Module 3 | Developing a place narrative

Developing a place narrative that supports a Local Industrial Strategy

The central narrative at the heart of a Local Industrial Strategy should act as a galvanising story that local partners agree with and which points to a set of deliverable outcomes. It should also be clear how the Local Industrial Strategy (LIS) will contribute to the success of the national economy and the Government’s Grand Challenges.

This module outlines why a narrative matters, the key principles for a good narrative and considers how to develop a narrative that supports a LIS. It concludes with case studies from the West Midlands and the North of Tyne, along with links to further resources.

Why does a narrative matter?

Narratives or stories are ways of condensing lots of complex information into an easily rememberable sequence. They are what will be remembered by people when the specific facts have been forgotten, and they are simple enough to be communicated to wider groups. An agreed narrative helps people and organisations consistently ‘recalibrate’ and ‘refocus’ around the central elements of what they think is important.

Places need narratives for a few reasons:

  • Narratives that are agreed locally require the buy-in and agreement of a range of local partners. The process of developing and agreeing a narrative requires places and organisations to consider and discuss the facts, agree which elements are most important, and agree broadly what they want to do and achieve. This is an important part of building momentum and partnership locally.
  • Agreed narratives allow local partners to speak consistently about the challenges and opportunities that they face locally. They make local places more credible when communicating with broader stakeholders (e.g. LEPs, regional groupings, and Government), because it is clear what the ‘story’ is locally.
  • Developing a narrative for a place allows local partners to consider the most positive story about local opportunities and challenges. Without this, the story of a place may simply default to the most negative or pessimistic story, which may prevent places capitalising on real opportunities.
  • An agreed narrative helps outsiders – potential investors, individuals or businesses who might be interested in moving to the area – understand what is happening locally and how they might benefit.

What makes a good narrative?

There are several principles for good place narratives:

  • ‘Make it real’: A narrative should neither be too pedestrian nor too fanciful – it must be a realistic assessment of what your place is and where it can go. This is encapsulated in the following quote: “find out who you are and do it on purpose”.
  • Each narrative must be suitable for its place: You cannot make up a narrative on the fly – it’s not enough to come up with things to fit funding opportunities or what Ministers have said are their priorities. In short, a narrative must be embedded in a place and grounded in evidence.
  • Think long term: Short term narratives are ineffective. Often change can take a generation (or more) to come. The challenge of narrative development is creating a long-term story about a place that is honest and looks beyond immediate concerns – be they Government’s or otherwise. Equally, it is important that narratives (and the plans that follow them) are not so long-term that they become an abstraction. It is important that there is some cumulative progress that will motivate the ongoing work of making the narrative a reality.
  • A narrative must be open and inclusive: Narratives can fail if they become the hobby horse of a particular political party or interest. A successful narrative is one that people choose not to contest at electoral cycles and therefore that speaks to all, for everyone’s benefit. It must be settled across the entire polity of a place.
  • Promote wide ownership: A narrative must be owned by a large number of people, such that its story feels a part of the weft and warp of a place. This is not to say it should be formed in a fully democratic way right from the outset, but rather that it cannot be owned throughout its formation and implementation by a particular clique of officers.
  • Narrative must be additive rather than subtractive: No place, and indeed no narrative, is a tabula rasa. Each individual part of a place needs to feel part of the whole narrative – as though they are one part of a coherent whole that is more than the sum of its parts. This means it must build on the varied identities and strengths that already exist across a place and therefore must also have political buy-in across parties and groups.
  • A narrative cannot exist for just one institution: Any problem or opportunity in a place is neither caused by nor solved by a single institution. A successful narrative must bring in all of the institutions in a place – covering government, education, businesses, hospitals etc. – such that each can contribute to its realisation.
  • Local narratives exist within broader regional narratives. Economies are more porous than we think, and places are not limited to their administrative boundaries. Narratives should go beyond borders when thinking creatively about future opportunities.

