Counties on the rise as UK economic drivers

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Counties on the rise as UK economic drivers

They have centuries of history and tradition and often powerful local affiliation but, for a variety of reasons, counties have been overlooked as place players and important economic entities within UK plc.

Cities are seen as the big hitters, as the regional centres of population and leading drivers of economic activity, leaving their more rurally-dominated counterparts in the shade.

To some the “Shires” are something of a nostalgic throwback to a past age, relevant today only to local government and the County Cricket Championship.

But now, at a time when we will need to compete internationally like never before, counties are coming to the fore as places in their own right.

There are many reasons for this. One is that some places simply don’t have cities. Without a prominent role for counties, how do you make the best case for places that have identity, assets and opportunity, but not the critical mass of a single, major urban centre of population?

There are some outstanding examples of counties that have embraced the importance of a place-led approach and unlocked their brand equity.

Yorkshire has established a powerful and internationally admired place brand, especially as a visitor destination, helped by championing, often via its natural assets, why it is simply a great place to be.

Now we’re finding that more counties are discovering, or re-discovering, their sense of place.

As the UK’s leading place specialist we’ve worked with, or are currently working with, an increasing number of counties to develop a fresh, forward-looking narrative for their place to attract investment, visitors, talent and the attention of Government.

Working with partners, we created an umbrella narrative for Lancashire that adds value to the places within the county and has brought them together without their individual propositions being compromised in any way.

Previously disparate communities such as Preston, Lancaster, Blackburn and Burnley now have a shared sense of place and ambition. So much so that Lancashire is bidding to be the 2025 UK City of Culture, even though it’s not a city!

Lancashire’s sense of place is now so strong that it has the confidence to bring together in the bid urban, coastal, countryside, industrial, historical, business and technological assets in a “virtual city” of 1.5 million people. Now that is a competitive proposition!

Lancashire’s bold bid is particularly exciting for us as we have worked with all the places to wear the culture crown, including Coventry, now gearing up to be the 2021 UK City of Culture.

There we worked with key stakeholders to bring city and county together, to leverage both urban and rural assets to develop a distinct place brand story for Coventry and Warwickshire.

Working with key stakeholders such as the universities to tell the county story 


By being place-led, counties are able to exert influence that makes the sum greater than the constituent parts. Hampshire, where we are now working, is a case in point.

Hampshire encompasses two coastal cities, Portsmouth and Southampton, but when driving through it you would be forgiven for thinking the rest was trees and countryside. However, that rurality contains significant businesses and brands in fields such as defence, aerospace and financial services, along with world-leading R&D, with key players such as BAE, IBM, Zurich, Gulfstream, Airbus and many more. Without an overarching county proposition these vital UK assets will remain largely hidden.

Furthermore, Hampshire in itself is a stamp of quality that is key to the lifestyle offering that is so important to attracting investment and, critically, talent.

Counties have been the sleeping giants of place, but they’re now waking from their slumbers and flexing their muscles.

Counties offer potential to create a collaborative effect, critical mass and a story that isn’t being told that, for some audiences and in certain situations, is very relevant, without in any way suppressing the places within them.

It’s not a competition. It’s a collaboration. It’s about creating a clear, shared sense of place and identity for the county that adds value to the places, companies and organisations within it, to the benefit of all.

John Till, Director


A word from a couple of counties we’ve worked with …


“ In Hampshire we have an enviable range of economic assets and opportunities, but the county is known more for its lifestyle and natural environment than its significant and diverse business and innovation ecosystem and the global brands already based here. We needed something to change that, to contribute to our competitiveness as a place.

“A key finding of the Vision for Hampshire 2050 Commission of Inquiry was the need to develop a stakeholder-led, forward-looking place story for Hampshire, to draw together all the positive facets in a coherent and compelling way.

“This work brought together a wide range of stakeholders sharing a common cause of enhancing the positioning and promotion of Hampshire to the wider world, whether those target audiences be potential inward investors, talented individuals, students, visitors or even Government ministers.  

“The response from stakeholders to the research findings, draft narrative and emerging visual language has been unanimously positive.”

David Fletcher, Assistant Director Economy, Hampshire County Council


 “As Vice Chair of Lancashire Enterprise Partnership I was delighted that thinkingplace was employed to develop a new economically orientated brand and narrative for Lancashire which brought a fragmented offer and place together behind a powerful and compelling story.  This has been well received in the investment world at MIPIM and within the Northern Powerhouse and has elevated the county’s standing.

David Taylor, Vice Chair, Lancashire Enterprise Partnership, and Chair, University of Central Lancashire Board