At the back end of 2014 an interim report called 'How the Other Half Grows' was published by the Independent Commission on Economic Growth and Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England. This is a commission established by the Local Government Association, though none of its eight members come from the sector.
Its task was, "to seek ways to stimulate economic growth regionally, create new jobs and help people live their lives better". One thing making this report of interest is the extent to which it has picked up on the recent debate about devolution in England.
Non-metropolitan or shire England is, of course, a hugely varied place. It includes everything from sparse rural areas, through to Home Counties and stand-alone cities, such as Nottingham, Peterborough and Portsmouth. In short, everything that is not Greater London or a Metropolitan Borough. As a concept it leaves anomalies, such as Bradford with its Metropolitan Borough status and containing many rural communities.
The report's starting point is that non-metropolitan areas account for roughly half of England's economy and population. Their contribution to the national economy is fully the equal of our major conurbations.
Not only that, but much of non-metropolitan England has performed relatively well. We often hear the claim that it is cities and city-regions which are the engines of economic growth. This, as many of us have said before, does not stand up to scrutiny. Once London is excluded from the mix, it is rather the non-metropolitan shires which deliver the majority of England's growth. That must inform any policy agenda for growth and realising economic potential.
This is not to overlook challenges facing shire areas, which will be familiar to Rural Services Network members. The report acknowledges concerns with transport infrastructure and a lack of public transport for those trying to access work or training. Equally, it notes that four-fifths of employers surveyed see the lack of affordable housing as an economic constraint. Poor broadband connectivity is cited as a major obstacle to rural economic growth.
The report also highlights governance issues. Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) boundaries frequently don't align with local authority boundaries and, to confuse matters further, some LEP territories overlap. Better coordination between District and County Council economic policies may sometimes be needed.
Despite such challenges, the Independent Commission can point to various measures which support its conclusion about relative economic performance. Labour productivity, measured as Gross Value Added per full time employee, is typically higher in non-metropolitan than in metropolitan England. (And, yes, let's concede that this average masks variation, including lower than average productivity in certain largely rural counties.)
There is then the more than half a million new jobs (net increase) that non-metropolitan areas have created in the private sector from 2009 to 2013, which is a better record than London and is three times better than the record of the other metropolitan areas. Then again, take the fact that internationally mobile firms overwhelmingly choose to locate in non-metropolitan areas, if they do not choose London. Or that relatively more of the non-metropolitan workforce is classified as high-skilled and less as low-skilled.
The Independent Commission argues that devolving more decision making would enable non-metropolitan areas to take better advantage of their competitive position. This should include greater freedom to invest in infrastructure and housing in line with local priorities, more say over skills training so that it serves the needs of local businesses and jobseekers, and having a locally retained tax base which can support investment.
In what is sure to raise a few eyebrows, the Commission then suggests that administrative geographies need "tidying up". That decision making would improve if local government, the NHS, LEPs and others covered coterminous areas. Indeed, they go further by suggesting that those areas might be 'functional economic areas' which fit with people's lives. Logical or not, this feels rather idealistic. Haven't we been here before and is there really a clamour to recreate, even if in a virtual form, the likes of Avon and Humberside?
That said, it raises an interesting question. The principal driver behind the many examples that now exist of joint management teams and shared services, has been to save money as public sector budgets continue to be squeezed. Should more attention be paid to joining up service delivery within geographic areas and would this point to a different approach?
A final report is due from this Independent Commission very shortly, which will include recommendations. Let's agree, at least, with the RSN Manifesto, that economic growth policies need proper rural proofing and that devolution needs to cover the shires as well as the cities.