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Making the Towns Fund fit for purpose in levelling up

Tracy Bhamra, David Marlow and Jon Walker have been working on a Town Deal for Loughborough as part of the Towns Fund initiative - and find the policy in need of some pepping up.
This article is more than 3 years old

Tracy Bhamra is pro vice chancellor (enterprise) and professor of sustainable design at Loughborough University

David Marlow is the CEO of Third Life Economics

Jon Walker was previously the Director of Enterprise Development at Loughborough University

The Towns Fund is a “levelling up” programme targeted at left behind places outside the metropolitan cities that are more often the focus and recipients of place-based development funding.

Recently, the UPP Foundation recommended that part of the government’s £3.6bn Towns Fund should be specifically earmarked to support university engagement in these places.

During 2020 Loughborough University has been working with Loughborough Town Deal Board to define what university engagement in a Towns Fund programme might mean in practice in our 70,000 population home town.

While the invitation to Loughborough to submit proposals for a Town Deal is a catalyst for the university to refresh and reimagine our contribution to our place post-pandemic, our experience has led us to question whether the Towns Fund as currently conceived can make a substantial and sustained contribution to national levelling up priorities.

The Loughborough model

The most important and challenging of our initiatives, and the one that we believe could act as a model for other town deals, is the Loughborough University as an Anchor Institution (LUAI) initiative. This binds together the breadth or our interventions with a facility to use the knowledge aggregation, research and analytic capabilities of the university for evidence-informed policy development, delivery management, and for enabling meaningful business and community participation in the town’s future.

The Loughborough Observatory at a scale appropriate for a large town can build local capacity, capability and commitment to robust intelligence-led support for setting priorities and making decisions. Where Towns Fund recipients have a local university at scale, this seems to be a valuable building block in the TIP menu – although not one envisaged in the original government guidance.

One of the major learning points from the Town Deal process for us, our colleagues and partners is just how difficult it is to assemble and deploy granular intelligence at the level of a large town in a non-metropolitan area where most data is administrative geography rather than place-based. This will only increase with the new demands of pandemic management, turnaround and recovery.

Additional activity includes developing a careers and enterprise hub in repurposed retails space in the town centre, adding our expertise to a new, smart, travel corridor along the town’s primary east-west axis, with our LEP expanding the Enterprise Zone in the Science Park, and connecting business to our new town centre hub, the science park and the whole university knowledge exchange ecosystem through a Wayfinder business accelerator programme.

The key strengths of our model are:

  • Building and tailoring the knowledge and intelligence systems so towns can make and deliver better policy and investment decisions.
  • Providing, in partnership with local colleges, access points so that communities and businesses can easily access the education, skills, and research, development and innovation ecosystems
  • Being visible and proactively engaged in the major post-pandemic grand challenges – including repurposing town centres.
  • The university playing its role as a constructive member of collaborative purposeful local leadership teams, using its influence and independence to bring together partners with different motivations and maybe even to champion and support leaders from non-traditional groups and interests.

Policy challenges

Our experience to date is that the Towns Fund is far too small and semi-detached on its own to be decisive in catalysing significant and sustained activity. For instance, were the Loughborough Town Deal to amount to £5 million annually over six years, in a town economy with a GVA that around £2 billion this amounts to a stimulus probably under 1/400th of the town’s economic value-add.

As a catalytic fund it needs to be much more closely aligned with mainstream economic and social funding – but guidance is relatively silent on alignment and synergies with BEIS, LEP, UKRI and programmes to come like Shared Prosperity Fund; and also key Covid-19 themes such as NHS public health and DWP employment interventions.

The lack of revenue funding through the Fund is a massive barrier to actually delivering transformational change and even to working up ideas into investment ready propositions. As far as we can, both the university and college have tried to identify some revenue match, but, without a revenue pot, impact will be slower and highly constrained.

Expectations of business investment and community involvement need to recognise the extraordinary circumstances in which Towns Fund is being allocated. To expect pre-Covid-19 models of attracting private funds or involving communities to be achievable is highly optimistic. The university can play an important role in terms of providing the spaces for businesses and communities to think beyond their urgent immediate crises, and the expertise to explore ways of de-risking investment decisions for the private sector.

Government itself needs to acknowledge these factors in the way it appraises and negotiates the TIP Heads of Terms – and carve out the bandwidth to do this with over 100 applicants.

Cold spots

The Loughborough model does not directly address the “cold spots” argument for towns without a local university at scale. This is important, because, of the 100 Town Deal invitees, arguably only 13 have this character of an HE footprint, and Loughborough is the only one of 71 invitees with a population under 100,000 with its own university.

One possible approach for cold spots might be task groups of regional university associations working together with the towns themselves, other relevant cold spots, Mayoral Combined Authorities and LEPs to define and develop solutions. Yorkshire Universities, for instance, have 15 Town Deal candidates of whom none host a local university at scale.

We could look at our Midlands Engine partners if that scale of geography makes levelling up sense. Alternatively, perhaps there is a bespoke solution to be considered for the tri-city region with our partner universities in Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, the two LEPs, our nine Town Deal applicants, and undoubtedly some other cold spots of sub-regional significance in the tri-city region.

The Town Deal process was an important catalyst for us and local partners to start thinking about the civic university of the future. We consider we have made significant progress in setting out our own civic university agreement with the Loughborough TIP. In so doing, we hope we are making a positive contribution to the agendas set out in the UPP Foundation post-industrial towns work in particular and to civic university policy and practice in general.

The projects outlined in this article were part of an earlier version of the Loughborough Town Investment Plan and do not reflect those in the current submission.

One response to “Making the Towns Fund fit for purpose in levelling up

  1. Really interesting to hear about the experience in Loughborough – Newcastle University is working with Blyth and I would completely agree with your analysis. I wonder if there is value in Universities working on Town Deals sharing experiences and influence policy? Perhaps through Civic Universities Network?

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