Shifts in power, whether devolution to Scotland, The Northern Powerhouse, or at local level inevitably create conflict and rivalry.  A report by Fellows of the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) launched on Monday 22nd March The Northern Powerhouse: Where do Market Towns fit in (download here) has warned that instead of uniting the north as proposed, the Northern Powerhouse risks being divisive and could widen the inequality gap by promoting city led growth at the expense of areas outside of the core cities. 

Scotland itself has experienced how national and regional strategies, designed centrally to overcome economic decline, are too generalised and overlook the specific challenges and opportunities of Scottish communities and how these strategies ultimately fail to create real impact at local level.  Centralised strategies miss the specific nuances that make Scotland so special and unique.  Scotland’s beauty, strength and opportunities stem from its abundant resources, its Community Capital.  Community Capital, the report argues is the unique blend of human, social, built, natural and financial resources that define a place and attracts people to live, visit and work there.

The biggest challenge facing not just Scotland, London or the north of England, but every region, city, town and business, across the whole of the United Kingdom is how to make most effective use of its resources and to do this we need to invest in and build our Community Capital.  One of the most underexposed areas of wastage relates to human capital.  We repeatedly see wasted human talent with misaligned skills, un- and under-employment, migration and increased commuting.  Not only does this represent an enormous waste of skills and resources but it greatly impacts on local, regional and national productivity and individual prosperity. 

Whilst productivity is commonly viewed as an economic issue, the OECD stresses that productivity goes beyond driving economic growth and prosperity.  The new concept of productivity, according to the OECD should foster a “new era of efficiency that drastically shrinks our footprint on the environment”.  Not only that, but increasing productivity is about making best use of resources, effectively developing and aligning skills, not simply to increase corporate profit margins but to redefine living well, health, wealth and prosperity. 

Stressing that maximising productivity is the greatest challenge for the Northern Powerhouse, the report argues that the city focus ignores the role and value of northern rural communities.  It also ignores the unprecedented changes in the way we live and work and will ultimately negatively impact upon productivity, the core aim of the Northern Powerhouse.

In the report Fellows argue that in addition to developing local solutions, we need a cultural shift away from the outdated industrial model of command and control where presence ‘at work’ is expected.  They argue that misalignment of skills and a wide range of barriers from transport to childcare waste human talent and negatively impact on productivity and prosperity.  Technological advances mean that work is something you do, not necessarily somewhere you go.  They point to the detrimental impact of commuting not only on the individual but on the wider social and economic environment and highlight how the most productive companies are embracing new ideas, technological advances and adapting business models where they assess work and results, not presence and hours.  The report concludes that we need a cultural change, to ensure more efficient, productive and fulfilling allocation of human talent and that this will only come about by finding new ways of working that reflect and respond to the unprecedented changes in the way we live and work.

Individually and collectively, in rural and urban settings, we can start to redefine living well in a way that increases productivity and enhances the lives of those living and working in Scotland.   Yes, we need to invest in skills and infrastructure, but we need to invest in the very things that make Scotland so special, that give us the rewarding quality of life that we all seek, our Community Capital. 

Communities will undoubtedly face a multitude of challenges to developing their own local solutions.  The main culprits highlighted in the Fellows report being lack of trust, power, rivalry and a failure to collaborate resulting in ineffective peripheral or ‘pet’ projects.  Communities need to develop new skills the report argues, to enable them to identify core threats that impact on their sustainability and to develop local solutions that strengthen their Community Capital.  For that to succeed, communities need support to identify the real threats to their Community Capital, and as Matthew Taylor said in his December blog:

“deep collaboration should be the superconductor of civic energy. But in reality the energy flow is far from perfect. Improvement and innovation will be less than we want or need until we recognise these sources of resistance and set about removing them.”

Scottish cities, towns and villages are diverse and dispersed, rich in cultural heritage that capture the hearts and souls of people living and working in and visiting Scotland.  Many communities will have unique sets of opportunities and challenges that will not necessarily respond well to national initiatives that are, by their very nature, generalised. For Devolution to be truly effective, we need to find ways of devolving more power to local levels so that we can start finding local solutions that will invest in our local Community Capital.  Some solutions may need devolved powers, others may not, one size will not fit all, but here is a quote from Margaret Mead to respond to the world-weary cynic: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  

Source: The RSA Scotland

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