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View from the Street: Listen Up, the Dynamos of Economic Growth are Local not National

AI generated image of a man as tall as a house shouting in a megaphone in the streets of London, below him are crashed and broken down cars.

Fraser Paterson

Senior client manager

We ask a lot of our political leaders. We want vision, strategy and direction. To be inspired. To feel proud. And a reassurance that we are all going to be better off.

We had this at Scottish Labour conference from Anas Sarwar. “Social change is only possible with a strong growing economy,” he told a packed hall in Glasgow. “That’s why we are an unashamedly pro-growth, pro-business, pro-worker party.”

SNP leader Humza Yousaf’s New Deal for Business echoes these themes. And in these moments neither Scottish leader sounds so far from Liz Truss and her “growth, growth, growth” mantra.

Words are important. Political leaders set the tone. But rhetoric is one thing. Delivery is another.

And on this, Scotland has been failing for too long.

Grandiose words and strategies delivered from a lectern do not move the dial. What does are clear policies which understand the needs of business owners, consistency, and empowering decision makers at a local level. And right now, there is a mismatch.

It’s these day-to-day decisions, made far from the spotlight, that often contradict the ambitious declarations from Scotland’s political parties.

Take the bizarre spectacle at the City of Edinburgh Council’s development management sub-committee, where a key outcome on a major housing development was decided by the toss of a coin. This recent episode, while outlandish, encapsulates the current capricious and perilous nature of local economic decisions which are being made without a strategic framework to underpin them – a stark metaphor for the broader economic quagmire Scotland finds itself in.

Councils wield the levers of the planning system, and are pivotal in delivering any national blueprint and in offering clarity and direction to local policymakers. Without them, any national endeavours are akin to a ship without a rudder.

And yet councils have borne the brunt of real-terms cuts to their budgets and an ever-increasing list of services to deliver. In many areas, economic development departments – even in Edinburgh – have been decimated because of budget savings. And often this results in unacceptable delays which add hugely to costs, scuppering some developments entirely.

City region deals – where local authorities work together in a common interest – are a step forward but there’s further we can go.

Our Scottish Future, a think tank, advocates for councils to band together as combined authorities to supercharge growth.

Its vision recognises the importance of local decision making in navigating the challenges and opportunities different regions face. It’s an understanding that while the national government plots the economic course, it’s locally that the journey is made, across often tumultuous waters.

The best example of this approach would be in Greater Manchester where a Conservative government has handed significant funding and powers to what will most likely be a Labour mayor in perpetuity, with a clear vision for growth. Investors are flocking to be part of a region where their investment is welcomed rather than looked on with suspicion.

Passing responsibility to local authorities isn’t an easy fix. Councils already face significant funding challenges of their own and with planning departments and economic development team roles cut to preserve frontline services. But a vision which addresses the key drivers of growth would be a good place to start.

The essence of a successful economic growth strategy is simple: national policy setting the stage and vision, with local decision-making tailoring and enacting this strategy, attuned to the unique economic contours of Scotland’s communities.

Proposals like those by Our Scottish Future attempt to chart a course towards leveraging local expertise and collaboration, ensuring economic strategies are not only executed but resonate with the specific needs of Scotland’s diverse communities. Far more transformative, however, would be recognising and unleashing local authorities as dynamos of economic growth, not mere caretakers of dwindling public services.

Ultimately, Scotland’s economic transformation hinges on local decisions, rather than who occupies Bute House and the delicate balance between national ambition and local ingenuity is where Scotland’s future prosperity truly lies.