The election meant that the players had to keep the cards close to their chests – but finally the key features of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal have been announced.
As noted in my previous blogs, every City Region Deal has involved its own priorities, and that has always been understood as one of the strengths of the model. The heads of terms document for the Edinburgh & SE Scotland City Region Deal starts out with a statement (slightly odd in this context?) that this is “one of the most prosperous and productive UK regions” – perhaps raising a query in some circles that there must be some more economically-challenged areas that could make better use of £1.1billion (if we include the £501m from “regional partners”) of public funding!
In fairness, the document goes on to make it clear that part of the focus of this particular City Region Deal is on addressing inclusion across the region – the concept of inclusive economic growth being (to date) primarily a Scottish Government, rather than UK Government, theme. Leaving aside the glimpses that this gives of wider strategic manoeuvring, consideration of the areas of major spend identified to date for this Deal - and the sums provisionally allocated against each - might perhaps raise queries about how far the idea of spreading the benefits of economic growth across the region, and among groups who have to date been excluded from Edinburgh’s strong economic performance, is in fact reflected in the shape of the Deal.
The only concrete spend commitment in the Deal that is specifically focused on inclusion amounts to £25m – over eight years, so around £3m per annum – to deliver an Integrated Regional Employability and Skills Programme. Presumably, therefore, the idea is that the investment in transport infrastructure and business accommodation will help to spread benefits across the region (though I did note the disappointment expressed by Fife Council over the refusal to accept their case for the Levenmouth rail link and other transport improvements); and that the interventions in relation to housing (particularly mid-market rent) will help to address problems of affordability within Edinburgh and environs.
Leaving that aside, one of the most interesting parts of the Deal for me relates to investment in strands within the region’s economy which offer exciting prospects in emerging technologies – there is £350m from the UK and Scottish Governments to support: data storage and analysis technology; five R, D & I sectoral hubs (linked with the data repository); a food and drink innovation campus; and investment in industrial and business premises. When that is taken alongside a £201m innovation support programme from the universities (and with reference to a further £52m of support from the private sector and local partners to support the development of the R, D& I hubs) it’s hard to avoid the impression that this particular Deal is the first to really nail it, in developing a package that really focuses on strands of activity that are widely recognised as offering major new opportunities. Built on the foundation of the region’s (and particularly Edinburgh’s) existing strengths in these fields, this could be a real game-changer.
The other major areas of interest for me are the strands relating to housing and infrastructure – and particularly the reference to new models for delivery of affordable housing and new ways of using public money to facilitate the kinds of infrastructure projects which unlock new opportunities in housing and beyond. Applying innovation in these kinds of ways is not easy – it’s something I wrestle with on a daily basis, as a key part of my day job – but it’s a prize well worth winning.
So all in all, potentially a winning hand – but, as always, the real test is how far the public and private sectors (and, particularly in this Deal, the university sector) come together in a spirit of real partnership to maximise the opportunities.