City regions: the return of the place race?

The central government announced that it was devolving control over a large amount of funding to councils in the Leeds region.  The news reminded me that the concept of city regions is still alive, if very quiet, within UK politics

The news reminded me of some research done in 2008 on attracting talent to city regions to help with growth. The work is the role of place in attracting and retaining talent in Scottish cities (February 2008 Kirsten Bound, Joost Beunderman and Melissa Mean) DEMOS

Are other councils able to join the place race?  Do they have the ability to shape their place enough to attract job growth?  The idea behind this research is that councils, working with businesses and other partners, such as universities, can create or shape the “place” to attract “talent”.  The research defines talent as `highly skilled`, qualified, entrepreneurial or creative people who are of high potential value to a city region. If talent can be attracted, the secondary benefits, such as jobs and growth, will follow. Moreover, the research recognises the need to retain talent in an area.

The report looks at how place attracts talent and asks three questions

  • What effects where talented people choose to move for work?
  • How and why does `place` matter to these decisions?
  • How can governments, public agencies and the private sector use this knowledge to improve the ability of places to attract and retain talent?


Key findings are:

  • The mobility of talented people is determined by both `motive` or motivational factors and `opportunity` or structural factors, which interact in unique ways to create individual mobility pathways.
  • `Place` has an impact on both motivations and structural factors but is rarely the principal reason for moving to a certain city. That said, place can make or break the decision to move there.
  • Common patterns also emerge when comparing different career types and life stages. Career type affects propensity for mobility, while life stage affects both career, and the relative importance of place in decision-making.


The life stage issue is important for Councils that may be facing predicted large-scale demographic changes such as increasing population over the age of 85 or a reduction in population under the age of 35.

The report considers these factors by focusing on the knowledge economy for shaping the future UK economy. The role of data and social media give some weight to the idea of a knowledge economy.  To have that economy work, though, requires connectivity, which means high-speed broadband.  The implicit challenges emerge from the research assumption.  The other driver, as mentioned above, is that the UK population is getting older. The demographic shift will influence future growth.


If the prime age range is 25-49, as the report suggest, for economic talent, then places need to consider how it can attract this group of people.  The research found that people moved because of their life stage, which covers much of this age range (leaving university, career transition, and retirement).


A talent’s eye view of place

The research is that it looked at places from the perspective of talent.  What did they see in a region that made them want to move to it?

The following were some of the factors. They could be seen as positives or negatives.  The list highlights many services that a council can provide. In particular, the quality of the public services on offer is a key consideration for councils working in partnership.


1. Identity: Places with a distinctive identity in architecture, nature, history and strong communities

2. Diversity: Visible difference and variety in culture and ethnicity

3. Public Services:

4. Natural environment and beauty

5. Night-time economy

6. Open-air culture: Free cultural and sporting events

7. Transport

8. Culture

9. Participation and change

10. Liveable city centre: Cleanliness, pedestrianisation, walk able city centres and quality shopping.

11. Housing


Putting place in its place

The research found that while place is important, it is rarely the main reason for moving.  Highly skilled workers move because of a  mix of `motive` and `opportunity`  For example, the availability of scholarships or opportunities for internal job transfer would determine a move.  What these indicate is that life stages are important for creating the motive and the opportunity.

Life stage

People are most mobile when they are at a crossroads in life. For example, school leavers moving away for university or older parents moving after their children have left home.  The life stage motive is an important challenge for any council that has universities or colleges within its boundaries.  How do you retain graduates in an area?  Do you have the economic opportunities to keep them?


Ways forward

The report to the Scottish City Regions suggested several ways to move it forward.  The recommendations ring true for any council seeking to improve their area and work within other local authorities to improve an area’s “offer”.

  • Generate `motives` for talent to relocate
  • Collaborate to attract
  • Integrate talent attraction into broader strategies of economic development
  • Go beyond a general ‘pull’ of a place, create ‘hooks’ specific to target industries.
  • People care what a place stands for, not just what it looks like, so make the values of a place tangible within the physical public realm, events programme and public services.


The question is whether the city regions that have gained the control over the funding can attract the talent to develop economic growth.  The long-term question is whether this is a first stage of a place race to reduce the UK’s over reliance on London as an engine of economic growth.  If it is, how soon before other city regions seek out a similar offer?

I would be interested in your views.


***Please note the above are my own views. They do not represent an official statement of my employer. They are not intended, nor should be considered, as a comment, either direct or indirect, on any policy, strategy, or proposal of my employer.


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