Building and strengthening collaboration in places…in a time of financial crisis 

Dr Peter O’Brien 

Local government is facing acute financial crisis, unprecedented in recent times. As if to illustrate, over half of the respondents to a recent Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) survey said they were likely to declare effective bankruptcy in the next five years, 9% said they were likely to in the next financial year.  

According to figures from the National Audit Office, spending power for councils fell by 26% between 2010/11 and 2020/21. Local authorities are now facing increases in costs that are higher than the rate of inflation, whilst also managing rising demand for critical statutory services, such as social care. The Local government funding settlement for 2024/25 was published in February, and Secretary of State, Michael Gove, suggested that all authorities would receive a 4% uplift in spending power in 2024/25. Writing in response, however, the Local Government Association, argued that the settlement is insufficient to alleviate the pressures facing the sector.  

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK are facing their own financial challenges, spelt out in recent analysis by PwC and Universities UK. Reductions in tuition fee income from both home and international students (through inflation and restrictions respectively), lower occupation levels in accommodation, a drop in research income, and less use of campus services, have contributed towards an overall fall in income. Despite efforts within government to downplay concerns that the current university funding model in England is in a critical condition, most senior leaders in higher education expect to see a worsening financial climate in 2024.  

At the same time, local authorities, and higher education institutions, are widely recognised, through direct national and international evidence and practice, as key anchor institutions, and part of a wider, and critical, eco-system of civic leadership in localities and regions, and important drivers of local and regional economic growth and development.  

Against this backdrop, Yorkshire Universities and the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN) have convened a series of workshops for officers from local authorities and West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), as well as academics and policy specialists from YU member institutions. The four events, attracting 125 participants, have been centred around the theme of strengthening place-based partnerships between local government and higher education in West Yorkshire. These form part of a broader scheme of work within and across Yorkshire and the Humber. The main objective of this pilot programme has been to widen and deepen knowledge and awareness of how higher education and local and devolved government function in practice. This requires imparting understanding of the current opportunities and challenges facing each sector and sharing respective priorities and motivations. It also means identifying the ‘sweet spots’ of collaboration that connect and bind together seven HEIs, WYCA, and five local authorities in West Yorkshire, under a common purpose to create new opportunities, and to help improve prosperity and wellbeing for people and places in the region.  

We know that place-based partnerships and systems are critical to coordinating local and regional institutions and resources, and fostering innovation, experimentation, and community participation. It is, therefore, timely to be reminded of the value attached to building capacity in place-based working, especially at a time of financial stress. The risk is that the budgetary headwinds buffeting councils and universities understandably curtails investment in, and possibly institutional support for, the unique knowledge and human capital needed to build and sustain cross-sector relationships. Without adequate support for these types of collaborations across education, health, and local and devolved government individuals, communities, and businesses will miss out on the shared beneficial outcomes.  

The nature of partnership work demands a particular skillset, which traditional leadership training methods often fail to cater for. Our recent workshops in West Yorkshire, reminiscent of earlier work I was involved in at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recognises that not one single institution, sector or agent has all the solutions at their disposal to address the complexities of economic, social and spatial development, especially at a time of widening inequalities. Rather, the answers to many of these questions can be sourced from within diverse sections of the public, private and voluntary sectors, cooperating intensively in local areas, and regions, and with the support of devolved and national governments.  

Investing in the people who can connect institutions and their respective strategies and programmes with the wider world is critical if places are to become more successful and more resilient. We have made a positive start in building a cohesive network in West Yorkshire and we are well positioned to continue progressing in this area across Yorkshire, with the investment in Y-PERN and the recently announced Yorkshire and Humber Policy Innovation Partnership (Y-PIP) project. Our challenge will be to navigate our way through the current choppy waters, and to build on the opportunities we have to create an environment where the initial steps and actions we have taken so far can be sustainable and impactful in the medium and longer-term.  

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