How do you develop a narrative for your area that supports a Local Industrial Strategy?

Place is one of the five foundations of the Industrial Strategy and an important element of the Local Industrial Strategy process. Developing a narrative takes time and requires some preparation. In general, the broad steps for developing a place narrative are:

  • Build an evidence base that supports discussion. It is important that discussions about opportunities and challenges are grounded in fact as far as the evidence allows. Bring businesses and stakeholders into the process of evidence gathering as this will lead to a stronger narrative.
  • Develop an emerging narrative and test this with partners. It is important to work in an iterative and collaborative way with partners to ensure that the narrative reflects different perspectives. At the same time, it is important to lead a process with focus and the right level of challenge.
  • Agree key messages and socialise these with the LEP / CA and other partners. The end point of the process must be an agreed set of messages that is clear and focussed. It should identify what the challenges and opportunities are, what partners are already doing and what they intend to do, and where additional investment / support / a deal would make the difference. Partners should agree how they will communicate these messages to other parties. Crucially, the external message should represent an ‘offer’ – i.e. a commitment to action and a statement of what this should achieve locally and as a contribution to the national economy – as well as an ‘ask’.
  • Ensure that your key messages reflect national priorities. The Government has set out four Grand Challenges that it wants to address. The cross-sectoral nature of these challenges means there are potentially many different approaches to addressing these using local approaches which contribute to the national objectives.
Case Study: Establishing a shared narrative for the West Midlands Combined Authority

In 2015 the seven metropolitan authorities in the West Midlands had taken a decision to establish a combined authority (CA) covering the Black Country, Solihull, Birmingham and Coventry.

To support their internal discussions, and to help understand the economic linkages within the future CA area, they undertook a functional economic market analysis (FEMA) looking at various levels of the 20 local authority areas making up the West Midlands. A key aspect of the FEMA study was an identification of the region’s overlapping economic sectors (partly based on location quotient analysis) which provided an understanding of the inter-relationships between the economic sectors.

The FEMA work helped frame the internal discussions between the West Midlands partners, enabling the agreement of a 20-page Statement of Intent – a local strategic narrative setting out the proposals for the West Midlands region. This work was published on 6th July 2015 alongside the launch of the WMCA.

The agreement of the Statement of Intent represented the conclusion of an intense period of negotiation between often competing interests at regional level, reconciling regional views with the views of ministers, and melding the public and private sector vision for the local economy into one shared economic vision.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) was fully established in June 2016, with the election of a Mayor in May 2017. Local stakeholders report that the establishment of a shared narrative has helped galvanise the area, creating momentum that has supported the award of the Commonwealth Games to Birmingham in late 2017, and led to the signing of a housing deal with Government in March 2018 and more recently the publication of the WMCA Local Industrial Strategy in May 2019, the first LIS to be published.

Case Study: North of Tyne Combined Authority ‘Home of Ambition’

The three authorities that constitute the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NoTCA) came together to develop a Statement of Intent for the area. This Statement of Intent set out a series of propositions and priorities, that enabled the authorities to negotiate a devolution deal with Government that provides £600m for the region over 30 years. The NoTCA was established in late 2018 and the first mayoral election was held in May 2019.

Earlier this year, the NoTCA developed a vision document entitled ‘Home of Ambition’. The Vision sets out six pillars of ambition around enterprise, leadership, skills, innovation, transport, and communities.

The development of the Statement of Intent and ‘Home of Ambition’, and the establishment of the NoTCA has helped to clarify local priorities and create momentum around their implementation. The NoTCA is currently establishing an inclusive growth board and developing an investment toolkit which will ensure that investments are conducted with an inclusive growth focus.

Relevant Resources

  • Presentations from the place narrative masterclass on 3rd April 2019.
  • The West Midlands CA Regional Skills Plan details how the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), working with key partners, will prioritise actions to deliver on local ambitions over the next three years.

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