Posted by: davidjmarlow | 09/04/2012

Has it really come to this????

Doing local economic development under the Coalition reminds me of a conversation I had about twelve months ago. I was taking my regular Sunday pint in the Red Lion and chatting to Howard the publican about his passions – in this case Mansfield Town FC. He narrated sadly how he had reached a “has it really come to this?” moment with Mansfield when he went to see them play at Histon Town FC a couple of weeks earlier (on 22nd March 2011)and Mansfield trailed 2-0 at half-time.

I have to say I was rather bemused at his rueful despondency. Firstly, Mansfield hardly customarily share the limelight with the soccer greats – the highlights of their 115 year history having been one season in England’s Second Division, and winning the Freight Vans Trophy on penalties in 1987.

Second, I have a ‘soft spot’ for Histon where I was based from 2003-08 during my tenure as CEO of East of England Regional Development Agency (EEDA). Those five years saw this little village team fight their way up to the Conference, a play-off semi-final for League Two promotion, and even a run to the FA Cup Third Round, beating Leeds United on the way.

However, I do have some empathy with Howard’s rhetorical question. When I ponder local economic development under the Coalition, I am often moved to similar reflections!

I have blogged extensively about the incoherence of Government’s approach to local economic development, the patronage of their ad hoc funding programmes, and whether their motivation is dominated by Pickles’ obsessive destructive pathologies, the inherent inconsistencies of coalition politics, or just plain cock-up and incompetence.

The impact on my professional life – and on those of many economic development colleagues I admire – has been profound. Although, across the country local economic leadership teams are working hard to deliver growth and regeneration across their areas, the agendas on which they (and therefore we) work are very much framed by government.

I am extremely grateful to a number of clients and colleagues who continue to seek my involvement in this process. Even in a relatively barren 2012, interesting commissions have included helping LEPs on strategy; applicants on RGF, GPF and/or EU propositions; assisting a couple of major arts charities contribute to place making and positioning; supporting local authorities on leadership, management development and business strategy; and advising the private sector on engagement with national and local public-funded interventions.

It is also stimulating to try to contribute to progressive agendas through writing, participation in events and conferences, and deepening interactive and digital media postings; and I am proactively seeking to re-engage on international development work.

However, barely a week goes by when I am not compelled to think “has it really come to this”? Whether it’s Cable (the DBIS Minister purportedly responsible for economic growth) complaining that, two years in, Government still lacks a compelling vision of where the country is going (i.e. that he’s not doing his job!); or Pickles, defining Localism success as his determining prayers in Parish Council meetings, unsustainable weekly bin collections on Councils, and flying county flags outside his department HQ. Or whether it’s ‘Dave’ and ‘Boris’ continuing to impose their ‘oxymoronic’ brand of ‘Etonian populism’ on the country and our capital city respectively, it is difficult to be optimistic.

But Howard’s despairing moment with Mansfield Town FC does give me some hope.

Firstly, his exasperation rather proves the point that even the most desperate of plights are relative. Howard’s ambitions for Mansfield this time last year were for them to graduate from the likes of Histon to resume regular fixtures against teams from Torquay to Carlisle United. Similarly, completing an interesting distinctive LEP strategy that is then relevant and influential in shaping future growth and development for an ambitious local area does not seem too far-fetched, despite the national context.

From a 2-0 half-time deficit, Mansfield turned it round to win 3-2 on that afternoon last year, and are now challenging for promotion back to the League. As government enters the second half of their current term, one can only hope that the promotion of local economic development by hardworking leadership teams and their officers/advisors will move up Government agendas and increasingly be adopted by those in Whitehall struggling with issues (both literally and metaphorically) beyond their management of the ‘Westminster village’ .

Yes – “it has really to come to this”…but we also have to believe “it is always darkest just before the dawn…”


  1. […] Howard (see ‘Has it really come to this’, April 2012) fell out badly with Marston’s pub company and left the Red Lion about six weeks […]

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