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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.