LEADERSHIP MATTERS! Seminar on ‘Leadership in Urban and Regional Development: Debates and New Directions’, 5-6 February 2014, University of Birmingham

This seminar was organised by the ‘Research network on Leadership in Urban and Regional Development, of the Regional Studies Organisation. I have included a summary of the most interesting presentations here, written by Alistair Bowden, Teesside University Business School. For more information, the full report and power-point presentations, please send a mail to lummina.horlings@wur.nl. If you are interested in doing a master thesis on leadership, please contact me as well.

Thirty five enthusiastic academics converged on Park House on the wooded outskirts of the Birmingham University campus on a rainy British morning, but the weather could not dampen spirits. The speakers and discussants were from diverse academic backgrounds (from politics to palaeontology, and from planning to psychology), had varied careers (from a physicist to a field geologist, and from a curator to councillor) and had travelled from disparate locations round the globe (from Auckland to Bishop Auckland, and from Babeş-Bolyai to Birmingham). But we all shared a passion for leadership of place: cities, conurbations, rural areas and regions. Discussing the seminar with a more experienced conference goer on the way back to the station, this mix of disciplines, careers and nationalities, held together by a shared interest in this emerging subfield, was highlighted as the reason for its success: diverse actors and a strange attractor!

John Gibney kicked us off with a brief, considered introduction. This wasn’t going to be an easy conference. We weren’t given the answer at the start. We were going to have to work out ‘what it was all about’ for ourselves.

Our first speaker was Lummina Horlings, who gave a paper on an entrepreneurial rural area just west of Groningen, Netherlands. She was interested in how to enhance collaboration, institutional reform and joint learning to help make a place more resilient. From informal foundations with a small group of visionaries engaging in a pilot project, collective agency emerged through ‘spiral development’ of bottom up initiatives, supporting policy schemes and joint learning by doing. The conclusion was that collaborative leadership played a critical role in enabling success. The discussion explored the motivation(s) to collaborate, the catalytic role of a key actor, the supporting role played by local politicians, the role of the research team and their relationship to the local people.

This was followed Andrew Beer, President of the RSA. Andrew has taken upon himself to try to make sense of leadership of place; to answer the question ‘how do we get beyond case studies?’ But he wasn’t being driven my some esoteric desire for theoretical purity, rather he came across as having a great streak of pragmatism, wanting to do something practical with the growing research on leadership of place.

Up next was Markku Sotarauta who began with a series of thought provoking questions: what is the place of leadership in regional economic development?, specifically, how do we get beyond simplistic dichotomised interpretations, to a more nuanced understanding of territorial developments in a challenging networked world? The main body of the talk detailed different facets of leadership and illustrated the complex, non-linear nature of the evolution of visions in the leadership of place.

After de-hydrating and re-hydrating, Robin Hambleton introduced us to his model of the four forces constraining leadership of place. The first three forces – economic, government and socio-cultural – can be influenced by leaders. The fourth force – environmental – are non-negotiable and act as constraints that have to be accommodated. The part of Robin’s talk that provoked greatest discussion was his idea of ‘place-less power’. By this he meant action by people in a globalised world, who feel no sense of place where the impact of a decision is felt. But this was contested by some participants who felt that all power is wielded with a sense of place, but that there can be impacts in multiple places – some good locally, some bad.

The second day of the seminar began with an oxymoron – a Kiwi talking passionately about Australia. Clare Mouat told us about the Committee for Perth, an active think tank and a positive and influential advocate for the Perth region. The contrast with Guy Robinson’s ‘lagging region’ in South Australia at the end of the previous day was stark – Perth is the Australia’s fastest growing city and it’s in the fastest growing state. The University of Western Australia takes and active part in the Committee for Perth, which prides itself on the quality of its research, which is trusted and is used to create spaces for reflection and discussion.

John Shutt and Gill Bentley gave a masterclass in the confusing maelstrom of sub-national economic development policy in England. Since the removal of all regional infrastructure and most of the funding, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have been encouraged to take forward their own agendas in their self-defined sub-regional ‘natural economic areas’.

Following the LEP theme, Joyce Liddle introduced her multi-dimensional accountability framework for the chaotic and largely unaccountable subnational leadership in England. Taking cognisance of more biological co-produced approaches to governance and more service oriented approaches to public value, she then explored public leadership from a number of angles, most provocatively looking at elites, power and authority. The presentation ended by looking at accountability in LEPs, proposing a multi-dimensional framework which potentially has impact in many complex situations involving diverse actors (public, private, third sector and citizen representation) well beyond the LEP context.

Last before lunch was Nicola Headlam, talking about the role of an elected mayor in the leadership of the city and city region of Liverpool. Never dull and often thought provoking, this was an enthusiastic and at times impassioned look at the possibilities of and problems with elected mayors, and some of the particular and personal issues relating to Liverpool’s mayor Joe Anderson. The talk was illustrated with a number of social network diagrams showing the relationships between key leaders, visualising the leadership of place in Liverpool.

After another excellent lunch, Xenia Havadi-Nagy gave a case study of local leadership that has attracted global attention. The village of Viscri is in the centre of Romania in a pocket of Saxon ethnic concentration that dates back centuries. This area has a distinctive culture, architecture and way of life, that was threatened with being lost in the post-socialist changes that are taking place in rural areas. Xenia illustrated the community-led change that has been brought about by Caroline Fernolend, a key individual who was well known and trusted by the community and who was a catalyst for community wide action. The approach taken at Viscri has become an exemplar that is being using as a template in rural development elsewhere in Romania.