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This mashup of the titles of four initiatives that Shared Intelligence has been involved in over the last few months gives a flavour of just how important the concept of place has become.
These initiatives cover a range of policy areas including culture and heritage, collaboration between councils and universities, the focus of health and wellbeing boards and action stimulate innovation in public services, especially around prevention and early intervention.
Place also featured strongly in Theresa May’s green paper on the emerging industrial strategy. And the public accounts committee recently said that place-based planning was “critical” to the future of health and care.
This focus on place and place-based working is undoubtedly attractive, particularly in an increasingly complex world with an unresolved tension between the forces of globalisation and the reassertion of the role of the national state which underpins Brexit and Trump’s America first dictum. The focus on all the aspects of a place, not just one public service, organisation or policy area is potentially powerful in seeking to address wicked public policy challenges and engage alienated communities.
In our work at Si we aim to help our clients gain a precise understanding of what a place based approach means for them and the conditions necessary for it to be effective. We are wary of both the emperor’s new clothes and lazy concepts of partnership and collaboration that are doomed to suffer the same fate as earlier initiatives, even ambitious ones such as Local Strategic Partnerships and Total Place.
We have identified a number of attributes which must exist if place-based working is to gain traction.
There must be a rich evidence base, both qualitative and quantitative, to inform a compelling narrative about the place. On the economy, for example, we need to know which businesses have the ambition and potential to grown, where they are located and what needs to happen to realise their growth potential.
There must also be a capacity to work with messy geographies. A coterminous core is a massive help, but different geographical scales will always be more appropriate for some things than others and boundaries should be seen as a space for experimentation and innovation rather than a wall or moat. A university vice chancellor or chief constable with a wide catchment area can bring a broader perspective to discussions with local public sector leaders.
Leadership rooted in the place is absolutely essential. Leadership which is brave enough to privilege local allegiances and work with the distinctive assets and challenges which characterise the place.
But two attributes are more important than any others.
The first is collaborative plumbing, a concept we have developed in our work on the effectiveness of health and wellbeing boards for the Local Government Association. By collaborative plumbing we mean a culture in which collaboration and partnership is the default option and in which there is a dense network of formal and informal contacts between organisations and individuals. Where collaborative plumbing exists place-based approaches stand a good chance of success. Where it does not exist, it must be installed before any place-based initiative can gain traction and that takes time and effort.
The second attribute is a willingness on the part of government to create the space in which place-based solutions can flourish. It the majority of cases this means backing off rather than launching a new initiative, it means responding to requests for help rather than inviting competing bids, it requires trust rather than regulation.
English political culture means that this attribute is the most fragile of all. But may be the demands of delivering Brexit and all that flows from it will create the conditions in which that space can be carved out for once and for all.