Local data for local growth

Local Data

Written by Ben Hawes, Director, DL Cities Programme

New year seems a good time for making predictions, so I’m going to have a go.

This year, local data to inform planning for local economic growth will become much more of a priority for local government and LEPs. Organisations will need guidance and tools to put that data to work. Data analytics businesses will step up to offer products and services to meet that demand.

I say this because several factors are coming together.

Policy focus on local planning for economic growth

First, there is growing policy and political support for more – and better – localised planning for growth. Successive governments have talked about decentralising economic planning, and have made some (initial and uneven) steps in that direction. New plans and vehicles continue to emerge.

By March this year, the third and last wave of LEPs and Combined Authorities are expected to publish Local Industrial Strategies. We can expect more debate about what the role of local government is in LISs, and arrangements will likely continue to vary between places.

Last summer the Government announced a £3.6 billion Towns Fund, including a £1 billion High Streets Fund “to help high streets adapt and evolve while remain vibrant places for their community”. On 30 December they announced the first 14 of 20 pilot areas. So, there is support and an appetite to explore new approaches to stimulating activity locally. It will be interesting to see what directions the pilots take, but you would expect that some of them will involve new applications of local data, and some new roles for local government.

The age of data

Secondly, as local economies are ever more digitised and datafied, there is more and more data out there, relating to economic conditions and activity. This is revolutionising how many sectors work, and it could do the same for the way planning for local growth is done.

Some is available as open data. Organisations like the Data City in Leeds offer tools to get more granular insights into industry sectors and under-developed potential in places.

Much more data has commercial implications and won’t be made open, but could still be used to gain insights, under the right conditions. The Consumer Data Research Centre have shown what can be done in that area. Expect development of more mechanisms to use proprietary data for wider – and public – objectives.

Increasing data capability

And third, in challenging circumstances, local government continues to grow capability to use data to plan and deliver local services. Some cities operate local offices of data analytics, with London establishing the London Office of Technology and Innovation last summer, as a collaboration between leading boroughs. Turning some of that capability to supporting local growth is a natural next step.

A gap, an opportunity?

So there are reasons to expect more interest in using local data to support local economic planning. That doesn’t mean that using this data is simple in practice. If it was that easy to use available local data to drive growth, more local organisations would already be doing it. And where there is limited experience, there is a lack of tried and tested models, and of skills. There are excellent reasons to support devolution of local economic planning, but it won’t be efficient if every place has to work out – on their own – how to do that in practice.

Not to pre-judge what may come out of Local Industrial Strategies and the Towns Fund, it looks as though there is a gap between on the one hand, the appetite for new approaches and the potential offered by data, and on the other, the “how” of delivering insights that local government can really use.

And it will help to clarify the role of local government in supporting local economic growth. It’s hard for the sector to build skills and analytical expertise, and devote those resources to this activity, without a remit.

In September 2019, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth published a report on Using Data for Local Economic Policy. Centre for Cities has a data tool, and their own published research shows what kind of insights can be developed about cities and regions, from available data.

There is an opportunity here for data businesses, if they can first engage with local government and other local organisations with responsibilities and levers for growth, to understand what tools and insights genuinely fit the powers, priorities and skills of those organisations.

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