Tim Sydenham


This thesis critically examines how micro-level adaptive processes and capacities operate and unfold in local/regional economic development governance in the context of cumulative and often disruptive political-economic change. It argues that states often seek to promote the adaptability and growth of local/regional economies by reconfiguring subnational governance arrangements but the evolutionary consequences of centrally driven state transformation processes for local/regional adaptation remain unclear. Evolutionary economic geography (EEG) provides concepts, mechanisms and models of adaptation but has tended to focus on firms and macro-structural economic change and pay limited attention to how the critical micro-level adaptive processes at work are influenced by power relations, political factors, and the state. This thesis focuses on England’s evolving economic development governance landscape to investigate how institutional configurations and governance mechanisms promote or inhibit how local governance actors adapt to change and enact place-based leadership. Addressing EEG’s need for more qualitative case studies, the research employed secondary document analysis, in-depth interviews with ‘elites’ – senior-level professionals and politicians – and meeting observations enabled by gatekeeper-informants to examine the emergence and evolution of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership. The research showed that, in novel and incoherent institutional-geographical contexts permeated by intensive state restructuring, local agents are predisposed to focus more on the immediate political problems generated by their central government principals than on addressing longer-term economic problems that are, ostensibly at least, the purpose of restructuring. The thesis argues that this can have an acculturating effect as adaptation to the pressures of evolutionary state transformation becomes routinised in local/regional economic development partnerships. Micro-level adaptation unfolds as a power-inflected, multi-dimensional process with political and economic strands. Static institutional fixes are undermined by dynamic adaptive processes, and micro-level adaptive capacities – learning, networking, storytelling and sensemaking – are diverted by governance mechanisms in ways underplayed in existing research. By critically examining the risks inherent in the state’s continuing experimentation with scales and forms of economic development governance, the thesis informs academic and policy endeavours to understand and facilitate political-economic change in a way that more effectively nurtures local/regional adaptive capacity.

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