Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Horizon Europe goes live

Horizon Europe is finally a reality. After months of false starts, soft launches and stalled negotiations, 22 June saw hundreds of funding calls published on the European Commission Funding and Tenders Portal. Researchers, institutions and other organisations can now access the seven-year, €95.5 billion research and innovation programme.

Horizon Europe is the ninth European Research and Innovation Framework programme (2021-2027). In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one of the key instruments of the European Union’s efforts to steer and accelerate Europe’s recovery, preparedness and resilience.

The initial work programme covers the period 2021-2022 and consists of €14.7 billion in funding, which will be allocated based on competitive calls for proposals.

Around €5.8 billion in total will be invested in research and innovation to complement the European Green Deal and the EU’s commitment to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Supporting the EU’s goal of making the 2020s ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’, core digital technologies will receive around €4 billion over 2021-2022. Finally, direct investments of around €1.9 billion will be made towards helping repair the immediate economic and social damage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

“With 40% of its budget devoted to making Europe more sustainable, this Horizon Europe work programme will make Europe greener and fitter for the digital transformation. Horizon Europe is now fully open for business: I would like to encourage researchers and innovators from all over the EU to apply and find solutions to improve our daily lives.”

Associated Countries: UK in, Switzerland out

Although the European Commission has yet to secure final agreements with non-EU countries on participation in Horizon Europe, a 17 June document revealed a list of 18 countries where association negotiations are ‘being processed or where association is imminent’.

The 18 provisionally associated countries are: Albania; Armenia; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Faroe Islands; Georgia; Iceland; Israel; Kosovo; Moldova; Montenegro; Morocco; North Macedonia; Norway; Serbia; Tunisia; Turkey; Ukraine; and the United Kingdom.

Most notably, while the UK is in, Switzerland has been excluded. Reports cite Swiss government officials as saying the European Commission did not give any notification of its intention to exclude the country from provisional access to Horizon Europe.

Writing on Twitter, Senior Policy Officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Laura Keustermans described the move as not only bad news for Switzerland ‘but also very bad news for everybody involved in EU Research and Innovation’. LERU President Kurt Deketelaere also responded, urging the Swiss Government to work to gain access for the Swiss research and education sector, ‘which benefited greatly from association to EU programs in the past’.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is urging researchers to start applying for Horizon Europe funding, with UK researchers and companies eligible for all Horizon Europe calls, apart from applying for equity funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). The UK will also have to reach agreement with the Commission on rules for participating in sensitive projects in quantum and space technologies.

Free events mark programme launch

To mark the official opening of Horizon Europe, the European Commission arranged two free-to-air conferences for all citizens and stakeholders.

The European Research and Innovation Days, the Commission’s annual flagship Research and Innovation event, was held on 23-24 June. Policymakers, researchers, innovators, and other stakeholders took part in over 70 sessions and workshops to discuss the future European research and innovation landscape. Sessions included ‘tips and tricks’ for writing Horizon Europe proposals; an overview of the Commission’s Funding & Tenders Portal; discussions over lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic; and an overview of the Africa Initiative in Horizon Europe. Recorded sessions from the event can be accessed via the event platform.

Running from 28 June to 9 July, the Horizon Europe Info Days will provide an in-depth overview of some of the main funding channels provided under Horizon Europe. The sessions will specifically focus on the six Clusters under Pillar II – Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, ­as well as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Research Infrastructures, and Widening Participation and Strengthening the ERA (European Research Area) strands of Horizon Europe. With the exception of the Cluster 3 – Civil Security for Society session on 30 June, the event is open for participation without prior registration, and attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions, find out what is new in Horizon Europe and obtain further details about how the programme will operate. Interested parties can access the event’s online portal here.


ResearchConnect: the essential source of research funding information

This post was written by our colleagues in ResearchConnect, a specialist research funding database built for and designed by the international research community.

ResearchConnect’s up-to-the-minute database covers all of the key research disciplines and is updated by an expert team who monitor and report on a wide range of funding sources including charitable trusts, government, research councils, foundations and corporate sponsors. The ResearchConnect team maintains regular contact with funding administrators and policy managers across a wide range of sources, providing advance notice of new funding opportunities and policy changes.

