘might is right’ and a lust for ‘the smack of firm government’.  We may perhaps have been spared the extremes of partisan US-style battle behaviour by virtue of coalition caution but debate is still valuable. It is certainly reassuring to hear complaints from politicians that they lack a mandate to trample on any reasoned opposition and great cities (and their community leaders) should seize the freedom to develop local interpretations of municipal enterprise in the context of digitalised economies.

Beyond Whitehall, 21st century communities and their citizens have a new and very different view of authority.  They know what they have and are not prepared to wait ‘til it’s gone’ and then mourn its passing.  In the search for local prosperity the battle for Municipal Enterprise has not yet been lost.  Whitehall (and ‘big business’) must wake up to the new realities.




Last Updated on Saturday, 18 January 2014 07:58

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