What Are the Changing Threads of Subnational Policy in Scotland?

What Are the Changing Threads of Subnational Policy in Scotland?

Dr David Waite

Scotland’s raft of urban and subnational policies are often frenetic and strikingly incoherent. From its National Innovation Strategy, growth deals, investment zones and Shared Prosperity Fund allocations, to plans for Green Freeports, a regional economic policy review and the rolling out of Innovation Districts, the landscape is a busy and rapidly evolving one.

In this blog I highlight three policy interventions in Scotland in order to shed light on prominent directions of travel for policymaking.

Green Freeports

Green Freeports have been announced for two locations in Scotland – Inverness and Cromarty Firth and Firth of Forth. The successful locations caught attention when announced, as at first glance at least the location on the Firth of Forth, which includes Edinburgh, does not seem the most obvious area to warrant a Levelling Up type intervention. Whilst, of course, areas dotted around the Forth do exhibit deprivation, the east of Scotland overall is typically seen to present advantageous economic conditions and advantages not present to the same degree in West Central Scotland. 

This gets at the malleability of the Levelling Up agenda, perhaps, with arguments for Levelling Up being made across a diffuse set of criteria and spatial settings (the scoring categories for the Green Freeports are given by the UK Government). The announcement of investment zones for the Glasgow City Region and the North East have been made more recently (after the Freeports announcement) though there is little information thus far on what the investment zones will contain.

The “Green Freeport” intervention reflects the Scottish peculiarities of the UK and Scottish Governments coming together, seemingly pragmatically, to agree a place-based development approach. The Freeport boasts the following advantages (for participants at the sites at least): “enhanced capital allowances, enhanced structures and buildings allowance, non-domestic rates relief, employers’ national insurance contributions relief, [and] land and building transaction tax relief”. 

What will be interesting to track over time is the extent to which these incentives lead to overall social benefit rather than shift existing activity from elsewhere in Scotland to the sites in the Freeport area. Where and if the latter occurs, it would simply be a case of displacement rather than addition at the Scottish scale. It is perhaps encouraging that guidance does show a concern for displacement, so hopefully this provides a useful basis for robust evaluation evidence to emerge. 

From a Scottish Government perspective, it also seems somewhat hard to find in the Green Freeport approach an embrace of the wellbeing economy or community wealth building – some of their key policy themes. Perhaps, then, we should embrace policy pluralism in this space?

Scotland’s National Innovation Strategy

In a different economic development domain, the Scottish Government’s “National Innovation Strategy” was released in the early summer. This document is perhaps a ‘back to the future’ moment for policymaking, as we see “clusters” featuring once more (though cast as a ”new approach” with network features). With case studies set out at the innovation district level and with the Danish approach presented as an example, there is a mini-agglomeration type view, principally, of how the clusters will appear spatially (Innovation Strategy, pg 86). 

With this resurgent fondness for clusters, the encouraging aspect is that there is a wealth of academic and other research that considers the pros and cons of cluster-based approaches. Along with clusters, Smart Specialisation features, and this approach seeks to target areas of perceived strength and opportunity. 

Worth reflecting on in the Innovation Strategy, furthermore, is the seemingly limited or patchy concern for the more mundane aspects of innovation, such as process innovation, which are nevertheless important for a large number of small businesses in Scotland. A concern for “adoption” and “diffusion” does give some reflection of this issue, yet the weight of the document paints a picture of innovation futures as something high-tech and shiny in the main. Providing further detail in the “National Productivity Programme” referred to in the strategy would appear to be important in addressing this issue. 

Finally, in terms of the strategy document itself, a disconcerting though refreshingly honest aspect is the acknowledgement of the very busy and crowded landscape for innovation policy in Scotland, with a wide range of actors, activities, and initiatives at play (pg 14). 

Innovation Districts

Innovation districts, which feature in the strategy (as noted prior), reflect a key place-based innovation approach in Scotland’s city-regions. Innovation districts are formally and informally apparent in the Glasgow city-region, with the following receiving official support and promotion: Glasgow City Innovation District (GCID); Glasgow Riverside Innovation District (GRID); and Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District Scotland (AMIDS). 

These three districts broadly conform with the original definition of an innovation district – “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators … Compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired, innovation districts foster open collaboration, grow talent, and offer mixed-used housing, office, and retail”. But so, arguably, does the Barclays Campus, which is centred around an anchor firm, is located on the south bank of the Clyde opposite the CBD, and developed on brownfield land. 

With such formal and informal districts present and in development, it will be interesting to examine how and if they tie into notions of “inclusive innovation” which seeks a wider range of participants in and beneficiaries from innovation activities. Recent research points to some intention to consider and act upon such a concept. 

All of these different policy interventions and strategies in Scotland suggest that there is a window of opportunity to design and support innovation practices in new ways: with the wellbeing economy providing the direction (albeit very rough) for economic change desired; with increasing concern for a wider set of objectives in innovation policy (in policymaking and academia); and with an urban context that demands place-sensitive interventions (consider the range of potential impacts of GRID on Govan). Additionally, it will be valuable to investigate how the Levelling Up Innovation Accelerator funding is being utilised in Glasgow.

In summary, there is an interesting if as yet incoherent patchwork of urban and subnational economic development policies taking shape in Scotland that will warrant and demand future evaluation. Scotland’s tripartite basis for economic development policy (involving UK Government, Scottish Government and local authorities) is somewhat unique in character and form, yet the instruments being installed and experimented with suggest policy learning may usefully take place from other contexts across the OECD and beyond.