Unpacking the policies for successful local growth

When supporting local economic growth the critical factor is identifying which policies are most effective. Arup's Joanna Rowelle explains.

Joanna Rowelle, Arup

The What Works Centre (WWC) for Local Economic Growth is based at the London School of Economics and is working to identify which government policies are most effective in supporting and increasing local economic growth

As government is faced with slower growth and tighter budgets, and local decision makers take on new powers and freedoms for economic development, careful research and evaluation has a crucial role to play in increasing the effectiveness of policymaking.

As the WWC points out, the critical question when it comes to supporting local economic growth is identifying which policies are most effective.

The multidiscipline team from LSE, Arup and the Centre for Cities is working to support the authoring of new reports. 

Joanna Rowelle is an economist who works for Arup but is seconded to the WWC. Rowelle’s previous experience is in policy and delivery when she worked for the Mayor of London in economic policy and regeneration for eight years. 

This means, she says, she appreciates the tricky balance of providing evidence based outcomes while also enabling the public sector to actually use the recommendations.

Interview by Antony Oliver

What would you say are the critical policies that support local economic growth?

One of the strongest findings so far is that the lack of quality evidence and evaluation available surrounding important and very costly policy initiatives means it can be difficult to draw conclusions about their success. 

Projects like HS2 are seen as major drivers for regional growth. What does history/research tell us about factors that make them more likely to succeed?

The evidence would suggest that to capture the wider benefits of any such major infrastructure investment, local interconnected transport and other investment is needed to spread effects beyond the immediate environs of stations or sites. The WWC is about to start work looking at local transport policies so more findings will follow. 

How do successful regions organise themselves to maximise growth?

By understanding their strongest assets and working to improve those areas which are struggling. But regions should not simply “pick winners” as you could end up creating a bigger gap between your successes and failures. We have seen places which have been predicated on one industry, employer or sector, just fall apart when that industry has walked away. Therefore, with the advances in new sectors and our ever globalised world, those regions performing well are either harnessing their strengths in multiple sectors across the skills range, or supporting their strong employment base and looking ahead at what they need to do next. 

Do some policies work better in different regions?

The WWC is currently only looking at ‘what works’ but of course the interesting debate is also what works where. Regions all have their unique qualities and then there will be shared issues and opportunities so I anticipate that some regions will have policies that work better than others. It is about understanding the conditions of what works in a place as well as the financial and policy levers available, and therefore not simply a blanket approach.

To what extent is supporting and increasing local economic growth also to do with local personalities?

Good question – and with my Arup hat on, I’d suggest that those projects which succeed are those which have a naturally strong leader or ambassador – not necessarily political. This doesn’t have to amount to one individual but can be a collective of people or organisations. You cannot separate economics and funding from governance or from consultation or from commercial investment. It is a suite of things which are knitted together and which can then create good outcomes for local economies. 

What have you found are the typical blockers to effectively rolling out these policies?

There isn’t one common theme, which in itself is perhaps an interesting finding!

Driving development ahead of the infrastructure is now seen as critical – does it depend on the region?

I advocate that we don’t talk about projects in silo but rather we talk about whole place solutions, development and infrastructure, which all go hand in hand. This is why I think we are now aware more than ever that ‘build it and they will come’ does not necessarily work, especially outside London. 

We have seen the re-emergence of regional power centres – what is driving this? 

Elected Mayors are great for cities as we have seen in London and global cities including New York. I am in Sydney this week where part of the debate has been about the role of a regional government driving the interests of a city. The skill is to make sure that the regional role plays well in the national agenda and is adaptable and agile – a regional centre needs to keep looking around itself to see what is happening in the rest of the country. 

How can the regions raise their skills levels to embrace the growth opportunities? 

Major infrastructure development takes place over decades so I really struggle with why the skills debate always seemingly starts from the 16+ age group. I would love to see education and skills brought together with other policies and budgets so that we see how we can effect change for a whole generation but it all seems a bit piecemeal at the moment. I think we need a stronger thread running through from the very start of education. 

Are there international examples of success?

This is a broad question as it depends how we wish to measure success. The places that have been proactive to the opportunity that high speed rail has presented them, by integrating their local transport connections early and getting development ready, have delivered higher levels of economic growth and productivity than those places who took a ‘do nothing’ approach. The areas that thought the introduction of the railway will be enough have seen little or no growth as a result. 

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