The authors of the Upgrade White Paper are self-aware enough to recognize that this is the latest in a long series of failed attempts to tackle regional inequalities. The reason for previous failures, he argues, is that they lacked coordination, scale and a long-term perspective. Since the document was produced by a government notoriously chaoticis quickly scaling return ambition to save money and currently fighting for its survival on a weekly basis, the newspaper pretty much damns its own chances of success.
However, analysis of the document ignores the main reason for the broken history of the upgrade efforts. It is the false assumption underlying all these attempts that private sector investors can be persuaded to direct their money to the poorer areas of the country by making those areas more attractive to them through improved connectivity. transport, labor skills and city centres. It has never worked broadly, as it overlooks the fact that what investors love in the UK are the high and stable returns offered by the finance and real estate sectors that are the most dynamic and abundant in London and the South East. This is why the UK has been at or near the bottom of international investment rankings in machines, vehicles Where R&D for decades.
It is not surprising that the document does not mention it, because it implies that if we really want to reduce regional inequalities, the government should either direct vast public investments there or force private investors to do it themselves. Alternatively, it could burden London’s housing market or financial sector with so much regulation and taxation that it would not be able to generate the returns investors dream of while encouraging investment in other parts of the country. through tax and regulatory relief. These are far too drastic or politically unpalatable measures for this government or previous ones.
The alternative is for the poorer regions to generate their own vibrant local economies without the business investment that is currently flowing into London and the South East. This prime That’s part of what the paper means when it talks about how Italy’s city-states transformed from backwaters to rich commercial and cultural centers during the Renaissance. Such a process is as much a cultural and social phenomenon as an economic one requiring a self-confidence and optimism that is often lacking in the most marginalized places.
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This is where the white paper’s emphasis on community power is its most interesting aspect. Somewhat at odds with the largely technocratic and top-down elements of much of the document, it is nevertheless the first to offer a consciously community-driven agenda for change. There will be a new strategy for spaces and community relations, pilots for new models of neighborhood governance and ‘community pacts‘ And one investment fund for the communities which could, after consultation, be very considerably enlarged.
This start of Community Power in a major government strategy is good simply in that it gives people a lot more say in where they live and the decisions made in their name – it’s the urgent deepening of democracy we need as Westminster’s legitimacy wanes day by day. But this confidence and optimism, so essential to a seed-priming approach, are much more likely at come in places where people are trusted and able to act on their own behalf rather than waiting for the right policy from Westminster or the right investment from a board meeting thousands of miles away.
To truly generate this cultural and social transformation in the poorest parts of the country will require much more audacity for the community power agenda than described in the document. Indeed, community power only makes an appearance on page 212 while the preceding pages are full of that hierarchical mindset that has done so much to undermine the trust and optimism of local communities. Fortunately, the public sector is increasingly recognized and communities themselves the need for a much more ambitious plan to put communities in the driver’s seat for change.
The logical next step, therefore, for government is to really operate with community power as an idea – ditch the tedious reorganization of local government and the plethora of tiny regeneration funds and instead spark a trust revolution across the country.