Thinking collaboratively for public affairs – a fresh approach to the Northern Powerhouse

Anyone who witnessed these jaw-dropping drones in action at the launch of the Great Exhibition of the North last month will know that, from as early as 1829 when Stephenson’s locomotive Rocket was built on the banks of the Tyne, the North of England has been serious about innovation.

And in 2018 this means getting serious about the Northern Powerhouse – or rather Northern Powerhouse 2.0 as it has been dubbed by Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry. In policy terms, the question for many northern universities then is how to capitalise on this newfound momentum – working with our partners and collaborators to ensure that the interests of the north are represented across the breadth of government policy.

The historic influence of Northern universities

It has long been held that universities based in the North of England (or indeed any university based outside of the ‘golden triangle‘ of London, Oxford and Cambridge) are disadvantaged by their location when it comes to political access within Westminster and Whitehall.

From experience, this is true to an extent – there is certainly further to travel to be part of the action, and sometimes it is more difficult to take up opportunities at short notice. But beyond the inconvenience of a longer train journey, should location really be viewed as a significant obstacle to political engagement?

As universities become ever-more sophisticated in their approach to public affairs and stakeholder relations, I would suggest that a far more important factor in determining a university’s level of influence is the political character of the region in which it is located, rather than its proximity to the capital.

In the North East, for example, only three of our 29 MPs are from the governing party, and of these only one of these holds a government role. Compare this to 2000, when six members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet were North East MPs. Notwithstanding the strong relationships our universities enjoy with regional MPs and officials from across the political spectrum, it is true that there our now fewer opportunities to exert direct influence through our nationally elected representatives than there have been previously.

New opportunities

Of course, in its place a wealth of new opportunities have come to light, with the regional agenda at its heart. For example, we now have four Metro Mayors for Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Tees Valley, and a fifth one anticipated to join them shortly following finalisation of the North of Tyne Devolution Deal. We have 11 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), each with its own specific place agenda but with a host of shared priorities. And we have the weight of the Combined Authorities, working together to support pan-regional economic growth. By moving decision-making closer to those affected, there is an opportunity for a more collaborative approach to policy making and a clear incentive for greater cross-party working. As anchor institutions, universities are ideally placed to play a significant role in directly contributing to this process, and by bringing together stakeholders across a wide range of regional objectives.

Strength in numbers

Of course, while a new political backdrop can provide opportunities for universities, it also creates a distinct and growing stakeholder landscape, which is challenging to navigate. Universities need to be flexible enough to respond to the here-and-now while also keeping a view of the long-term; they must be prepared to engage with a multiplicity of stakeholders and coalitions, however unlikely; and have the ability to recognise the likelihood of future developments so that we may respond with alacrity. A tough ask.

In this context, how can we streamline our political affairs efforts to achieve the greatest impact? Here, I suspect, there is strength in the collective – is it time to issue a rallying call to those involved in policy engagement across the Northern universities (a sort of Northern Power-ballad if you will) to ensure that our core messages and priorities are heard?

There are already a range of initiatives to which we might contribute. For example, the minister announced last Friday that the government will invest £500,000 into NE11, a new initiative bringing together leaders of the 11 LEPs based in the North of England. In time, this will lead to a new Council for the North, reporting directly to government. And the N8 research partnership, already active in bringing together research-intensive organisations across the North of England, has been asked to bring together the region’s 30 universities to create an Ivy League of the North, offering a unique voice for universities in government.

Each of these initiatives is reflective of the great potential for collaboration across the region – whether under the banner of the Northern Powerhouse or not. The challenge will bring together our sometimes disparate priorities around a core set of shared objectives. Director of SOAS, Valerie Amos, has talked about the need for universities to unify around a select number of key messages at a national level, and the same appears true at regional level. Each will naturally wish to pursue their own sets of place-based priorities, yet find sufficient common ground so that the issues that matter most to universities across the North are heard. How this might work in practice remains to be seen – I don’t know about you, but now feels like just the right time to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.

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