Yorkshire Universities (YU) are very much on the front foot, working collaboratively with important local stakeholders, well in advance of the expected consultation on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. The new strategic approach of YU is certainly helping members and their partners to prepare for important decisions ahead. Delivered in association with the Local Academy, those attending a recent workshop challenged each other to identify the five biggest challenges ahead;
1. If the purpose of the new fund is to reduce disparities, then that challenge is structural and long term. Decades of regional policy has been losing the battle against the triple forces of globalisation, technological change and agglomeration. New data shows the gaps between the richest places and with other places left behind are wide and widening. The government’s own data shows that Brexit, in whatever form, could lead to even wider disparities. Excellent academics now speak of the ‘revenge’ of people left behind in these places.
2. Contributing to the national Industrial Strategy is critical. Universities have a huge role to play addressing the Grand Challenges, but a wider approach, which includes actions to address social, health, housing, demographic and environmental issues opens up new opportunities for universities to contribute in more and different ways than ever before. Understanding the motivations and changing (reducing) capacities of departments of government other than BEIS and MHCLG is therefore equally important, for example, those in charge of skills, colleges, transport, environment, rural & coastal affairs and employment programmes etc.
3. The new fund should not only be seen as a successor to ESIF. It must be, more so, a successor to the much bigger Local Growth Fund, which, unnoticed by many, is quietly winding down. New programmes designed in silos away from other, new and often bigger forms of investment finance e.g. bonds, pension funds etc. can only provide solutions which are diluted and dislocated.
4. The ESIF programmes were far from perfect but they were guaranteed for 7-10 years, much longer than the likely time frame for new funding streams designed in the UK. ESIF programmes also carried degrees of prescription agreed in Brussels. Minimum percentages were required for research, development and innovation. If the concept of devolution or ‘place based’ approaches are applied to new funds, how will a ‘light touch’ and permissive framework influence what gets funded in the future, and what doesn’t? Who will take these difficult decisions in the future whilst ensuring transparency and accountability?
5. Researchers are well aware that geographies of innovation are often fuzzy. The data confirms that geographies of disparities are equally complex. Poor places and poor people are often hidden by statistics, even in within the artificial boundaries of wealthier places. How can the new programme reflect these complexities whilst, at the same time, understanding the importance of identity and accountability?