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The role of local place managers for national recovery

Place management is a relatively new discipline and has been brought into sharp focus by COVID as towns and cities scramble to manage the crisis and prepare for post COVID recovery. The leaders in place management tend to be locally based practitioners that have worked hard at a grass roots level to make places better, primarily for their local citizens.  The measures they have taken span a wide array of activities from tactical urbanism and environmental improvements right through to more ambitious strategies and visions to redefine place amenities, attractiveness and purpose.  Place managers are in formal functional roles like town centre managers, leading economic development units in local authorities or working as part of Business Improvement Districts but we also recognise the local community activists who do it just because they want to – they are passionate about where they are from and making it better.

Local Place Managers in whatever form are beginning to understand and harness their power. They clearly see the opportunity once the foundations of “liveability” are laid or they start to see the positive impact of local economic development efforts. They now want to influence the broader agenda around inward investment, tourism and student attraction. These areas however are often highly centralised as in the case of FDI attraction or one dimensional as in the case of student attraction where many institutions have failed to recognise the potential of place as part of the overall offer.

Local influence in the centralised organisations was often ignored, seen as unhelpful meddling or worse maligned. Place managers with local knowledge and influence did not have enough domain expertise on the highly strategic nature investment attraction, destination marketing, international student attraction and the specific challenges within each of these areas. The message was - we’ve got this – its all under control, keep to your own (narrow) sphere of influence. But it wasn’t under control. Disparity has deepened and we see and urgent need for rebalancing in the UK and Ireland as well as other major economies. Communities became more frustrated which has been the impetus for this localism agenda – and is having political ramifications. Having worked with economic development agencies at a national and regional or city level, this sentiment pervades everywhere. The national effort does not cater for us, we’re misunderstood and forgotten so we need to take matters into our own hands. The local efforts are often hamstrung by lack of resources, a capability gap (which is easy to address) or even blocking tactics are deployed to prevent success. Not exactly a one team approach.

The missing link here is the fact that both a national and local effort are required – they are mutually dependent and need to be better integrated. In an economic development context, the national agencies have failed to effectively incorporate, recognise and leverage not only the willingness, but also the high levels of professionalism and leadership that local place managers display.

COVID is exposing that same tension politically between the national and local agenda. There is a need for a national policy but as local clusters spring up, there is also a need for local action, decision making and more integration between both agendas. The gulf between the two is stark and apparent this week in the UK and makes us all feel a little bit more insecure. There is no sense of a collaborative approach, leadership or a united front or working together for mutual benefit.

It might be difficult to bridge that gap politically but economically and for sustained place success, its imperative that we do bridge that gap between the local and national effort. All our places depend on it and place management is the vehicle to facilitate it.

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