New forum to strengthen glue between South Yorkshire policymakers, academics & others

In this blog, Y-PERN Policy Fellow Dr Dan Olner reflects on the launch of a new forum linking South Yorkshire policymakers, academics and other organisations – with the first session focused on alternative approaches to urban economic development.

In February, colleagues from Y-PERN and SYMCA held our first experimental session of a new forum linking South Yorkshire policymakers, academics and other organisations – we want it to be a place where policy colleagues can network and chat informally about current ideas with topic experts, and where the universities can gain a greater insight into policymakers’ key priorities. [If you’re interested in joining the mailing list to hear about future forums, email d.olner at].

In the first session, Dr. Richard Crisp discussed a paper he co-authored titled “‘Beyond GDP’ in cities: Assessing alternative approaches to urban economic development” – and follow on work examining how these ideas are doing on the ground. (He’s written a summary blog post here for the Y-PERN blog.)

The five approaches the paper examines are:

  • Inclusive growth: asking ‘who benefits from growth’, what good growth looks like and what structures can aid it.
  • The wellbeing economy: this focuses on what the good life looks like, and what economic benefits flow from that.
  • Doughnut economics has a well developed diagnostic tool (the doughnut) used to guide policy thinking toward staying within planetary boundaries.
  • Community wealth building challenges extractive models of growth – Preston has been the poster child for that, starting its work through procurement and building on it.
  • Foundational economy: possibly the newest framework here, and least tested in the wild. It emerged as a critique of traditional GDP/GVA approaches that, quoting from the paper, “neglect the 40% of the workforce engaged with providing basic goods and services, upon which wellbeing and ‘civilised life’ depends”.

The next phase of Richard and others’ work asks how these alternative approaches are being understood and used. Each are in the UK devolution mixing bowl – however, central government is largely not engaging. Other national governments are. Wales has the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and work on the foundational economy, Scotland has wellbeing built into its National Performance Framework and tools to support its implementation.

English examples exist, however. Doncaster’s economic strategy 2030 was discussed – a blend of ideas with a great deal about community wealth building, how to use land and assets and bolstering local supply chains. (Elsewhere for the JRF, Simon Duffy also notes Doncaster’s People Focused Group, which he says “has generated social value worth millions of pounds, and has made itself central to the strategies of health and social care”.)

This pick and mix approach appears to be quite common, from conversations the project has had: organisations say they don’t use the terms in the bullet points above explicitly but source ideas from them where useful. This is not without issues. There are so many approaches it’s causing confusion. Some find the language quite alien; others worry that their use might sideline traditional social agendas.

Drivers leading to growth in uptake of these ideas, the project has found, include being in crisis management bought about through austerity – a search for ideas that can ameloriate its worst impacts, and perhaps offer positive change. Devolution is itself triggering a wide search for ideas that can be locally applied, and this is helping to align vision and action across local authorities and regions. There are obstacles as well, coming from the same sources: there are very limited levers given the current devolution funding settlement, and zero financial slack anywhere else.

Richard concluded by noting that, while the plurality of approaches may be causing confusion, they are nevertheless driving change – including how academia and policymaking link, by taking economic development a little way out of traditional economic departments.

The rest of the session knocked all this about between policymakers, academics and other organisations involved in growth ideas. We focused on how the diverse range of economic ideas we’d covered works (or doesn’t) at a local level. Here’s an attempt at a summary of the themes that came up.

  • Most obviously, the meaning and use of the term ‘growth’. How do we use it in practice? SYMCA has already developed a ‘good growth’ idea in its Strategic Economic Plan in 2021 (opens PDF) and carried that through into its recent Good Growth and Skills Strategies.
  • How is growth at the regional and local level different to the national and international level? Models of growth, and actions needed, could be very different (though different levels are of course interlinked). This is perhaps a good way to frame it, rather than “traditional versus alternative”. What works here? Local and regional growth policy is able to tie elements together that matter here: how housing links to transport to business to health to wealth. It’s also possible at this level for ideas to percolate quickly through to action, e.g. a recent doughnut economics event led directly to South Yorkshire retrofit policy.
  • The gap between local and national treasury views show up in different ways. For example, there’s a tension between creating our own economic vision versus the need to have ‘line of sight’ to central government, and policies (e.g. investment plans) pre-designed and on the shelf for when central government announces pots of funding (often with very short application times). This can create a need to follow the grooves of central government thinking, which can leave less room for alternative ideas.
  • Beyond specific policy levers and funding pots, institutional culture and soft power are important, and central to asking, “What do we value?” This is the foundation for asking: how do we measure what we value? How do all the moving parts interconnect (see below)? Language is key – not only finding language to include people policy affects, but also those policymakers may not be versed in terms and ideas used. There’s work to be done here – but good examples exist, e.g. the Welsh Future Generations Act did exactly that that, working to clearly communicate the policy agenda (including a culture change manual).
  • How to understand, measure and change the whole ‘ecosystem’ of interconnecting factors that make up the whole bag of alternative growth ideas (as well as more traditional)? For example growth, climate and health all interact – how to future proof the region so that the economy contributes to a stable climate, necessary for solid health outcomes? Easy question to state…!
  • Many inclusive economy ideas challenge ownership of policy, and push for connection to people affected by those policies. There are e.g. civic square approaches (see e.g. Liverpool civic data coop). Many alternative policies by their nature address power barriers – see for example…
  • The Preston model again. It started with procurement – i.e. it didn’t begin with a strategy document, but acted as a focal point around which other actions could build and, by its nature, addressed issues of value extraction, community wealth building and ownership.
  • The point of devolution is to bring policy closer to the people it affects, and allow it to be shaped by them. This fits with shifting the dial to much more human-centric, bottom up approaches, and leads to different questions. For example, one participant asked: “There are 76000 people long term sick and economically inactive in the region. How does any of this speak to them?” How should this affect e.g. commitments around homelessness and health?

The next forum (probably in May) will likely focus on some aspect of skills. Do get in touch if you have questions about that, want to join the mailing list, or have any reflections on the above – at d.olner at