For more information, visit the ResearchConnect website.

Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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Can the arts recover from coronavirus? (part 1)

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No part of society or the economy has been untouched by the coronavirus outbreak, but as the situation develops globally, it has emerged that the arts, culture, and heritage sectors may be among the hardest hit. Organisations and individuals are working hard to adapt and deliver art in more creative ways than ever, but there is real concern about the lasting effects the pandemic could have on the cultural and creative industries, and the extent to which they will manage to recover.

The impact of coronavirus on the arts, culture and heritage sectors

Back in March, the UK government’s implementation of lockdown and strict social distancing measures led to the sudden and indefinite closure of cultural spaces such as theatres, museums, galleries and cinemas, and the cancellation or postponement of pretty much all events, performances, and festivals across the country. This suspended the usual operations of most cultural institutions, leading to uncertainty and potentially devastating financial losses for those working in the sector, particularly freelancers.

Many involved in the creative industries have expressed concern about financial sustainability, and about how a crisis like this may deepen the sector’s existing inequalities. In the UK, the creative industries employ around two million people, and approximately a third of these are freelancers – the group likely to be the hardest hit by the cancellation of events and projects.

The cancellation of summer festivals and gigs has particularly affected freelance musicians, comedians and performers who often rely on the festival circuit for a substantial proportion of their income.

On top of the immediate financial concerns, artists have expressed worries about the effect of the coronavirus on their visibility, as long-planned projects grind to a halt.

A recent report published by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland estimated that the average loss of earnings for individuals in Northern Ireland’s arts sector was £3,756 between March and May 2020, and the total income loss for organisations was approximately £3.97 million during the same period. Arts Council England have been conducting similar research to gauge the impact of the crisis on the arts sector in England, and are expected to publish their findings soon.

A series of recent webinars delivered by OECD addressed the impact of the coronavirus crisis on museums, and the wider cultural and creative sectors. Museums are at immediate risk due to the dramatic reduction in revenue and charitable donations, and the livelihoods of their staff and freelance professionals are in jeopardy as a result. The loss of income across the wider arts sector has the potential to wipe out a significant proportion of its creative framework. In the longer term, museum ecosystems may be seriously damaged by the loss of smaller creative companies and professionals, on whom museums rely for creative outputs. OECD also warned that the sudden withdrawal of museums from local development projects could have a lasting negative impact on their local communities.

Similar concerns are raised in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland report, which emphasises that the suspension of public classes, workshops, community outreach initiatives and work within schools, usually provided by arts organisations, is likely to have a profound impact on Northern Ireland’s local communities and place vulnerable people at risk.

What is being done to help?

Across the UK, emergency funding programmes have been launched to support organisations and individuals at risk.

Arts Council England has offered £160 million of emergency funding (almost all of its reserves), to protect England’s arts, museums and libraries. The funding package aims to support individual creative practitioners, as well as organisations at risk. As part of this programme, they are continuing to fund their existing National Portfolio Organisations, even where agreed projects cannot go ahead.

Arts Council Wales has allocated an initial £7 million to an urgent response fund, with the hope that  funding will increase through collaboration with other trusts, foundations, and charities who are able to contribute. Arts Council for Northern Ireland has combined £500,000 of their own funds with £1 million from the Department of Communities to create an emergency fund for artists and creative organisations.

Creative Scotland have launched three new emergency funding programmes, as well as guaranteeing that all previously committed funding awards will be honoured regardless of event cancellation. They have also encouraged recipients of their funding to honour their pre-existing agreements with artists and freelance professionals.

Businesses and employees in the sector are receiving support from the government’s furlough scheme, and freelancers can apply for government grants as part of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.

A variety of independent funding schemes have also been set up by charities and non-profit organisations across the UK to support organisations and individuals.

What next?

