Vision is one of those words, like strategy, which seems to have lost its meaning.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the latter means a ‘plan of action’, whilst the former is ‘something seen vividly in the imagination’ (a visionary gets the accolade of ‘indulging in fanciful theories…not practicable’!).
Yet these two words are widely used across the public sector as metaphors for change, which usually means writing long reports which then find their way into a drawer, never to be seen again.
Why? Because they don’t incorporate that all important ‘plan of action’ with costings and timelines. No-one knows how to deliver the ideas, because that’s all they are – ideas. There’s no substance, whereas ‘practicable’ is the key. And the cost of these shelved ideas, many of which have merit, runs into millions.
Across the country, ‘visionary’ tomes are gathering dust in archives – I’ve seen them, some going back decades; the same issues repeatedly addressed without anything actually being done. If we genuinely want change, to improve our environments and do justice to our towns and residents, to create jobs, and educate our young people, giving them ambition and aspiration, visions must be practical and deliverable. They must be fully justified and not merely vanity projects with no long-term merit. (May I remind you of the PFI-funded Fire HQ buildings which remain empty, and the various, short-lived Arts Council initiatives which wasted millions of pounds on now-redundant arts complexes.)
Even if projects are initially modest, the very fact that something has been achieved gives confidence to be more adventurous. But, enthusiasm isn’t enough; without strong business plans, securing the necessary investment to make them a reality is – rightly – difficult. Those currently holding the public’s purse strings are, hopefully, more financially aware and accountable than a decade ago, learning from the best of the private sector, which won’t touch things if the sums don’t add up.
Visions have to be joined up; they also need to be flexible. So it’s time to get real – let others, who know what they’re doing, and understand the issues, do the work!
In recent weeks, frustrated with a lack of progress, business has taken the lead in Ipswich, with the Town Centre Partnership publishing an excellent, creative, plan to address the issues faced by so many regional conurbations: declining retail as customers change their habits, acres of redundant brownfield sites crying out for development, a lack of parking and town centre housing, a failure to acknowledge that the town’s focus has moved requiring better links between the centre and the burgeoning Waterfront. Previously, there has been endless talk of ‘something must be done’, without anything actually being done (apart from endless consultants and report after report).
This time round, the authors have been able to build on initiatives already bearing fruit from our excellent Conservative MP, who thinks strategically rather than jumping on bandwagons. Amongst other things, he secured significant government funding to examine new infrastructure options which would vastly improve traffic management around the Waterfront, consequently improving pedestrian access and releasing land. The plan acknowledges that it can’t be delivered overnight but, by dividing it into sections with clear objectives/priorities, at last I think we are getting somewhere.
The county council has added its support, forcing the Labour-controlled borough council to grit its teeth and give the vision its guarded approval, at last recognising that the town is not going to attract yet another vast retail complex when its two small ones are only just being reinvented by their owners (one as a multi-screen cinema complex with fast food outlets, and the other refurbished to a high standard providing small- and medium-sized units to suit the local market).
Business has also taken the lead by creating a Destination Management Organisation (who invented such a catchy phrase?) to enhance tourism. To date, there has been a lack of focus on what the town offers, with the publicly-funded tourism company ignoring our fine museums and art collections, Tudor architecture, parks, theatres, quality hotels and restaurants, popular football club, Saxon origins, long maritime history and connections to Cardinal Wolsey.
However, it just proves how business can help to maximise opportunities. Profit may be anathema to some people, but it incentivises targeted investment to benefit communities by improving facilities; in turn, crime and litter reduces as redundant buildings and sites find new uses. More evening activity also means that people feel safe to walk around, staying to have supper in a local restaurant after the theatre, rather than rushing for the car and home.
Jeremy Corbyn may be taking Labour back to the 1970s, with government paying for everything, but reality dictates that simply won’t happen; it can’t be afforded, and people don’t want it. The public sector wastes money, and – most importantly – it doesn’t understand how business works. Lines of communication are too long, and council-run venues which would be profitable in private hands are burdened with central ‘overheads’ which have no relevance to their day to day operation.
Successful councils value their local business leaders, sharing information with them, creating partnerships which enable them to anticipate and adapt to change. Such relationships add real value for whole communities and, most importantly, the local economy.