Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 January 2022
Background to local and regional economic development in England
L&RED activity in England has grown enormously since the 1970s, emerging as a professionalised field of activity employing substantial numbers of people in a growing range of organisations. From its initial roots in central government regional policy in the immediate post-war years and the 1960s, the focus began to shift in the 1970s towards local activities as regional policy was reduced in scale and area coverage. In these early years local economic development functions tended to be linked to local government planning departments, reflecting the strong emphasis at that time on land and property development. Quite quickly, however, separate economic development departments started to be established during the 1970s and early 1980s (Sellgren, 1989), while the range of activities began to broaden to include other approaches, including small business support, skills and training, and providing loans and grants. The most strongly developed local economic development functions tended to be in the larger metropolitan local governments.
Following a change in national government in 1979, some of the larger Labour-controlled urban local authorities began a short-lived experiment with radical local initiatives, which aimed to act as an intellectual counterweight to the national policies and also as a local palliative to growing local unemployment problems. The result was a series of innovative experiments, from supporting cooperatives to loans and grants for firms willing to work with local authorities to create or protect local jobs (Cochrane, 1987). Government cutbacks in funding for local government, increased centralised control of governmentfunded programmes, restrictive legislative changes, the use of alternative local delivery agencies and the shift towards highly audited competitive funding regimes all meant that this challenge to the dominant national approach was short-lived. That said, this period left a substantial intellectual legacy that continues to influence policy through to today. For instance, the Sheffield Employment Department was a pioneer in creating a local cultural quarter in the city during the early 1980s, an approach that would now be regarded by many as mainstream, yet at the time was regarded as a radical departure.
As Chapter Two highlighted, the 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of new local economic development bodies, acting as alternatives to local government in many instances, with funding and powers diverted particularly to private sector-led bodies with very different intellectual agendas from those of the previous pioneers in local economic development.