As will be clear from the forthcoming Industrial Strategy White Paper, national Government is aware of the need for more coherent local systems but also of its own limitations in fostering them. What, then, can organisations such as HEFCE, Universities UK and the Local Government Association bring?
The Leading Places programme, directed and funded by HEFCE and the Local Government Association, is one attempt to provide national support to local issues.
Leading Places is an innovative leadership development programme that supports councils, universities and other local anchor institutions to develop collaborative responses to place-based priority challenges. Universities UK is another important partner in the programme.
The first phase of Leading Places ended in March 2017, with six local partnerships having successfully participated. Phase two is even bigger.
The second phase of the Leading Places programme began before the summer, with 15 local area partnerships working closely to design and deliver practical solutions to agreed local challenges.
The breadth of themes covered is vast, as is the role of the universities involved. As one might expect, key local building blocks such as economic development, skills, business support and innovation are covered in many of the area plans.
More novel perhaps are the attempts at ‘democratising health’ that Lancaster University and Blackburn with Darwen Council are planning, or Lincoln University’s focus on a new hub outside the city region, in association with South Kesteven District Council.
On the south coast, the city of Brighton and Hove is well known for its culture and the two universities, along with the council, will be taking a more coordinated approach to planning high-profile festivals and measuring their social impact.
Speaking of culture, Hull is enjoying its status as UK City of Culture this year, but has acknowledged the need for a stronger focus on inclusive growth to underpin its development as a city. Leading Places will challenge its anchor institutions, including the university, to reflect on their own role.
Plenty of variety then, but also plenty of common ground.
One of the main lessons from phase one was to marry ambition with pragmatism. A clearer upfront focus on the specifics of the challenge the partnership is addressing and the objectives sought will increase the chances of realising these ambitions.
Maintaining momentum can be especially difficult during the summer hiatus and when the demands the partners face are stretched by winter, requiring connected leadership across and within institutions.
There will be an open conference in March 2018 where the partnerships will report back on their work and what they have achieved in the nine months of the programme. Come along and see for yourself the progress made, and reflect on how these areas now understand each other better.
And what of the national bodies?
Our role, as I see it, is to support local institutions to come together and identify the challenges that matter and, most importantly, how to tackle them jointly. To do this, we also must understand each other in ways that may be new.
The changing governance of the ‘place’ is inherently challenging for national sector representatives. In supporting Leading Places, what we are really doing is holding up a mirror in which to reflect on our own behaviours.
Photograph of Blackburn courtesy of Shafiq Khan