Book Review (Bristow 2010)

Critical Reflections on Regional Competitiveness, Routledge Studies in Human Geography

Critical Reflections on Regional Competitiveness, Routledge Studies in Human Geography

Gillian Bristow (2010)

£75 hbk. ISBN 0415471591

Reviewed by Sioned Pearce, Sheffield Hallam University (20 July 2010)

Critical Reflections of Regional Competitiveness is an astute, informed and challenging dissection of the discourse surrounding the widely recognised, but less widely understood, concept of regional competitiveness. With a view to promoting a change of perceptions of regional competitiveness in governance, this amalgamation of previous work by Bristow (2005; 2006) and other forward thinking economic geographers, specialising in regional development and competitiveness, is an enlightening and educating read.

This book is aimed at students and scholars of economic geography interested in regional development, policy and deconstruction of the discourse of competitiveness. It provides the first integrated critique of the concept of regional competitiveness, its limitations and alternatives. The book is split into three parts examining the discourse, application, and limitations of regional competitiveness. At just under 160 pages it is a concise account of the economic, historical, political trajectories leading to a global-wide form of regional competitiveness whilst also seeking to critique the concept and highlight the alternatives. In the first part Bristow begins by both introducing and challenging the widely-accepted premise that neo-liberalism is the best form of governance within the context of globalisation and the changed structural properties of the global economy. Through a thorough exploration of the analytical distinctions between different approaches to understanding ‘the region’, Bristow covers a vast amount of key literature and theories. These include ideas that have shaped and influenced widespread understanding of regional development such as Jones & Macleod’s (2004) work on ‘regional spaces’ and ‘spaces of regionalism’, actor-network theory, territorial versus relational approaches (Paasi 2002) and debates on New Regionalism including endogenous growth theory and work by authors such as Lovering (1999) and Harrison (2006) calling for a re-conceptualisation of assumptions around functions of the region.

Chapter 1 goes on to examine the term ‘competitiveness’, its emergence in a policy context and its relation to different scales of implementation. Using evidence from policy documents and other forms of discourse purporting the competitiveness hegemony, the chapter states that, like the concept of regions, competitiveness is slippery and elasticised, in a constant state of flux and applicable to number of scales and scenarios (p. 12). Despite this it dominates the actions of policy-makers and the business community on a global scale: ‘. . .the critical issue for regional economic development practitioners to grasp is that the creation of competitive advantage is the most important activity they can pursue’ (Barclays 2001: 10 quoted by Bristow, p. 4)

Bristow states that within the global neo-liberal economy there is a great deal of policy enthusiasm, particularly in the US, the EU and other developed countries, around the mobilisation of regions to become competitive. However, among academics there is great confusion around defining regional competitiveness which has highlighted its inherent fuzziness. The contrasting views of regional mobilisation for increased competitiveness are presented logically giving a balanced and accessible view of what is a complex subject. In Chapter 2, Bristow addresses the gap in competitiveness literature on conceptualising the term and the relative lack of convergence between literature discussing competitiveness and regions. Regional competitiveness is termed a ‘striking paradox’ in reference to the lack of similar facets and functions between regional spaces and businesses/firms. Here Bristow devotes much time to analysing Michael Porter’s work (1995; 1998) on the ‘model of competitiveness advantage’ and its central role in shaping the policy discourse of competitiveness. Bristow critiques the model for being a partial view, focussing disproportionately on the productivity of firms concluding that while regional competitiveness is shaping the broad direction of regional economic development policy, it is a chaotic discourse (p.25). Bristow states that the policy discourse around regional competitiveness is conflated with competition for resources between regional spaces, causing a tendency towards policy-led theory (cf. Lovering 1999).

The next part of the chapter links the previous discussions on policy-making, and particularly evidence-based policy-making, with interests and selective motivations for policies. Following an argument that an interpretive approach to understanding policy is a good way to provoke interrogation of the political dynamics of phenomena such as regional competitiveness, Bristow introduces Jessop’s (2005) notion of Cultural Political Economy (CPE). Because CPE is a tool for understanding the contribution of discourse to forming subjects and the repercussions of the discourse in material form and in day to day life, it is a useful approach for distinguishing between the discourse of regional competitiveness and the evidence of alternative approaches. Bristow explains that CPE has developed from Jessop’s (2008) Strategic-Relational Approach to State Theory (SRA) and allows for an examination of alternatives to the competitiveness hegemony as a socially-constructed and historically placed entity. Using the work of Jones (2008) to apply CPE to regional spaces through an application of the theory in a geographical context, Bristow forms a theoretical framework which provides the parameters for the stated aim of the book; ‘to ask how and why a particular conception of regional competitiveness has developed and taken hold as well as provide the foundation for understanding the scope for its recontextualisation and . . . contestation in different regional contexts’ (p.35)

Chapter 3 opens the second part of the book which examines how regional competitiveness plays out in policy practice. The focus is on what Haughton and Naylor (2008) term ‘the unholy alliance between fast policy transfer and rapid evaluation and judgement and a rush to reinvent and replace’. Regional competitiveness permeates all aspects of policy in practice and has large-scale impacts on localities with which it has little consoling connection. Bristow’s critique of the ‘one size fits all’ policy for regional competitiveness is embedded in a paradox between regional competitiveness discourse at once emphasising the importance of endogenous factors to the region and uniformly prescribing the key ingredients for their success (p.65).

