Building Stronger Places

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Yesterday, I was in Leeds to hear Research England (RE) and Innovate UK (IUK) spell out the approach of their parent body – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – to place and to find out more about the new Strength in Places Fund (SPIF). For those unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of acronyms and institutional arrangements in the UK higher education sector, RE and IUK are ‘constituent members’ of the UKRI family of councils.

The concept of place has grown in significance recently in development policy-making, including latterly in the UK in relation to industrial policy and strategy. There is now greater recognition that geography ‘matters’ and that policy, strategy and investment should be more sensitive and reflective of diverse regions, localities, economies and communities.

Three elements have given rise to the emergence of the SPIF. First, the EU referendum brought into sharp focus, in acute political terms, the nature and extent of economic, social and spatial inequalities within the UK. Second, the Industrial Strategy identifies science and innovation as key drivers of sustainable and inclusive forms of national and local and regional growth. Third, the government has given a commitment to increase significantly (by £4.7bn) the levels of public investment in research and development.

Science and innovation are crucial elements of the industrial policy eco-system, and essential ingredients in the quest for productivity improvements. Other factors include sector and business support, skills, enterprise, infrastructure, finance and regulation/governance. It is crucial that the SPIF (initially earmarked for £115m in funding) complements other industrial strategy interventions and activities. There is growing evidence that aligning these mechanisms, under the auspices of place-based development, is most effective and efficient when there is devolved (e.g. regional and local) ownership and responsibility. For the SPIF to operate in such circumstances, an appropriate balance has to be found between national and regional/local influence and direction over the aims, objectives and ‘management’ of the Fund.

A further challenge facing the architects of the SPIF and, to a degree, those hopeful of securing investment, is how the Fund can support a fundamental step-change in the economic fortunes of ‘weaker’ places. Realising this goal will require substantial investment over a longer period of time than that currently being made available via the SPIF. And the SPIF will also need to be mindful that industry’s appetite and absorptive capacity for innovation varies across the country, with business demand latent in some places, which has to be carefully stimulated and nurtured. The existing SPIF criteria will be judged, in part, against how far it reflects the uneven and complex spatial patterns of innovation activity in the UK, and how it can contribute towards broader efforts to rebalance growth.

Currently, universities in Yorkshire are working with local business partners to develop proposals to the SPIF, and I hope that many bids are successful. This will provide further illustration of the unique and valuable contribution that higher education makes to regional and local prosperity and well-being.