The arts sector is in serious danger as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The assistance on offer has the potential to help individuals and organisations to stay afloat for the time being, but as lockdown persists and social distancing measures seem set to continue for the foreseeable future, there are already concerns that the funding on offer at this stage is not going to be enough. The second part of this blog series will consider how the arts sector is responding to the crisis, and what is needed to help its recovery going forward.


Part two of this blog post will appear on Wednesday 13 May.

Further posts on our blog concerning the arts and culture include:

Further education: happy-ever-after for the Cinderella sector?

“It has, I believe, been an old complaint among many concerned with the technical side of education that that part of education has been the Cinderella. Well, the Government is determined that even if there was any truth in that in the past, there shall be none in the future.”

That forthright pledge came, not from a politician in our own times, but from the president of the board of education in 1935. Almost a century later, further education (FE) is still struggling to break away from its position as an overlooked and under-resourced Cinderella sector.

The importance of FE

FE matters in many ways to many people. Through FE, individuals can get a second chance to obtain qualifications, equip themselves for higher education, and improve their employability or chances of promotion, as well as enjoying countless health and wellbeing benefits.  Employers look to FE  to provide a workforce with the skills they need. So many of the services we rely on today depend on people who learned their skills in FE colleges, from car mechanics to care workers, hairdressers to housing managers. Not incidentally, the wider economy benefits from the improved productivity, increased tax-take and knowledge transfer that FE delivers. In spite of all these benefits, FE colleges attract less attention and funding than schools or universities, and their impact is not so widely recognised.

The Cinderella factors

In 2018, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education identified six key issues affecting FE policy in England:

  • English FE is not defined clearly and stably;
  • the strength and continuity of FE colleges have been undermined by multiple and changing funding sources and funders, frequent government reviews and frequent substantial policy changes;
  • increasing numbers of college lecturers are employed on zero hours contracts;
  • mergers and closures have undermined colleges’ community and employment functions;
  • competition among the multiplicity of private bodies awarding FE qualifications is leading them to make their qualifications easier to attain;
  • cuts in FE funding have greatly weakened colleges, leaving them under-resourced.

The hardest-hit service

As the Ontario study noted, funding is a key factor in the precarious position of FE in the UK, something echoed by further research. An independent review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, reported that in 2018 English universities received £8bn in government funding to support 1.2m undergraduates, while just £2.3bn was allocated for the 2.2m full and part-time students aged over 18 in further education.

A further report, published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies  found that over the last decade further education and skills spending for young people and adults received the largest cuts across all areas of education spending.

The House of Commons Education Committee has also identified FE as the hardest hit part of the education sector:

“Participation in full time further education has more than doubled since the 1980s, yet post-16 budgets have seen the most significant pressures of all education stages. Per student funding fell by 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – twice as much as the 8% school funding fall over a similar period.”

Witnesses contributing to the Committee’s investigation were in no doubt that FE has been hit harder than other parts of the education sector because it doesn’t have the ear of politicians in the way that schools and universities do. As one contributor put it:

“…there are more votes in schools than colleges.”

Remedies and recommendations

The Augar review observed that there is a powerful case for change in the FE sector, and made a number of recommendations to improve the quality, capability and capacity of England’s FE college network, including:

  • a national network of colleges should be established, with a dedicated capital investment, and the integration of small, local colleges into groups;
  • full funding should be provided for all students participating in study for levels 2 and 3 to remove barriers to social mobility and productivity;
  • the reduction in the core funding rate for 18 year-olds should be reversed;
  • Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funding rules should be simplified, and government should commit to providing an indicative adult education budget;
  • the government should invest in the FE workforce as a priority;
  • FE colleges should have a protected title, as universities are entitled to.

The Augar recommendation that £3bn should flow to colleges, along with a one-off £1bn capital funding boost for the national network underlines the need for government to take further education seriously. As things stand, FE is still awaiting a definitive government response.

