We recently convened a group of senior leaders for a discussion on 21st-century economic growth to shape our places. We wanted to share some of that discussion and insight with you.

Our local places are our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities. They’re where we live, work, socialise and rest. Where we build businesses, homes, communities and families. These places are shaped by our people coming together, organised communities, businesses and local public institutions working collaboratively within a patchwork of partnerships, legislation and infrastructure.

But our places, towns and communities are facing new, unmatched challenges. From uncertainties around planning development, environmental changes and disruptions to local economies as a result of COVID-19, we know things will begin to look and feel different. With messages of ‘build back better’ and ‘level up’, how do we engage these strong local places — citizens and business — in leading the conversation about their future?

Our places are changing

Bringing together a group of leaders across local government for a breakfast sharing session, an emerging theme from our discussion was the certainty that the world has changed. Our public institutions, communities and businesses had to quickly adjust and adapt to many new ways of working in response to COVID-19. We’ve learned a lot, more rapidly than ever before, as perceived barriers were broken down to enable the emergency response and the transition to remote working.

Yet when it comes to our neighbourhoods, towns and cities, many are suggesting we’ll quickly see our places take on a very different form. Where we choose to live, where and how we choose to work, how we get around, how and where we choose to shop and what kinds of places we value will be different.

As people reconsider their living situation, particularly the proximity to offices that may no longer exist or will exist in a very different way, the population density of our communities will decline. As people leave the city for the suburbs, or further to rural areas, the redistribution of people will have a knock-on effect.

As we continue to transition to a new way of doing things, there will still be big changes guided by individual choices. This journey will be unpredictable and our tools, structures and organisations were not designed for such a change. And we’ll look to our public institutions to nurture and orchestrate the transition from places of the past while retaining the strengths and essences that work best.

Collaboration at every level

The context for local economic development and regeneration is created by complex governance surrounded by complicated deals with central government, which can often constrain creativity. Despite this, the group shared confidence and passion in how public institutions can, if not break out of those constraints, work in more flexible ways through new types of partnership and new forms of governance.

What’s essential for this new place leadership is the need for honest conversations between public and private institutions, civil society and citizens about the future of our places and how we want to live together.

This kind of discussion is often the ‘missing middle’ between consultations about the built environment and economies contained in local plans and the often service-focused corporate visioning documents. It’s also the kind of conversation that’ll be even more necessary as places adapt and transition.

A new role for place

As our councils move from whole-person approaches to whole-system approaches, they’re no longer just conveners but also investors. Investing time and effort in local economics, environments and civic systems is a shift from traditional boundaries.

In forging this new role within a place, it will be necessary to rethink governance so power and responsibility is shared and cooperative. Rethinking bureaucracy, service silos and the role, type and skills of public servants will support us to respond in a more agile way to the uncertainty of our next steps through COVID-19.

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