Behind the scenes of the latest places report
The reality of conducting research is often less than fascinating and essentially boils down to hours spent in front of a computer screen. It produces outputs such as “Output per worker in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is x% lower than the UK average” and gives some insights to explain that gap. It sounds smart and indicates that the region has a little bit of catching up to do. But how much does it really tell us about local strengths, issues and most importantly local people?
As the ISC Places Research Team, we conducted our latest research in the field. We got out of our respective big city bubbles and met local stakeholders in various locations across the North East, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Thames Valley Berkshire, and the Marches. Hopefully, by now you have read the summary (at the very least!) of findings of our research. If you have not, this link will take you to them. We are not writing this blog to repeat key messages, rather it is a more personal reflection of what’s hidden behind statistics and our analysis.
We interviewed almost 50 people in the course of our fieldwork, and it is not an exaggeration that each and every one of those people was passionate about championing their local areas. But they were also very honest about socio-economic issues faced locally. The very first interview we conducted led to a sharp realisation that despite all the preparations and “cheat sheets” we prepared, we knew very little about regional economies compared to our interviewee.
It is not surprising, after all, it is their job to be local economy experts. But what is crucial was the question we asked ourselves after each of these interviews – is it possible for someone in central government to know local issues as well as local organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs)? Why are some of those places not doing better with all this knowledge and energy of local institutions? Neither of those questions have a straightforward answer, but we leave them here as food for thought.
In a recent blog post, Paul Swinney argued that we should not expect all places to be equally productive. Visiting different places, it is easy to see why. However, it is also easy to see their potential. Let’s take the Fens as an example. It is a largely rural area with large stretches of Grade 1 agricultural land. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the local economy relies on agriculture – a relatively low productivity sector.
In their Local Industrial Strategy, the Combined Authority placed focus on making agriculture more productive by establishing the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) Innovation Hub. NIAB’s team of bio-scientists and engineers work with farmers, growers, and food businesses, to reduce or re-use all forms of waste in the food supply chain and improve resource use efficiency in its production.
Revolutionising the entire economy of under-performing places with new high-performing sectors , such as making them new Artificial Intelligence (AI) hubs, may sound good. But is often unrealistic. And would actually be a waste of the natural asset that Grade 1 agricultural land is. The Fens is an interesting example of how securing marginal gains can be equally valuable as re-invention.
Trains and buses were what made face-to-face interviews possible. They were also the greatest source of bafflement and stress for us and we simply cannot omit this subject. Our experience was a reality check. We take being able to cycle to work or get the tube for granted in London. Not needing to have a car is a privilege that is not granted in places where public transport is unreliable, patchy, and expensive. It is a clear challenge to the Net Zero target. To give individuals living in towns and rural areas physical access to opportunities and jobs without putting a further strain on our environment, we need better, more efficient road infrastructure , but also better public transport.
It is fair to say that speaking to local stakeholders and visiting different areas was a truly humbling experience. We chose the case study areas based largely on GVA statistics. And with those statistics came subconscious expectations and reservations. However, going out of our central London office to speak to our interviewees in cities, towns and rural areas allowed us to see why every one of our 50 interviewees was so passionate about their local area. On a less humble note, we believe that our experience shows that local, regional, and central government collaboration can provide insightful learning and build productive working relationships. Finally, meeting with local partners “on their turf” can teach us much more than looking at their GVA statistics.