Calls for greater local economic development have been the standard fare of national and local politicians for many decades. Indeed, the current government has put all its chips on the success of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. Yet the way people actually feel about their local economies and what they know works, and doesn’t, is rarely discussed.
We’re launching a series of three working papers to examine this. The purpose of these reports is to demonstrate a new approach to mapping and co-designing stronger local economies for communities, through an approach that takes in the wider evidence of economic opportunities and challenges but which is also directly community-led.
In the first report, Discomfort, Dissatisfaction & Disconnect: Exploring local economic perceptions through peer research, we explore local economies from the perspectives of local communities through over fifty in-depth interviews undertaken using peer research, giving a platform to these all-too-often forgotten voices. We explore the priorities for transition and transformation in local economies through the direct insight of communities, against the trends and timeline of intervention in this policy field over the last twenty years – and look to the future challenges, opportunities and, critically, the voices of communities - that governments at national, devolved and local level need to work with and take into account.
Divided into three chapters, the report explores:
1. How do communities understand the concept of local economies?
We find that this isn’t a conversation local people are used to having. Their discomfort with an unfamiliar topic is due largely to the exclusion of community voices in local economic decision-making over previous decades. Our work reveals the complex feelings communities hold towards the purpose of their local economy, and the critical question of purpose as they ask, ‘who are local economies for?’
2. What are the common touchpoints between local communities and local economies?
Even if community members are unfamiliar with the language of local economic development, their conversations reveal that local people are in fact grappling with the choices of what should make up a local economy, founded on their knowledge and experience of what has and hasn’t worked in their local areas. So through the touchpoints of the high street, industry, employment, and housing and physical space, local communities are able to contribute to discussions around local economic development.
3. How (and why) should we seize this moment to further engage local communities in conversations about local economies?
We reflect on the timely and practical steps needed to further involve local communities. What is the role for more open and participatory involvement with local communities? How can decision-makers recognise and respond to their understanding of the tensions and choices that need to be made in what is prioritised and how to balance growth with wellbeing, sustainability and inclusion? And propose a new framework for engaging local people with their local economy.
At first, the women I interviewed were rather stumped by the idea of engaging in conversations about the local economy. They didn’t see themselves having much of an opinion on the matter. In fact, I think the word ‘economy’ just totally threw them. Some of the women I interviewed were older women of migrant backgrounds who have been housewives all their lives. Through our conversations, they grew to understand that they too had personal experience and opinions on the issues. It’s when they began to feel their opinion had value that they realised they had a large contribution to make.
Noorjahan Rouf, London-based Peer Researcher
About the ICS Fixing Local Economies Series
Last year, the ICS launched a research agenda: ‘Safety in Numbers?’ which set out the questions that matter to communities, as told to us and prioritised by over three thousand people across the UK. This agenda is the result of a nationally representative process of research and co-creation, which listened to the experience of people about the issues, opportunities and challenges they face in their local communities.
Fixing local economies so that they work better for communities was one of the top five priorities for communities in the agenda. ‘How can communities be supported to take a bigger part in building local economic resilience?’ is one of the starting questions chosen based on community prioritisation of issues set out in that publication. Discomfort, Dissatisfaction & Disconnect is the first in a series of reports from the ICS that will now set out to answer that question through further research and with a series of reports.
The next report in this series, which will be published in early June, examines how twenty years of macro intervention aimed at local economic development has failed to deliver relevant, resilient and strong local economies for communities, instead resulting in uneven and inaccessible economic models where there is growth and decline and malaise due to failed or lacking interventions. It also reveals twenty years of decline by decision – where policies have chosen not to target and help the most deprived 20% of local areas, and proposes how ‘levelling up’ can be a catalytic opportunity to do this differently with communities.
In reports two and three we also consider where there are stand out examples of local economic change that have worked for communities and how more effective models of designing and delivering economic policy could be developed to build on this.
Why peer research?
The use of peer research is closely tied to the aims of the ICS – bringing communities and their priorities to the forefront of the research process. As an approach that reaches those who might otherwise not take part in similar research studies, peer research allows community members themselves to gather a rich local perspective from other community members – undermining the power dynamics and uncertainty that emerge through traditional research methods, particularly when engaging in difficult conversations about the state of the economy.
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If you would like to hear more about the work we do with Peer Researchers or get involved in our Peer Research Network, contact email@example.com.