Here are five common mistakes in local economic policy – and tips on how to avoid them

Hull: probably not the new Shoreditch. Image: Getty.

By now, it’s not just economists and policy wonks who know that the UK has a big problem with productivity. After one of the worst decades for productivity growth in the UK’s modern history, people and places are feeling the consequences, from stagnant wages to declining living standards.

The government hopes to tackle these issues through the Industrial Strategy, and has tasked local leaders up and down the country to come up with local strategies to address sluggish productivity in their areas.

But the reality is that local leaders have been writing similar economic development strategies for decades, with mixed success. How can they ensure that the new local industrial strategies (LIS) succeed where others have failed?

To help cities contend with that question, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth has published a new report on some of the do’s and don’ts of local economic strategies, based on our comprehensive evidence-base, the insights of academics and a large number of discussions with practitioners in central and local government.

So what are some of the key pitfalls that places need to avoid in the LIS? Our report contains many suggestions, but here’s five for starters:

Don’t compare your apples economy to an orange one. For example, trying to understand employment trends in Hull by comparing them to the national average might be counterproductive, given how much the booming southeast labour market skews the national figures.

Look at trends in a basket of cities with similar characteristics instead: iin Hull’s case, that means cities like Middlesbrough, Stoke or Sunderland).

Don’t just try to grow your high tech cluster. Be realistic about local strengths and where growth is likely to come from. Don’t assume the trickle-down fairy will turn any high tech growth you can encourage into improved economic opportunities for those struggling at the bottom end of the labour market.

If you want growth to be inclusive, you need policies that directly target people who are struggling.

Don’t just ask your biggest employer what to do. Chances are, they’ll tell you to do whatever is best for them – which might not be the same as what is best for the wider local economy. For example, new (and expensive) transport links might be top of the wish-list for your large pharma company. But it might be better for all of your employers and residents to invest in basic skills across the board.

Don’t spend lots of money on complicated economic modelling. We’re seeing a worrying tendency for many areas to spend considerable amounts of money commissioning consultancies to develop economic models which can supposedly predict the future impact of different policies for their places. Unfortunately, these models produce spurious accuracy, but precious little insight as to the likely effect of many policies.

Planning for a few likely scenarios can give you a better sense of potential changes in your economy at a much lower cost.

Don’t rush in. Go back to fundamentals and make the economic case for intervention. There are some problems that local policy will not be able to address. Some policies won’t work (how would you know?) and intervention almost always brings unintended consequences. Asking a few critical friends – a panel of independent experts, if possible – will help places get a better perspective.

The government has avoided being prescriptive about LIS, which means places have a free hand to act. Avoiding the mistakes that have been made in the past will be crucial in delivering LIS which really get to grips with the economic challenges their areas face – and start to address the weak growth that places up and down the country have seen over the past decade.

Henry Overman is director of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, and professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics.


Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...

Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:


Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.