FE in the rest of the UK

Scotland
In Scotland, where FE colleges provide around 71 million hours of learning to over 242,00 students each year, financial pressures are increasing. A 2019 Audit Scotland report noted that Scottish colleges are operating within an increasingly tight financial environment. It reported that 12 colleges were forecasting recurring financial deficits by 2022-23. The report suggested that there is scope for the Scottish Funding Council to work with individual colleges and their boards to improve financial planning and to achieve greater transparency in the sector’s financial position. More recently, research by the principals of Scotland’s two largest colleges reported that FE boosts Scotland’s GDP by £3.5bn a year.

Wales
The 2016 Hazelkorn review made recommendations for post-compulsory education in Wales, including a new Tertiary Education Authority to distribute funding to universities and colleges, and to shape the vision of the post-compulsory sector. The review also recommended that education policy and institutions should be more focused on Wales’ social and economic goals. The Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations.

Northern Ireland
Six regional colleges, operating across 40 campuses, are the main providers of technical and vocational education in Northern Ireland. In 2016, the Northern Ireland Executive reviewed FE, resulting in a strategy with nine themes covering areas such as economic development; social inclusion and delivery. It includes a commitment to, in partnership with the colleges, review the funding model to ensure that it supports and incentivises colleges to deliver the strategy. With the resumption of the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the hope is that the government can work with the FE sector to meet the challenges of funding and the needs of the economy.

Cinderella no more?

Further education is the backbone of the UK’s efforts to meet the country’s growing skills gap, and may hold the key to improving productivity and social mobility. But OECD figures show just 37% of men and 34% of women participate in further education (compared to averages of 49% and 44% respectively across other industrialised countries). Clearly, more needs to be done to help FE level up.

Earlier this month, in his first Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed the Conservative Party’s election manifesto commitments for FE, including £1.8bn for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to upgrade college buildings. There are also high hopes that more money will be delivered to FE in the autumn spending review.

The FE sector has welcomed the change in approach. Following the Budget speech, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: “Today showed a clear shift in attitude towards technical and vocational education, after a decade of neglect.”

It might still be too soon to forecast a happy ending for the Cinderella sector, but the signs are that FE is coming in from the cold.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Spinout success: commercialising academic research

Research and teaching in UK universities is widely recognised to be among the best in the world.  In fact, the University of Oxford has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 for the fourth year in a row.

However, in November last year, venture capital firm Octopus Ventures published a new measure of UK universities’ success – the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking.

Instead of focusing on traditional measures of success, such as research, teaching and citation impact, Octopus Ventures’ new index measures UK universities’ effectiveness at translating this research into commercial success via the creation of “quality, investor-ready spinout companies”.

The results are a little surprising – with Queen’s University Belfast reaching the top spot, ahead of big players such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

In this blog post, we consider these findings in more detail, and discuss the potential to further capitalise on the potential of spinouts in the UK, and the key factors that underpin their success.

A brief history of spinouts

A university spinout has been defined by Octopus Ventures asa registered company set up to exploit intellectual property (IP) that has originated from within a university”.

In other words, it is a company that has been established based on ideas derived from a university’s research.  Often, former or current researchers are directly involved in the management team, and start-up funding is provided by the university (or one of its connected venture funds).

UK universities have been allowed to commercialise the results of their research since the mid-1980s. Between 2003 and 2018, approximately 3000 IP-based spinouts were created by UK universities.

Since 2010, there has been a notable increase in investment into university spinouts – both in terms of the number of deals achieved and the amount of money invested in university spinouts, from both private and public investment sources.

High rates of success

There is good reason for this increased investment – the survival rates of spinouts are high compared to other types of start up enterprise.  Research published in 2018 by law firm Anderson Law found that nine out of ten spinouts survive beyond five years.  By way of comparison, only two out of ten new enterprises survive beyond five years in the wider start-up environment.

Indeed, many spinouts not only survive, but thrive.  The UK has produced a large number of very successful spinouts – for example, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a University of Oxford spin-out company that has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.  ARM Holdings is another example – a designer of smartphone chips, established by the University of Cambridge, and acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2018.

Unrealised opportunities

However, while the UK has seen a number of high profile spinout success stories, Octopus Ventures, argue that there is yet more untapped potential to be realised:

The UK has produced a host of successful university spinouts, but there are many unrealised opportunities that have been left in labs or got lost on their funding journey. These could be worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy.”

