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Time for towns to grab their own reins

MV’s Jamie McMahon reflects on his experience of East Midlands towns and how communities across the UK have the chance to seize the initiative and shape their own futures.

“Welcome to [insert name here]” reads the road sign of a typical Midlands coalfield town.

The kind of town that has a train station served once an hour by unreliable rolling stock fit for the 1980s, not 2020s. There are few large employers, no university, and no landmark sights to bring in tourists. The shopping centre is mostly charity shops these days and the owners do not care – they’re probably a Dubai-based investment company.

The town has had investment before, new schools and a college were built, and the Council has a glamourous office down by the river. However, those stand as shiny exceptions to the rule.

For a long time these towns hoped the cavalry would come. Governments, which have invested in heavily in our big cities, would help invigorate their economy. Smaller councils living with year-on-year budget cuts, less room for manoeuvre, would get help to thrive.

The cavalry never arrived.

And now, with Brexit a done deal and the political map shaken up, the focus of public policy turns to these forgotten towns.

So now more than ever, it’s time for local leaders in these towns up and down the country to ensure they are masters of their own destinies. Time for councils, NHS organisations, colleges, businesses and the community to come together and drive their own agenda – and force government to enable them, not do for them.

There are some great examples already. The Wigan Deal and Preston Model are two illustrations of local authorities driving their own agenda against the tide. Imagine what they can do with the tide in their favour?

The motivation to grab the reins and drive their own destiny must come from the local communities and the councils that represent them. And, from Family Hubs to the Community Ownership Fund, devolution to place-based policy making the outlines of a radical co-operative policy agenda exists in government.

The question now is: where do we start?

  • We need a plan – And by we, I mean everyone. The last decade of public policy has taught us that public services cannot be delivered in a silo and the same goes for any town strategy. Co-operation must be genuine and that means engagement, engagement, engagement. This is the only way if we’re going to get councils, NHS organisations, colleges, businesses and the community to come together for change. It’s a new social contract for every place.
  • It’s about wealth – Too often we talk about wealth only in terms of the wealth others can bring in. Instead, it’s about the wealth of the organisations and communities that make up a town. The Preston Model has taught us about harnessing the purchasing power of local organisations. The Wigan Deal hinges on the wealth of the community, when all working together.
  • Common ownership – Common ownership doesn’t have to be about divi-cards, although all the work over the last decade to create staff-owned mutuals shows the power of ownership by the many. It’s about everyone feeling they have a stake in their community and its future. Public services that feel owned by the public.
  • Patience – Change takes time. Governments, council and NHS leaderships and people change. However, this is about a social investment in the future. Talk of 10-year strategies is great. If these towns, and their leaders, are going to build something to last it will take time.

Towns have so much potential and opportunity to seize the initiative. But now is the time to act, to grab the reins and for our forgotten towns to become masters of their own destiny.

To hear more about our work with local authorities or comment on this article, you can contact jamie.mcmahon@mutualventures.co.uk.

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