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What Now Leeds…for the economy?

April 13, 2011

The draft Vision for Leeds is nothing if not ambitious when it comes considering the city’s economy:

By 2030, Leeds’ economy will be prosperous and sustainable. We will create a prosperous and sustainable economy, using our resources effectively. Leeds will be successful and well-connected offering a good standard of living.
Leeds will be a city that has:
  • a strong local economy driving sustainable economic growth;
  • a skilled workforce to meet the needs of the local economy;
  • a world-class cultural offer;
  • built on its strengths in financial and business services, and manufacturing, and continued to grow its strong retail, leisure and tourism sectors;
  • world-class, cultural, digital and creative industries;
  • developed new opportunities for green manufacturing and for growing other new industries;
  • improved levels of enterprise through creativity and innovation;
  • work for everyone with secure, flexible employment and good wages;
  • high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport;
Who are the ‘we’ who will create a prosperous and sustainable economy?  And, what breakthroughs might allow this utopian economy to be achieved by 2030 but that has prevented us achieving it to date?  Or perhaps this is one of those ‘shoot for the stars’ to give yourself a chance to hit a nearby moon type plans?
But, the question of who are the ‘we’ is, I think, an important one.  Is it various collections of the anointed and the appointed, gathered at city and city region level (while the RDA might be going we retain a ‘Leeds city region‘ and have a new Local Enterprise Partnership that covers the whole city region.  The city region representing 11 local authorities across North, South and West Yorkshire, claims to represent the ‘real economy’) to plan economic development?
Or is this a challenge that demands a wider response?
That must engage a much wider group of those with a stake in the future of our economy?
This matters because, depending on the answer, we can either leave the ‘Vision for Leeds’ as little more than a document that steers the work of a small number of civil servants, politicians and strategists or use it as a vehicle for much broader engagement.  Is the vision really for all of us? Or is it just a piece of the political furniture?
The problems of definition seems to me to be immense.  What do we mean by a ‘sustainable economy’? Has this been thought through or is it just another example of what was memorably referred to at a recent Leeds Salon as ‘environmental Tourette’s’.
Perhaps it is OK for us all to have our own working definition of sustainable?  I know from personal experience that for many entrepreneurs ‘sustainable’ means ‘financially viable’, with no environmental implication whatsoever.
What does ‘prosperous’ mean in practice?  Is it OK just for the economy to create more cash, or is there something about how the prosperity is shared that should also matter to us?  Are we sure that ‘prosperity’ should still be the goal of our economy, or should we be considering other metrics such as well-being or happiness?  If part of what matters in our economy is health, then would we really use public funds to subsidise the expansion of the sugar industry?
If a vision is to work in mobilising action, then these issues of definition and meaning, and a robust social process for their negotiation is critical to creating alignments and the possibility of progress.
But let’s set the challenge of definition and meaning to one side.  Let’s look at just some aspects of content.
One of the first things that disappoints me is the way that ‘people and skills’ are once again put to serve the needs of the economy.  Why not try to develop an economy that actually honours and reflects the skills and passions of the people?  Develop an economy that serves people rather than people that serve the economy?  We spend fortunes trying to bend the labour and skills market (people) to meet the unpredictable needs of the economy, perhaps we could instead help people to develop their own economic engine built on the foundation of their passions and skills?  Of course if we have a Strategy Board and a Local Enterprise Partnership dominated by large employers such a shift in thinking towards a DIY/craft/artisan/enterprise based economy is unlikely to get serious consideration.
What does it mean to ‘improve levels of enterprise’.  Is this a euphemism for increasing the start-up rate?  Or is there something more subtle here that might allow us to encourage fewer but better equipped start-ups?  The phrase is dripping with ambiguity….
I love the idea of work for everyone.  Secure, but flexible employment with good wages.  What a difficult challenge. But what a great prize.
And as for ‘high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport’ bring it on I say!
Who shall lead us to this land of milk and honey?
‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse?’  – B. Springsteen.
So shoot for the stars and hit a nearby moon?
Unlikely.
Once again if we trace the current route from the high level statements of vision through to the 4 Year Priorities and then on to ‘Headline Indicators’ there seems to be whole lot of dilution going on.
Take for example the challenge of work.  Remember the ‘flexible, well paid and secure work for all’ of the vision?  Well, in the 4 Year Priority this has become ‘More jobs are created’ and the Headline Indicator ‘xx jobs are created’.  We go from a Vision of great ambition to a headline indicator that will allow partners to carry on, pretty much as usual pretending that they create jobs in a modern economy.
And ‘high-quality, accessible, affordable and reliable public transport’.  Well as a 4 Year Priority that becomes ‘Improved journey times and reliability of public transport’, and the Headline Indicator at the moment is ‘Reduced Bus journey time variability on the core network’.
Is there a pattern emerging here?
High falutin’ rhetoric for what will be achieved by 2030, undermined by 4 year priorities and headline indicators that appear to be almost devoid of ambition?
The ‘people of Leeds’ may have spoken when it comes to the Vision for 2030.
I wonder what they would have to say about these draft City Priority Plans?
If they were asked….
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