The second part of the chapter dissects performance indicators and rankings claiming to measure competitiveness at varying scales and which influence policy. The book systematically unpacks the ‘input, output and outcomes’ approach concluding that it ignores indicators external to those in line with competitiveness discourse which influence the wellbeing of regions. This is backed up with examples of excluded variables such as health statistics. The result is crude, partial and un-standardised measurements. This is compared with the Stiglitz and Sen Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social and Environmental Sustainability which is currently working to improve the calculation of GDP.

In addition Bristow argues that because of the lack of consensus on what regional competitive is and the subsequent lack of a clear idea of ‘what makes a region competitive’ the indicators can only serve to highlight the continuing success of some regions and the paucity of others. The widely-spread and varying ranking of regional competitiveness have resulted in what Bristow terms ‘identikits’ for regional competitiveness. The role of the regional state in resisting or restating competitiveness is discussed using devolution in Wales since 1999 as an example.

Bristow’s strong arguments against the various strands of regional competitiveness come together in the third part of the book on moving beyond the concept to form a forceful and convincing case for alternative approaches. This is coupled with a list of valid alternatives to challenge the dominance of regional competitive discourse coming from the bottom-up. The collective movement, of the Transition Movement, challenging competitiveness in favour of more socially and environmentally conscious is termed ‘the exact antithesis of competitiveness’ exemplified in its recognition of the importance of taking complex spatial configurations into account and embracing global-local relationships. Acknowledgement of the possibility that these alternatives may become integrated into the mainstream or used as an example of the tolerance of neo-liberalism and the competitive discourse are noted continuing the sense of balanced argument given throughout the book.

Despite the realist streak running throughout the book Bristow ends on an optimistic note stating that the momentum for change and challenge to competitiveness, and its contextual host neo-liberalism, is realistically possible in light of the ‘triple crunch’ (economic austerity, climate change and peak oil era) characterising the twenty first century. While the book acknowledges the ‘ongoing battle to find the best structures for mediating complex tensions between different interests and communities and governments and scales’ (p.155) resilience against the regional competitiveness discourse is strongly argued here.

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Barclays, (2002) Competing in the World: World Best Practice in Regional Economic Development. London: Barclays Bank plc

Bristow, G. (2005) ‘Everyone’s a “winner”: problematising the discourse of regional competitiveness’, Journal of Economic Geography, 5 (3), pp. 285-304

Bristow, G and Lovering, J. (2006) ‘Shaping events, or celebrating the way the wind blows? The role of competitiveness strategy in Cardiff’s “ordinary transformation”, in Hooper, A. and Punter, J. (eds) Capital Cardiff 1965-2020: Regeneration, Competitiveness and the Urban Environment, Cardiff: University of Wales Press. pp. 311-329

Harrison, J. (2006) ‘Re-reading the new regionalism: a sympathetic critique’, Space and Polity, 10 (1), pp. 21-46

Haughton, G. and Naylor, R. (2008) ‘Reflexive local and regional economic development and international policy transfer’, Local Economy, 23 (2), pp.167-178

Jessop, B. (2005) ‘Cultural political economy, the knowledge-based economy and the state’ in Barry, A. and Slater, D. (eds) The Technological Economy. London: Routledge, pp. 144-166 Jessop, B. (2008) State Power, Polity Press

Jones, M. (2008) ‘Recovering a sense of political economy’, Political Geography, 27 (4), pp. 377-399

Jones, M. and MacLeod, G. (2004) ‘Regional spaces, spaces of regionalism: territory, insurgent politics and the English question’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 29. pp. 433-452

Lovering, J. (1999) ‘Theory led by policy: the inadequacies of the “new regionalism” (illustrated from the case of Wales)’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 23, pp. 379-396

Paasi. A. (2002) ‘Place and region; regional worlds and words’, Progress in human Geography, 26 (6), pp. 802-811

Porter, M. (1995) ‘The competitive advantage of the inner city’, Harvard Business Review, 74 (May-June), pp. 55-71

Porter, M. (1998) ‘On Competition. Cambridge MA: Harvard Business School Press.