Unusual collaborations for unusual times

One of the few good things about being stuck inside at the moment is that you can ‘attend’ meetings which you’d otherwise be hard-pressed to justify, particularly if you don’t live directly next to the venue. And they are a good way to keep thinking about the future, while trying to manage the present challenges.   

On 28th May, the Centre for Cities’ webinar, Unemployment and the Pandemic – an emerging picture, set out the latest statistics on unemployment across the country, as measured by Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance. Their senior analyst, Elena Magrini, showed, for March to April, that, despite the laudable efforts made by central government to keep employment and businesses stable, there are already profound differences emerging across the country. For example, the proportionately hardest hit ‘city’ has been Blackpool, showing a 3.4 percentage point increase in unemployment to 8.9% of the working age population. Cambridge, on the other hand, had only a 0.9 percentage point increase to 2.5%.  

These sobering statistics follow an election where ‘levelling ‘up’ different parts of the country was part of the attraction. But the disproportionate impact of this current crisis, exacerbates the challenge, with a relatively higher impact in the North and Midlands.  

Copyright: Centre for Cities. Data source: ONS, Claimant Count; ONS, Population Estimates.

Some of the reasons for these differences are likely to include: local economies with a predominance of sectors which have been harder hit – such as retail or hospitality; or the relative eligibility of people for existing unemployment schemes (in other words, areas where people on average have far less wealth to draw on.) 

Clive Memmett, Chief Executive of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, replied to these figures in that webinar. He thought that, while the national response was initially necessary, the far more complex and messy recovery will require local action and relevance to local need – whether in training and job support or helping businesses and economies transition to new futures. It is also likely that the recovery will be differential: cities may be able to recover, particularly those with strong mayors who can join up public services, civil society and business players, but this may be far harder in places that are struggling, such as Blackpool 

As a member of the Friends Provident Foundation’s Programme Advisory Group on Local Economies, I have supported the funding of many examples of ways to tackle economic challenges, such as inequality or sustainability, harnessing local resources and people’s talent. However, there seems to be a narrow base of people and organisations supporting this kind of ‘new’ economy. Whether we are looking at land ownership and management, affordable housing, community energy, inclusive finance, or increasing co-operative and community enterprise activity, these solutions could benefit from being core parts of future local economic planning, creating collaborations of ‘unusual suspects’ – who are probably now not quite so different as each other thinks. 

The challenge is not just to ensure that any future national support equitably reaches all places across the UK, but that strong diverse partnerships exist on the ground, able to bring together citizens, public sector, social economy and business to respond to local need. And this cross-sector activity is also necessary if we want to use this opportunity to pivot our economy towards a green and fairer economic transition, creating new jobs and businesses, as well as preventing future crises 

My serendipitous recent drop-ins to places with very different languages but similar concerns, suggest the need for more overlap between business leaders, activists, academics and mutual aid support groups. Who knows who could be inspired to make further and lasting system change? And what kinds of innovative local solutions might emerge from linking ‘bottom-up’ creativity with sustainably motivated businesses, and public sector resources?   

Coming out of this crisis wisely will therefore require new forms of inclusive governance and collaboration (bringing people and organisations together around say land use; whole area economic, social and environmental change; or ways to achieve a just transition in particular sectors). It could also help invigorate our struggling democracy.       

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