The impressive turnout at the recent launch of the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission is testimony to the high levels of interest in the question of how, in a brave new world of city region devolution, we can create growth which benefits those in our communities who are furthest away from economic opportunity.
The need to address this challenge is clear. At the launch, Cllr Claire Kober, leader of Haringey, described a familiar paradox of high levels of economic growth taking place against a backdrop of entrenched and growing inequality in her borough.
This is a scenario I recognise from my time at Lambeth LBC, a ‘booming borough’ in which rapid gentrification of town centres like Brixton meant that some teenagers from neighbouring estates would not even go to ‘Brixton New York’.
At the commission launch, ideas about the components of an inclusive growth strategy were discussed. Connectivity — the transport solutions that enable people to access jobs; skills and training — the right skills in the right place; housing — the ability to determine solutions at a local level in response to the local market along with demand and land availability.
All of this is worthy of enquiry, but I couldn’t help feel something was missing. While contemplating the image of a shiny skyscraper on the event backdrop I realised what this was — people.
This commission is not about growth, it is about inclusive growth. Experience should teach us that merely putting the right components in place isn’t enough. Young people from estates around Brixton can walk to Brixton town centre in 10 minutes; there are no ‘transport connectivity’ barriers.
If they go there they may find jobs or apprenticeships, low cost workspaces, people who could help them start their own enterprises, not to mention Lambeth is a borough within a growing global city: leading cultural, economic, retail and academic industries are just a few miles away. At least to some extent, opportunities and infrastructure exist.
So the question is: why do some young people think none of this is for them? And how can public services help make sure they do?
To achieve inclusive growth, public institutions and services need to understand and respond to the underlying social and cultural determinants that make people able and ready, or not, to access economic opportunity — the ‘psychology of inclusion’.
The commission, which is guided by an interesting set of commissioners with a range of perspectives, should provide some answers to these questions.
However, to do so, it will need to look beyond a traditional economic viewpoint, and at Collaborate we have a few ideas about what this could mean.
First, public agencies need to understand the wider drivers which lead people to feel able, or not, to access opportunity and where these can be influenced.
A wide range of services and other influencers are relevant: families, neighbours and social networks, schools and colleges, employers and local businesses.
The role of the local authority should be to recognise this system and influence its contribution towards the shared aim of access to economic opportunity with schools which help to prepare students for work, employers who take their responsibility to the local community seriously and so on.
We should be thinking about how we change our public service model, moving away from public services which respond narrowly to presenting needs, create dependency and reinforce, however inadvertently, low expectations among communities and towards public services that build resilience, community connections and networks and which grow independence.
Public services are part of the answer to how public agencies can help people feel confident, able to influence their environment and lives, secure and rooted in a community, valued and recognised. These are essential pre-conditions for the ability to access and benefit from jobs and growth.
This requires us to re-think the roles of frontline public sector staff and the potential they have to help people through a different relationship and a different conversation.
In my experience, we are wedded to an idea of services as a ‘thing’ that is ‘given’ — a sausage-factory model in which the theory tells us people have a problem, receive a service and pop out at the other end. We know this isn’t true, so why don’t we change it?
Some places are starting to do this. The Ignite programme in Coventry, funded by the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund, is working alongside a housing association and children’s services teams in two neighbourhoods to help them re-purpose the capacity of the front line and support people to make community connections and build local participation, creating a web of resilience which may lead to sustainable change in people’s lives.
The potential is huge. For example, how can housing officers identify the warning signs of problems in families and engage with them earlier to understand what help they need?
What might the conversation between the GP and patient look like if it was about creating sustainable wellbeing?
This public service ethos is directly relevant to inclusive growth. I think part of the solution is about good engagement with people who don’t, or can’t, currently access economic opportunity — face-to-face, going to where people live to understand their perspective and help to broker the connections between where they are now and where they want to be.
This is almost certainly not a classic job centre conversation, but perhaps more akin to a mentoring approach.
Some connecting infrastructure is required: organisations which can help navigate the space between local businesses, opportunities and people, helping not only to open doors, but walking alongside people who may not be able to do this alone. New Lambeth social enterprise Raw Talent is a good example of this. The question must be how we shift from many small projects to wider system and culture change in public services and institutions — and I think the commission should address this.
In order to grow public services that contribute to inclusive growth, big shifts in culture, behaviour and collaboration are required across the system of public services in a place.
However, this layer of activity, hyper-local but created with strategic purpose by public bodies and services, can help create the pre-conditions in which the other components — skills, training, transport, housing and so on — of an inclusive growth strategy can be effective.
This is why public service reform and growth are two sides of the same coin and why devolution is such a huge opportunity.
Perhaps inclusive growth isn’t really about growth at all.