Thames Estuary: Who leads local growth?

April 2, 2019   By Charlotte Morgan, Policy Researcher, NLGN

Last week gave us a brand new entry to the Local Growth Lexicon: the word ‘Envoy’. As part of plans to support “sustainable, inclusive” growth in the Thames Estuary area, the Government announced its intention to “appoint an independent Estuary Envoy to chair the [new] Thames Estuary Growth Board.”

Government interest in encouraging local growth should always be seen as welcome. Yet, despite the neat assonance, naming the chair of the new growth board as ‘Estuary Envoy’ sends the wrong message about who should lead local growth in the Thames Estuary.

The first problem is authority. An envoy is defined as someone who is sent as a representative from one government or organisation to another. The Government states that local government and LEP stakeholders in the Thames Estuary area will support the appointment of the Estuary Envoy, but it looks highly likely (based on page 10 of the Government’s announcement) that the Government will hold most of the responsibility for appointing the Envoy. No doubt the Estuary Envoy will see their role as an intermediary between Government and the Thames Estuary Growth Board, but how much authority will the “independent Estuary Envoy” really have in the eyes of other Board members if the Envoy is viewed as a Government-appointed agent?

The second problem, related to the first, is legitimacy. According to the Government, the Board will be a “voluntary partnership between local authorities, LEPs, universities, businesses and civil society.” Yet the Government has already confirmed that the Estuary Envoy will be from the private sector (and strongly suggested that the private sector should have majority representation on the Board). As an appointed chair, the Estuary Envoy will have no democratic mandate, but will oversee the spending of large sums of public money and shape the work of elected local authorities without any discernible means to be held to account by members of the public.

The Government’s plans to appoint an Estuary Envoy and support growth in the Thames Estuary area are presented in the form of a response to the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission’s report, which was published in June 2018. MHCLG’s press release notes that the Government “worked with local partners in preparing its response [to the Commission’s report].” It is therefore a shame that, unlike with devolution deals, the Government’s response document outlining its Thames Estuary growth plans contains no co-signatories from local partners. The deployment of co-signatories on devolution deal documents makes it clear that Government and local partners have shared ownership of the project. Although the Thames Estuary plans are about growth rather than devolution, the purpose of the plans is to encourage economic development within a defined region. As such, the absence of co-signatories backing the Government’s proposals creates the impression that the Thames Estuary growth vision is being owned by Government and not with existing partnerships in that region.

This impression is reinforced when we recall that the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission was established by a Government Minister, the then Chancellor George Osborne, via the 2016 Budget. The Commission comprised “external experts from the fields of engineering, architecture and academia” who worked hard to engage with local communities and ensure that their voices were heard in their report. But the process of invigorating growth in the Thames Estuary has thus far not been led by partners and communities in the area.

On the same day the Government published its Thames Estuary growth document last week, James Brokenshire appeared before the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and spoke of his interest in obtaining “greater community buy-in” for devolution and growth-related programmes. The Government’s commitment to enable sustainable and inclusive growth in the Thames Estuary area is right and commendable, but can sustainable and inclusive growth truly be achieved if it is Government, rather than partners and communities in the Thames Estuary, who calls the shots?

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