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Universities playing key role in devolution deals

James Ransom

James Ransom

Former Policy Researcher
Universities UK
Graph showing growth

England's 10 devolution deals now cover 16.1 million people. More deals are likely to follow, and universities are playing a key role through their leadership, skills training and national and international links.

The agenda is wider than local growth, with Greater Manchester, for example, receiving devolution of powers for criminal justice and devolved budgets for health and social care. 

However, most devolution deals still need to be agreed by local councils, and so are effectively in incubation. Some councils have been making public denunciations of their deals, and there will need to be much behind-the-scenes politicking to pull councils together and help the deals hatch. 

The formation of devolution deals also provides a window into university engagement with wider local growth developments. Let's take a look at two: 

European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) 

You may or may not have heard of ESIF, but you've probably seen the EU logo next to buildings in your area. The roughly €7 billion pot of money funds projects aimed at creating growth and jobs, and the legacy of previous funding rounds can be seen in community arts centres, innovation hubs and skills training initiatives around the country. The programme is also a success story for universities, which have led  projects, worked with businesses and communities, and contributed the matched funding needed to unlock such investments. Universities UK has supported the sector's preparations for the programme, and universities are engaged more than ever before. 

Devolution deals are shaping ESIF delivery. The model has been for each to propose 'intermediate body' status for the area. This means that decisions taken about project suitability will shift from national authorities to local level, with eligibility decisions remaining centralised. This shift would put England ahead of some other European countries regarding local ESIF decision making (although on fiscal devolution more generally the UK is far more centralised), and is partly the result of continued pressure from local government on Whitehall departments to embed localism in the programme. 

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) 

England's 39 LEPs remain an important foundation for localism. LEPs are the main conduit for ESIF funding, and they also control the £12 billion Local Growth Fund

We first examined the engagement of universities with LEPs two years ago, and collaboration has continued to grow through staff secondments and support of   strategy development. All but one LEP has a university represented on the board and many innovation or skills subcommittees are chaired by university staff. We encourage this representation to be maintained on the strategic committees that will oversee other economic geographies such as the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse

A March 2016 National Audit Office report found that LEPs have grown significantly but had 'serious reservations' about their capacity to deliver and the increasing complexity of the  landscape. However, LEPs have celebrated their fifth birthday and have become a stable part of the growth infrastructure. As they become more embedded and build a deeper institutional memory they will be critical for delivering future policy, including science and innovation audits and devolution deals. 

As LEPs are partnerships between businesses, councils and education providers, they are a valuable force and should be supported in understanding local needs, providing effective responses, and helping deals to hatch. 

The role of universities in England's local growth infrastructure has continued to strengthen and grow. They will be essential for successful, sustainable devolution in the future.

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