Covid-19 Recovery Planning, Partnership Working and the Role of Universities in City-Regions

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In this blog, Dr Abigail Taylor summarises findings from a recent WMREDI research project examining partnership working during the pandemic.

WMREDI are today publishing a report presenting findings from a project examining how partnership working has developed during the pandemic and the role of universities in recovery planning. View the project page and report

Research questions
  • What has worked well?
  • What has worked less well?
  • What is the role of universities in city-regional recovery planning?
  • What can be learned from Covid-19 regional recovery planning for informing existing and future partnerships focused on economic and social recovery from the pandemic?

Based on interviews conducted in summer and autumn 2021 with stakeholders with a high-level of engagement in Covid-19 recovery planning and broader local and regional policy and governance activities, the report contrasts experiences in two English regions: the West Midlands and the North East.[1] Focusing on the West Midlands and the North East is interesting because of the regions’ complex contrasting governance structures.

Key findings
  • Covid-19 has been “catalytic” for increased partnership working, facilitating collaborative working across different spatial levels and sectoral boundaries in both the West Midlands and the North East.
  • Partnerships in both regions have become more “inclusive” as the nature of the pandemic required great inter and intra-organisational collaboration. Our interviews emphasised how partners from public health are now recognised as key members of regional strategy partnerships, so enabling more holistic work within place.
  • Interviewees stressed how the urgent and practical nature of the immediate crisis and the design of emergency funding schemes at the local level helped galvanise partners around a shared goal and common sense of purpose to build on existing collaborations.
  • Responding to the pandemic has encouraged more openness and willingness to share data and intelligence. But some aspects of Covid-19 response partnership working, particularly early on, were hindered by challenges relating to sharing data between partner organisations.
  • The mismatch between political geographies and economic geographies in both regions was suggested to have made collaboration more difficult in some instances.
  • While relationships strengthened between those who participated in recovery groups, some interviewees pointed to “frustration” among those who were not included.
  • Some recovery partnerships have encountered challenges balancing and moving between short-term emergency response and medium- to long-term recovery planning, in the context of earlier reductions in local government capacity. Funding constraints and human resource capacity constraints have played a role here.
  • Universities were considered an important intellectual resource in both areas, with a key role to play in supporting regional strategy development. Moving forward, there is a need for universities to focus and identify key activities which will be mutually beneficial to themselves and their partners. Exemplar key activities relate to supporting future sustainable and inclusive economic growth through connecting research and innovation and creating the highly skilled workforce to support this. Developing new delivery models and recognising the role universities can play in addressing skills and labour market issues in partnership is important. Universities have a vital role to play in supporting innovation across the business base.

The diagram above presents key quotes from the interviews. The abbreviations in brackets after the quote indicate the location and job role of the interviewee.[2]


Given the wide-ranging challenges and opportunities that businesses and the economy face going forward, partnership working appears more important than ever if a sustained and accelerated economic recovery is to be delivered in the West Midlands and the North East.

The research identifies six priorities for the shape of future partnership working:

  1. Maintain the partnership groups established during the crisis to provide regular forums for participation and debate.
  2. Provider greater clarity on roles and remits of different groups and member organisations is vital.
  3. Ensure partnerships continue to be open and inclusive. Universities should continue to be included in, and take an active role in, future partnership working (alongside other partners such as combined and local authorities, blue light services, public health, the third sector and business representative organisations) in order to support economic development, health, and wellbeing.
  4. Partners, including regional mayors, need to press government and national funding bodies to develop a funding system that better recognises and rewards universities’ contributions to place.
  5. Organisations should be encouraged to focus on how to embed partnerships into their structures. Rather than just relying on personal relationships (which can be lost as individuals in key roles move on), there may be merit in organisations formalising commitments to partnership working within their organisations.
  6. Developing routes to enable members of partnerships to feedback both internally within their organisations and externally to other partner organisations (who are not part of the group) to ensure lessons are transferred across.

 The research identifies five priorities for the focus of future partnership working:

  1. Responding to crises going forward requires a holistic approach, bringing together economic development, housing, social care, public health, education, environment, and employers.
  2. Nonetheless, there is a danger that if recovery is defined too broadly there will be a lack of focus. Coherent strategies are required.
  3. Understanding new funding streams and working together to draw down funds from central government could help regions to respond to challenges more quickly and effectively.
  4. Continue efforts to support regional data and intelligence gathering and analysis and to influence effective policy design at the national, regional, and local levels.
  5. Engage with the government to champion greater devolution but at the same time, seek to overcome barriers in existing structures to develop a strong regional narrative, which partners can get on board with. There is a need to balance developing a long-term strategy and seeking to change systems to make them perfect.

Find out more about the findings by reading our research report:

Covid-19 recovery planning, partnership working and the role of universities in city-regions

The report was written by:

  • Dr Charlotte Hoole
  • Dr Abigail Taylor
  • Hannes Read
  • Professor Anne Green

The authors would like to thank all of the interviewees who participated in the research for kindly sharing their insights.

We thank Ben Brittain for his help in shaping the research project. We are also grateful to Professor John Goddard for his enthusiasm and guidance throughout this project and for providing invaluable feedback on a draft of this report. In addition, we would like to thank Dr Magda Cepeda Zorrilla for her help with conducting interviews for this project.

[1] In the West Midlands, we focus on the Midlands Combined Authority area. In the North East, we look at experiences in the ‘North East LA7 area’. This refers to the local authority areas of Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland, Newcastle Upon Tyne, North Tyneside, and Northumberland.

[2] ‘NE’ indicates interviewees in the ‘North East’; ‘WM’ indicates interviewees in the ‘West Midlands’. ‘HE’ refers to quotes from interviewees working in Higher Education; ‘LA/CA’ to quotes from interviewees working in a Local Authority/Combined Authority; ‘Other’ to quotes from interviewees working in other organisations.

This blog was written by Dr Abigail Taylor, Research Fellow, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham. 

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The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI or the University of Birmingham

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