This potential is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the unrivalled success of many universities in the United States.  Take, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  MIT has been the genesis for around 26,000 spinout companies, with a combined annual company turnover of US$2 trillion.  This is a huge amount from one university – and is equivalent to around 65% of the UK’s entire annual GDP!  The resultant spinouts have also created in the region of 3.3 million jobs. MIT clearly illustrates the huge potential that exists to capitalise on universities’ research.

Index results

Back in the UK, this massive potential has yet to be realised.  Indeed, one of the key aims of the new Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking is to identify where this potential exists, and which universities are making notable progress towards capitalising on it.

The key data points included are:

  • total funding per university;
  • total spinouts created per university;
  • total disclosures per university;
  • total patents per university;
  • total sales from spinouts per university.

An interesting element of the index is that it is also adjusted to account for the total funding that a university receives.  This means that it is not dominated by Russell Group universities simply on the basis of them receiving the most funding.

Indeed, Queen’s University Belfast was ranked first – putting it ahead of both the University of Cambridge (2nd place) and the University of Oxford (9th place) in terms of its production of spinout companies and successful exits, relative to the total funding received.

Queen’s University Belfast, through QUBIS Ltd, the university’s commercialisation arm, has had a number of spinout successes, including KainosAndor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In Scotland, the highest ranking university was the University of Dundee (6th), which has had a number of successful spinouts, including Platinum Informatics, which specialises in the provision of software to analyse ‘big data’.

What makes a successful spinout company?

As well as identifying the most effective universities in terms of spinouts, the Octopus Ventures report also looks at the shared success factors that have contributed to their effectiveness.

There are three key factors:

  • Funding – Access to early funding is essential to success. Universities that ranked highly in the index were ones that raised funds to help get ideas off the drawing board. As Simon King, a partner in Octopus Ventures states: “Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts.  That’s a key takeaway.”
  • Talent – the issue of talent is considered a ‘consistently challenging’ issue for spinouts.  There is a huge demand for the right skills, and spinouts are often viewed as being high-risk propositions compared to more established enterprises.  Other challenges include a lack of academics’ understanding of the business world, and limited incentives for them to engage in the commercial world in light of the pressure to ‘publish or perish’.
  • Collaboration – As well as university-industry collaboration, collaboration between different universities was a key factor in the creation of successful spinouts. Collaboration helps to increase both scale and capacity, whilst also helping to attract and retain top talent.

Future support for spinouts

Measuring the relative effectiveness of UK universities’ ability to commercialise their research provides a number of signposts for the future in regards to how best to support and further develop this potential.

This is increasingly important given the economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the availability of a number of European funding streams once the UK leaves the European Union.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy places a clear emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism as a driver of economic growth.  And in 2018, the UK Government launched the £100m Connecting Capability Fund to support university collaboration in research commercialisation.

Commercialising academic research is far more complex, risky and expensive than establishing a typical start-up.  But their potential contribution to the economy, and wider society, is huge.


Further reading: our blog posts on higher education

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Shared Prosperity Fund – greater productivity and inclusivity for Scottish cities?

new bridge glasgow

There are many questions surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union, not least on the future of funding.

In Scotland’s regions and cities, EU Structural Funds have provided significant additional funding to support economic development for many years. The current structural funds programme is worth about €10.7 billion to the United Kingdom and up to €872 million to Scotland across the seven-year budget period which ends in 2020. The Funds were originally created to help rebalance regional social and economic disparities. With regional inequality a dominant feature of the current economic landscape, and the potential of Brexit to further exacerbate this inequality, continued investment to address this is vital.

The UK Government has made no commitment to continue with the EU Structural Fund approach following exit from the EU and has instead proposed to introduce a domestic successor arrangement – the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The objective of the SPF is to “tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of our country whose economies are furthest behind.” This objective is widely welcomed. However, as yet there has been no formal consultation on the new Fund and no detail on how it will operate.

