GBS LEP’s spatial framework: democracy, nongrowth sectors and getting localisation out of its little box

I was at the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership consultation event on their spatial framework this morning. A few thoughts:

– During discussion on our table, someone pointed at me and said “and then your community economic development stuff fits into this little box here”. It dawned on me then that the name of our project – Mainstreaming Community Economic Development – is a misleading one for many, because if it involves ‘community’ it must be ‘little’. I explained that our work was about scaling up localisation – so that every regeneration project, every economic development decision, every spatial plan, has thought through how it can maximise its benefit to and ownership by local people, and particularly to its excluded and deprived communities. It doesn’t fit into a little box, it’s just a consideration in all good decisions. As fellow table participant Patrick Willcocks tweeted to us afterwards – “You need to, as you did today, get across that you are not about isolated small local projects”. Hmm – lesson there.

– How does a LEP’s spatial framework fit in with the democratic planning system, I asked? The top table responded that this in no way detracts from local planning authorities’ plans; it should just be a useful tool to inform them. Technically, they are right – but it has to be said that the communication of LEPs and their spatial planning agenda implies a  much greater role – implies that what the LEP comes up with will have significant weight. The high level of attendance indicates their opinion of its weight.

If it is to have significant weight, there needs to be more diversity in its production.  It was a very, very undiverse audience. Both in the types of business and other organisations represented, and in gender and ethnic origin. Even less so than the public sector-led local and regional planning processes I’ve been through. This is almost OK if it’s only an advisory plan, but where will those other economic actors find as influential a way in?

Of course something like Birmingham’s Social Inclusion Process should have as much influence on the local plan as the LEP’s spatial framework does. That’s certainly not something that fits into Heseltine’s version of what localism really means, but you have to hope local politicians can see beyond that.

– There was, though, an encouraging level of awareness of the realities of environmental limits – climate change and biodiversity, and I think a genuine commitment to ensuring “no-one’s left behind” by economic progress. To achieve this, we talked about the need to prioritise not just the ‘growth sectors’ but also sectors and types of activity that create and keep enterprises and jobs where they are most needed, and we talked about maximising the local benefits from all economic development as a major objective.

There’s a lot of potential in the spatial framework agenda – I am far more concerned about the aspirations Westminster has for its new structures than I am about the merit of the individuals round the tables.

Karen Leach

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