Sustainability: is it time to view economic development through a different lens?

Back Sustainability: is it time to view economic development through a different lens?

Source PSE: Dec 19/Jan 20

Mark Lynam is a Board Member of the Institute of Economic Development, and Director of Transport, Housing and Infrastructure in Sheffield City Region’s Executive Team.

We need a new paradigm for economic development within local and regional government – one which addresses issues around growth, inclusion and sustainability, but redefines the primary lens through which everything else is viewed.

However, there is a choice to be made. We can continue to try (and largely fail) to balance the three, or as has been the case for many years, view inclusion and sustainability through the lens of growth. The way we approach these three factors will be defined by which one you start with. If we continue to view growth as the principle lens, inclusion and sustainability will be retrofitted around the need to achieve growth.

It is time to view economic development differently. If we begin to shape future industrial strategy at a sub-national level by first looking at it through the sustainability lens, then we begin to see an opportunity for renewal and refresh.

There is a growing movement which proposes redefining industrial policy through a ‘green revolution’ which also seeks to address rising inequality. This has particularly been championed in the UK by the New Economics Foundation and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. As the NEF defines it, it is about creating a new generation of jobs in the industries and infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and taking a new approach to running our economy that guarantees decent work, greater ownership and economic democracy, with a central purpose of putting people and planet first.

Its distractors will say that some places simply do not have the luxury of taking this view. They argue that the focus should be on more growth and more jobs first and foremost. After all, you can’t have inclusive growth without growth.

However, in many cases the meaning of what inclusive growth is has been lost, or at best has been played lip-service to. I would argue that addressing regional inequalities is entirely complementary to adopting a new set of social and economic reforms – if you bring people with you.

There is every reason that the sub-national government structures we currently have in place can lead the charge, thereby avoiding years of unnecessary naval-gazing and questions over economic spatial geography which blighted the end of the regional development agencies and the introduction of LEPs and combined authorities.

If a proper and long-term devolution settlement is agreed by government, there is no reason why these sub-regional bodies cannot shape themselves as genuine agents of change. They should be mission-orientated organisations focused on the ‘grand challenges’ we face. They have it in their gift to move beyond narrow and outdated thematic norms and redefine cost-benefit models which actually enable a broader view on the merits of public investment.

By taking this strategic leadership role, it will complement the work of local authority partners who are best placed to drive, from the bottom up, a focus on community wealth-building. This is what the approach to growth and inclusion could be if we looked at them through the lens of sustainability.

This is genuine change. 

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