Nevertheless, it had been suggested in recent research from the Core Cities Group on Scottish cities that despite the significant contribution from Structural Funds over the years, the proposed SPF could be an opportunity for greater productivity and inclusivity.

Success of EU Structural Funding

The two major EU Structural Funds utilised in Scotland are the European Social Fund (ESF), focusing on skills and jobs, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which focuses on correcting regional imbalances.

Over £134m per annum is being invested in economic development in Scotland through these funds over the current programming period, which is supported by a significant amount of match funding, largely from the public sector. According to the Scottish Government, the total funding will be around €1.9 billion.

The Scottish Cities – the collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness Perth, and Stirling) – and city regions have already successfully invested in each of the four Scottish Economic Strategy priorities (innovation, investment, inclusive growth and internationalisation) and the UK Industrial Strategy’s five foundations of productivity (ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place).

Some examples of projects include:

Research suggests that the ending of such funding poses a risk to organisations and the positive economic impact gained, as illustrated by reductions in funding in other areas of the UK.

Limitations

Despite the successes that have been achieved through the use of Structural Funds, the approach is not without its limitations. As argued by the Core Cities report, the approach to managing, overseeing and using the funding has become more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Particular issues highlighted include:

  • increasing centralisation of funding and decision-making;
  • the requirement to provide match-funding at an individual project level becoming increasingly problematic due to public sector budget cuts;
  • monitoring, compliance and audit requirements have become increasingly onerous;
  • in the current programme period, the role of the Managing Authority has become more transactional, with little engagement at the project development stage;
  • eligibility rules restrict what can be funded, with some important elements of economic development no longer able to be supported e.g. new commercial premises, transport infrastructure, which can limit the benefits from other Structural Fund investment (such as business growth and employment creation on strategic sites);
  • the system does not encourage innovation, with high levels of risk aversion amongst programme managers, and a high degree of risk for project sponsors if project delivery does not proceed as planned – a particular issue for projects working with the most disadvantaged groups and those with complex needs.

The report argues that these factors have had the effect of limiting the achievements of the Funds, such as preventing some organisations from applying for funding, which in turn has made others wary about applying. This has led to projects being designed to meet the funding criteria rather than maximising benefits, resulting in too much time and effort on administrative activities rather than those which will have an impact on the economy.

As such, it is suggested that the introduction of the SPF affords an opportunity to change this.

Opportunity for change

According to the report, there is an opportunity to move away from the limitations of the Structural Fund programme approach to more effective arrangements that will increase productivity and contribute to a more inclusive economy. There is scope to increase the funding available through the SPF, reduce bureaucracy and become more responsive to local need.

It is suggested that there is potential for SPF investment in the Scottish Cities to deliver an economic dividend of up to £9bn as productivity increases, producing higher wages at all levels in the workforce, and contributing to a more inclusive economy overall.

Given that Scotland’s performance on some of the key economic indicators is likely to be taken into account when allocating SPF – GVA per job and per hour worked, employment rate, deprivation levels – the report also contends that there is a case for a greater share of the SPF for Scottish Cities. It argues that significant SPF investment in these areas “…will increase competitiveness and tackle inequality, as set out in Scotland’s Economic Strategy, as well as contributing towards the objectives of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, raising productivity and reducing inequalities between communities”.

The report warns that “Scotland will not make significant progress towards a more inclusive economy and society without addressing the deprivation challenges in the Scottish Cities.”

It is recommended that:

  • the SPF should use a transparent, needs-based allocation system;
  • the SPF budget should not be determined by previous levels of Structural Funds, and should be significantly increased; and
  • the Scottish Cities must be closely involved in the design of the SPF.

Final thoughts

There appears to be wide consensus for providing a replacement for EU Structural funding. Most organisations that have commented on the proposed SPF also agree that the level of funding should at least be maintained at its current level.

The concerns in Scotland, and indeed the other devolved legislatures, is the impact the SPF might have in devolved decision making powers currently exercised under EU Structural Funding.

The Scottish Cities have made clear their views on the proposed SPF and the Scottish Government has also launched its own consultation on how the Fund might work for Scotland.

