Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.
As the rumblings of a US presidential election begin to echo across the Atlantic, it’s a good time to recollect that where the American campaign boldly pioneers new policy and techniques, we will surely follow. Customarily open-mouthed, in slavish imitation and rather enjoying the experience.
For 2020 we need look further than dark horse outlier Andrew ‘Yangmentum’ Yang. His manifesto is one of preparing the USA for the automation revolution and the massive shifts to both blue and white collar working through Universal Basic Income.
Yang couches his radical economic reform programme for taking swing states through the inevitable social dislocation and civic trauma resulting from the next industrial revolution as ‘human-centred capitalism’.
This sensibility would, I suspect, resonate on this side of the pond. A report issued by Localis aims to explore what our major wealth generators, or local economic anchors, should be doing for the places where they are based and for the communities with which they have a symbiotic relationship.
Drawing on domestic and international experience – including Amy Goldstein’s compellingly vivid ‘Janesville: An American Story’ which detailed the impact to a mid-west town’s residents lives and wellbeing when the anchor GM plant closed – we wanted to explore what the balance between business and place currently is and should be.
Threats to jobs and the rise of the robots were identified by Localis in an earlier report warning of ‘cliff edge’ automation.
‘Prosperous Communities, Productive Places’ examines a more readily experienced danger of ‘doughnut economies’, a situation whereby local residents earn less and enjoy lower conditions than commuters entering their area to work for the major local employers.
For our money, the time is right for our big businesses to step up as responsible businesses and renew their relationship with the places which depend on their success through a fresh approach to Corporate Social Responsibility. In Local Industrial Strategies we already have strong mechanisms in place for getting to grips with new ways of working and tackling challenges that affect communities.
So we should renew the vow and commit such strategic relationships between places and big local employers to delivering higher standards for residents in the shape of “good jobs”, higher wages, stronger local skills supply chains and support for developing local housing and infrastructure for communities.
To deliver this renewed relationship, a productivity deal – effectively forming a new social contract with business – would balance increased productivity with place prosperity. It would be implicit, not regulatory and at its simplest a commitment to shared objectives. Deals would be based around a balanced scorecard of what business can do for place and what place can do for business to build sustainable and prosperous communities.
Our report includes a model productivity deal between West Sussex County Council and Gatwick Airport setting out how such a plan could be forged by strategic authorities – the likes of combined authorities in metropolitan areas and county councils in the shires.
To support these business productivity aims, the local state should, in turn, co-ordinate for its firms a local public sector innovation offer providing greater access to data, markets and finance, skills supply chain development and spatial planning.
By realising the positive effect of successful local economic anchors in building prosperous places, local areas will attract and grow productive businesses. This in turn will further strengthen the communities in which businesses are based, in a positive cycle of mutually-reinforcing prosperity.
As a relatively risk-free, bottom-up approach to making capitalism appear and be human-centred and responsive to local needs, it has to be given a try.