Activating Communities for Regional Renewal

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Alison Park, Head of Creating Opportunities of Improving Outcomes, UKRI, and Deputy Executive Chair of ESRC looks at the importance of research and innovation to the UK, and how the Local Policy Innovation Partnerships (LPIPs) program addresses this importance by fostering collaborations tailored to local needs in economic growth, health, and community engagement.

This blog was first published on the UKRI blog.

Research and innovation are crucial to delivering benefits across the UK. But how can we achieve this while appreciating the unique needs of specific areas?

Building and strengthening bridges between important local stakeholders is a vital part of the solution to this puzzle. As someone who spent over 20 years in survey research, I’ve seen first-hand the power of research insight, often rooted in national data collections, in understanding people and populations.

Leading the British Social Attitudes study, for example, I valued its annual pulse-taking of a nation’s shifting perspectives. Yet these national snapshots can lack local specificity. Solving this challenge requires building and strengthening bridges between critical local stakeholders.

As Head of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) creating opportunities theme, I can clearly see this national and local gap demands innovative responses. Where we live, our family background and our life experiences shape our lives from the cradle to the grave.

Work we support draws on and refines what we know about the importance of place to identify new solutions that deliver benefits for communities across the UK, focusing on three specific topic areas:

  • economic growth and innovation
  • health inequalities
  • community connectedness

The Local Policy Innovation Partnerships (LPIPs) embody the aspirations of the theme by supporting bespoke collaborations within local areas that allow them to play to their strengths while meeting their unique needs.

What are these partnerships?

The £20 million LPIPs programme announced in February 2024 represents a groundbreaking new initiative within UKRI’s wider creating opportunities theme. It exemplifies UKRI’s strategy 2022 to 2027 commitment to ‘transforming tomorrow together’ – harnessing the power of collaboration to drive change and its commitment to delivering economic, social and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all UK citizens.

This phase sees UKRI supporting four diverse LPIPs, bringing together devolved governments, local authorities, local businesses, third-sector organisations, and communities to harness the power of research and innovation to address regional challenges.

How did we get here?

The discussions that led to the LPIPs programme began a few years ago within UKRI. They initially focused on the difficulties local areas had in finding research and data about their communities.

We realised some of our national investments provided robust evidence about the UK but could struggle to provide granular local authority insights. As a result, regional policymakers needed more tailor-made evidence to tackle area-based inequality.

It was also clear that local authorities had reduced ability to use research, with teams shrinking due to austerity pressures. Linking academics eager to support local needs with public agencies and other vital local groups seemed a win-win. From extended deliberations, the concept was born.

Crucially, LPIPs are not about parachuting in external experts. Workshops during the design phase highlighted local stakeholders’ hunger to access and apply evidence.

Partnerships across sectors and disciplines

Of course, bringing together sectors that may have previously had limited contact is often easier said than done.

Tensions can arise from different drives – an academic’s desire for peer recognition or a more extended timeline may clash with a community group’s urgency and passion for quick results or a policymaker’s desire for discipline-agnostic research. Yet, challenges like these breed innovation.

For example, it was exciting to hear how the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Innovation Partnership, led by the University of Leeds, involves all the universities and local authorities across the region, along with a pioneering community panel.

With real, lived experience informing decisions, research can shift from talking ‘about’ people to talking ‘with’ people. If these partnerships embed inclusivity within their DNA, they can help empower places that have felt left behind.

Nurturing local partnerships

We developed a competitive two-phase process to help partnerships develop proposals rooted in local priorities. We provided seed corn funding to 10 LPIPs during the initial funding phase.

The February launch event was the culmination of this bottom-up design, celebrating the four partnerships that had proposed the most credible and exciting applications for sustained funding during the second phase of LPIPs. Reflecting their interdisciplinary focus, their funding comes from the creating opportunities theme and three UKRI councils:

  • the Economic and Social Research Council
  • the Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • Innovate UK

Each partnership has its specific priorities rooted in its local needs. The Stirling LPIP, led by the University of Stirling, covers the Forth Valley region water basin. It aims to optimise water resources across the agriculture and energy sectors in that part of Scotland. Its ambition is to demonstrate the power of joining the dots to promote inclusive and sustainable growth by bringing together academics, policymakers and practitioners (including the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Water).

EPIC Future NI, based in Northern Ireland and led by Ulster University, combines researchers, businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive, and local communities to boost skills and employability to tackle economic inactivity. Their emphasis on collaborative policy development will enhance interventions to aid marginalised and ‘hidden’ unemployed groups.

Meanwhile, the Rural Wales LPIP, led by Aberystwyth University, focuses on achieving economic growth in a rural region with low population density and weak infrastructure. The LPIP brings together researchers, community organisations, an enterprise agency, and local communities.

Learning beyond the local

When we designed the LPIPs’ programme, we knew it would be essential to generate national learning without detracting from each partnership’s local focus. Knowing what works in one place is all very well, but what might this tell us about its likely success elsewhere?

The strategic hub is a national consortium at the University of Birmingham. It will work with all four partnerships to identify transferable insights, balancing hyper-local adaptations and portable principles. The hub will also be a vital front door between the LPIPs and national policy stakeholders.

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This blog was written by Alison Park, Head of Creating Opportunities, Improving Outcomes, UK Research and Innovation and Deputy Executive Chair, Economic and Social Research Council.


This blog was first published on the UKRI blog. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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