Meet our chair: James Harris
For the first of a planned series of interviews with CEDOS members from across England, we sat down (pre Covid 19 lockdown) with CEDOS Chair, James ‘Harry’ Harris, to talk about all things economic development, local government and his preferred jam flavour preferences.
What is the role of CEDOS?
CEDOS brings together senior economic development leads up and down the country to help share ideas and good practice. It also gives us a single voice for the local authority economic development sector when we engage with, and influence, government on important matters, whether that’s Local Industrial Strategies, Town deals or UKSPF.
What do you enjoy most about being chair of CEDOS?
In local authorities you have a lot of disparate skilled individuals, so I welcome being amongst kindred spirits at CEDOS. Sometimes being at CEDOS meetings can feel like a sort of therapy! It’s great when you’re amongst like-minded individuals who are facing the same challenges and able to come up with ideas for dealing with these.
Why should someone join CEDOS, what’s in it for a prospective member?
I attended an event once with an Olympic rower who lost out on a medal. In one Olympics, he and the crew decided that between now and the next Olympics for everything they did they would ask ‘will this make our boat go faster?’. I apply this to all my work and decisions: ‘Is it furthering the growth of the economy?’ And I was faced by this question when I decided to join CEDOS. The cost of membership, in my experience, is negligible compared to the return. Learning opportunities through CEDOS events and meetings are numerous and I have then been able to take this learning back to my local authority. My colleagues at the local authority support it and see its value, which says a lot considering the tight funds at our disposal.
How do you see the future of CEDOS?
My hopes are very definitely that, relating back to CEDOS’ strengths, we have a great opportunity with the new government. Brexit is happening whether we like it or not and the UK is going to need economic development professionals more than ever. We need to retain our strength and integrity going forward, but I would like CEDOS to be more on the front foot, influencing the national agenda. We’re here to help the country.
Could you summarise your career to date?
My first degree was based around planning and transport but more specifically around the interrelationship between urban and rural areas and how important that is. I was lucky enough to get into East Sussex County Council as a transport planner and have moved around within it ever since. In my early years as a transport planner, it was known that transport in all its forms plays a key role in economic development; for East Sussex it made sense because the quality of our strategic transport infrastructure was poor, and it was a logical extension to take these principles forward. From what I knew about economic development I wanted to move into that world and have been in there for 7-8 years now. I think I’m a relatively rare beast in that I’ve been at one authority my whole career, but East Sussex has given me everything I could have wanted for my career so far.
What work related achievement are you most proud of?
A few I think. Getting the Bexhill to Hastings link-road business case through and approved by the government was huge and stands out. It opened up a whole load of economic development land, such as housing or commercial land, and without it, we wouldn’t be seeing the growth we’ve had over recent years and all the exciting things that we’re doing now would not be possible. There was loads of time and effort put into getting that through from everyone here. The capital value was huge, over £100 million. The economic development argument got it over the line. The challenges with being a coastal authority are huge, you only have 180-degree access to anywhere, housing delivery is difficult. Set against that context, it’s been hugely successful.
Best and worst work-related piece of advice that you have ever received?
The best piece – it has taken me a long time to realise this was the best piece of advice – was to be myself. I have now genuinely got my head around that. When you join a local authority, there’s a lot of people who know a lot, I’ve learnt not to shy away from asking questions in meetings that may feel naïve.
The worst piece was from a former colleague. Particularly in the early days you had to consult with everyone on everything. The worst bit of advice was don’t listen to what these consultations said, still do what I wanted regardless of consultation. This also took me a while to realise. It is far better to get gripes out onto the table early rather than later!
In your years of working in local government what is the single biggest change for the better or worse?
Austerity has been both I think. We have been blitzed by cuts, we used to be half a billion pounds a year authority, we are now about £300 million. This has stopped us doing what we’ve wanted to, we don’t have the same staff numbers. Most of the negativity from the community is about stuff we don’t do rather than what we actually do. However, this has made us really slim down to our priorities and what we’ve wanted to do. It has, in a round-about way, made us more innovative and efficient than we ever were. We now slavishly know what the priorities are. However, now we need the taps turned back on so we can deliver what the local communities want and need.
Has the role of an economic development officer changed since you first started?
There were previously a lot more specialists who would look after specific sectors, nowadays senior economic development officers need to be far more aware of things outside their comfort zone, they need to be multi-faceted and a successful communicator. They have to be a particular kind of person, quite different from 15-20 years ago. Nothing ever stands still in your local authority so its important to be dynamic and on your toes. Equally, the government jumps around and economic development officers need to adapt to that. It’s now all about business cases, bidding and competition for funds, whereas before there were development agencies and proper funded programmes across the piste. This requires a very different skillset.
On the topic of funding, do you have a view about what is better for outcomes, regional development agencies or business case bidding?
