Mark Burton tries to imagine how city-region devolution might help to produce a fairer and more sustainable society.
The Greater Manchester devolution deal is firmly rooted in a highly orthodox economic and social model. Other deals, with regions hand-picked by the Treasury, are at various stages of gestation. There is every reason to think they will be similar.
The key elements of the model are attracting inward investment to boost competitiveness in the globalised economy; prioritising large infrastructure developments and other high-profile projects; enhancing workforce skill and mobility; and making savings through ‘public sector reform’. All this has the aim of increasing ‘economic growth’ with the dubious assumption that some benefit will trickle down to the more disadvantaged sections of the population.
Yet could increased regional autonomy instead support a different kind of economic and social development? One that increases economic, social and ecological resilience as it builds up co-operative and collaborative economic and social structures to provide authentic and durable security for citizens?
Our organisation, Steady State Manchester, has for the last three years promoted this alternative approach. It draws on ecological economics and related disciplines, as well as the experience of people worldwide who are experimenting with what has been called the social and solidarity economy, or the economy for the common good (among other terms) as well as those struggling against the worst impacts of ‘savage globalisation’.
Our initial approach – in addition to explaining the shortcomings of the ‘GDP-growth model’ – was to work through the implications regionally of an economy that respects the ‘planetary boundaries’, as the ‘Limits to Growth’ are now conceptualised.
This led to an emphasis on redistribution and economic inequality; on the relative re-localisation of currently globalised production and distribution; the working of the financial system and especially debt, savings and investment; and finally the need for better and more integrated ways of assessing changes in economic, social and ecological well-being. A number of projects have followed in each of these areas in collaboration with a variety of actors.
A large part of our emphasis – presenting ideas and working them through with partners – has been on the ‘place-shaping’ role of local authorities and how this could potentially help bring about the kind of shift in both theory and practice that we believe is necessary.
So we find ourselves at an odd moment. On the one hand, the economic clout of local authorities is diminishing as austerity without end continues. And on the other hand, Whitehall is devolving budgets, and supposedly powers, to a new local government animal, the combined authority with its new city-regional mayor.
We have been very critical of this latter development, with its democratic deficit from conception to realisation; its flawed definition of the region; and its business as usual brand of economics. Yet we know from critical analyses of the state and its policy process that the path from policy formulation to implementation is rarely straight, as multiple interests compete for influence, and the model itself is explored, contested and elaborated. It therefore seems likely that some possibilities will indeed open up for exploring an alternative approach, under the umbrella of devolution and its organisational forms.
What would such an evolving alternative look like and what kinds of shelter could a regional administration realistically offer?
- A recognition that a large part of the economy is mundane, relatively resilient and affords modest but real prosperity to many. Economic development needs to value and sustain this Foundational Economy, rather than putting too many eggs into glamorous, prestige projects.
- A recognition that much of the economy is, as it were, outside ‘The Economy’. Many day-to-day exchanges that bind and reinforce people and communities are not monetised, nor are they visible to the usual measures of economic performance. Moreover, what has been called a ‘civil economy’ is already a reality as new kinds of collaborative arrangements evolve between and among public, private and social sector institutions. So economic development needs to recognise the creation of value in all these domains of the community economy and find ways of supporting them without getting in the way or forcing them into a straight-jacket. It needs to develop ways of keeping money circulating and recirculating locally, rather than gushing outwards to more favoured centres and havens.
- This latter point is vital to the ‘paradox of austerity’: on the one hand, as a walk around some areas of the city makes clear, there is an abundance of wealth – conspicuous and wasteful consumption. Yet we also see a continual paring of the money for social provision. An innovative devolution will need to find ways of capturing and sharing the value, including under-utilised assets. This needs to go beyond the familiar formulae, whether of taxation or corporate social responsibility, combining the idea of the social franchise that business enjoys with our community, with practical agreements and platforms for realising this sharing.
These ideas demand a move away from at least three pervasive myths.
1) That it is desirable and possible to win the game of global competition. Instead we should de-link in relative terms from the excesses of globalisation, simultaneously working in practical solidarity with those exploited at the other end of our present supply chains while re-localising key elements of the economy.
2) That it is possible to keep growing our economies without fatal damage to the very systems that make human life possible. Instead we need to embrace the challenge of managed degrowth toward a smaller-impact economy.
3) That somehow there are magic bullets that can more than marginally reduce need and dependency amongst our populations. Instead we need a welfare reform that sees both dependency and interdependency as assets for a convivial society and economy.
Can our regional leaders rise to the challenge? And how do we ensure these ideas are part of conversations to renew and re-imagine the regions?