I don’t think either on their own is right or better, a combination is good. Some lend themselves to competition and bids, but agencies are also important. There have been cases where the government won’t except anything worse than a 2:1 BCR, but this can lend itself to a situation where the more well off areas keep getting more funding because they can put in strong business cases and areas that need it will find it harder to demonstrate good BCR. So, there is need to change that and there are noises in government to suggest that will be happening going forward. I’m also not a great fan of chucking money at an area in the old RDA kind of way, that breeds inefficiency. There is a balance between the two.
What is the future for economic development agencies and local development?
You have to be optimistic about economic development. We try to be slavishly optimistic at CEDOS. But the future is uncertain, now more than ever. There isn’t enough trust between local and central government, that needs to change because without trust UK PLC will suffer. That relationship needs to be straightened out. You get things that local government do well and central do well and it’s about sorting that out more effectively. There are things the government needs to get a grip on in terms of the social care green paper etc.; some of these things need to be dealt with so local authorities can be proactive, instead of reacting to adult and children’s care needs.
We have worked on devolution deals in the past that get bogged down in governance matters and insistence from the government that devolution is a nightmare, which doesn’t recognise the value of local governance. My hobby horse is skills funding, its fragmented and just a nightmare. Devolving this down to local areas would be great, local authorities could ensure of its efficient and beneficial use for the local community. All this centres around trust, we’re going to need some brave decision makers.
So, in thirty years’ time do you think economic development officers will still be playing a role in the UK?
That’s a hell of a question! I hope so, I think it would be a retrograde step if all of that stuff would go to quangos. There’s various things that have come and gone, but the staple thing is that the local authorities are there, they are accountable to their communities. Lcal communities look to the local authority for these kind of things, they are in place to deliver them. The continual focus on trying to invent something new is incredibly inefficient and you lose delivery when you go down that route. So yes, I hope they are still here in 30 years, whether I’m still here is another matter though…
What are your thoughts on the new administration’s big challenges at a national and local level?
There’s the obvious Brexit challenge and they’re going to have to deliver on promises that have been made. There’s a number of us who are cynical about that, but the decisions been made now so we’ve got to get on with it.
The bigger challenge is climate change. We saw a landmark decision around Heathrow this week. From a government point of view, I can understand the Heathrow argument – it delivers most in GVA and growth – however the flip side is that it’s incredibly environmentally damaging. What would have been a no brainer 20-30 years ago is now a difficult decision and that environmental argument is going to percolate through everything. We need a whole system review around climate change and what it means, the approach feels piecemeal at the moment.
What are your thoughts on the levelling up and inclusive growth agenda?
Its laudable but far more difficult in practice. It’s difficult to disagree with the desire to level up but a key thing for me is yes to investment in the North but definitely not at the expense of the South.
The other angle is about inclusive growth. There’s not many local authorities that aren’t going for the growth of the digital sector, all the sexy stuff, but these are not sectors that create a lot of actual employment. You could end up with whole communities missing out, communities with histories in a trade that is no longer needed. So, we need to recognise that high growth sectors are great but don’t necessarily provide jobs.
If you were stuck in a lift with Boris Johnson, what would your advice to him be?
I’d say get out to local authorities and understand where they’re coming from before you make any wholesale decisions on their future. Get out to the coalface and see the value they provide.
Now for some fun questions: what do you do to relax?
I walk with my dog, and I build stuff, repurpose stuff out of old wood. For example, I’ve got a mate who has got an engineering company, I go and pick up a load of pallets and build garden furniture. I’ve branched out now, I put two new bathrooms in at our house. It’s the antidote to what I do day in day out.
If you weren’t an economic development officer, what would you be?
I’m not sure! Not the repurposing stuff because it could become a chore. I’d want to work with animals. Animals are better than people I think. Or coach the England test cricket team, yeah I’m going to go with that.
What is your third favourite type of jam?
Third?! My third favourite is strawberry. Second, I’d go plum. And first raspberry.
What would be your desert island disc luxury item?
My little mini radio; love the radio.
HS2 or Heathrow, or neither?
Favourite book, film and band?
Book: Danny the Champion of the World. Film: Stand by Me. Band: Stone Roses. That’s a hard one, loads of others are popping up now, but yeah, I’m going to go with them.
What would the 18-year-old James Harris say to you now?
What are you doing? What have you got yourself into? How did you end up in that kind of world? Did you make the right choices and if not what advice would you give me?
And lastly, what would you say to the 18-year-old James Harris?
You need to recognise you can’t just go through life having a laugh. You need to give real thought to what you want to do. Really think about the areas you would like to go into. You don’t get a second crack; you make your bed you lie in it. That’s the kind of thing I say to my kids. You’ve got to enjoy what you do!