Only time will tell whether the UK Government will take these comments on board, and indeed whether the opportunity for change will be realised at all.


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Former Universities Minister sets out plan to increase R&D funding in the UK

The relationship between the Government, the private sector and universities in promoting R&D and the commercialisation of research is explored in a new report by former Universities Minister and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, David Willetts.

The report, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London, sets out his personal view of the current state of research funding policy. While welcoming cross-party plans to raise R&D spending from 1.7% of the UK’s GDP to 2.4%, the report proposes a series of measures and guiding principles that would help Government to both achieve this ambition and further strengthen the UK’s research sector.

Boosting R&D funding

The plan identifies priority areas of additional funding, in particular the need for a ‘substantial increase’ in the core budgets of the Research Councils, covering a wide range of disciplines.

However, the report goes further and suggests that the current political consensus regarding the need for more funding for R&D should also be used to tackle some of the nation’s biggest and longest-running research challenges, particularly applying and commercialising research. Overall, the system should be well-balanced between the pursuit of fundamental understanding and of usefulness.

Willetts argues that some of the UK’s problems in applying research (in comparison to other countries) arise because much more of our research is conducted in universities where the incentives work against successful commercialisation. This includes the emphasis on academic publication as a measure of performance.

At the core of the report is a 12-point plan designed to boost British science and technology and ultimately attain more value from it.

University research:

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80%.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.

Business

  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1% of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

A strategic approach to innovation

The report also examines Conservative Party proposals to introduce a British version of the American DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The history of ARPA/DARPA in the US has been characterised by an approach which is free from the constraints of peer review and more able to support risky projects with a significant chance of failure. The report outlines how such a body might work in the UK, and states that lessons could be learned from how confidently US funders track and invest in technology compared with a relative lack of confidence and doubts about the UK’s capabilities that exists within the UK.

Promoting the UK’s research community

Launching the report David Willetts said: “These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”


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Supporting perinatal mental health: from peer-support to specialist services

There is a societal expectation that pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby are happy and exciting times.  However, it may come as a surprise to learn that up to 1 in 5 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby (also known as the ‘perinatal period’).

Up to 1 in 10 women may develop postnatal depression, however, there are actually a number of other mental illnesses that can affect women during pregnancy or following birth.  These include:

  • Antenatal depression
  • Perinatal anxiety
  • Perinatal obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-partum psychosis

These illnesses can range from mild to severe.  Left untreated, perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating effect on mental and physical health.  In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during the first year after pregnancy.

The wider impact on children and families

Perinatal mental illnesses can also impact upon children, partners and significant others.  Research shows links to depression in partners, higher rates of divorces, lower levels of emotional and cognitive development and higher levels of behavioural problems and psychological disorders among children.

As well as the high human cost, there are also a number of economic costs associated with failing to address perinatal mental health needs. Research commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.

In comparison, it would cost only an extra £280 million a year to bring the whole pathway of perinatal mental health care up to the level and standards recommended in national guidance.

Access to specialist services is a ‘postcode lottery’

The good news is that most mothers who experience mental ill health can and do make a full recovery.

At present, mild to moderate cases of mental ill health in pregnancy and following birth are treated by the GP through anti-depressants, talking therapies and/or support from a community mental health team.  For more complex or serious illnesses, GPs can make a referral to specialist perinatal mental health services for expert advice and support.  This may involve staying in a specialist psychiatric Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) – where mothers and their baby can be admitted together.

However, despite the high prevalence of, and risks associated with, perinatal mental illness, access to specialist perinatal mental health services across the UK is a postcode lottery.

Maps by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance show that women in around half of the UK have no access to specialist perinatal mental health services.  There are currently no MBUs in Wales or Northern Ireland, meaning mothers with more serious or complex mental illnesses often face either being admitted to a MBU far from home, or being admitted to a general psychiatric ward without their babies, in order to receive treatment.

For those with mild to moderate mental illness, waiting times for NHS talking treatments can be many months.  Lack of awareness means that many cases of mild to moderate mental ill health go undiagnosed and untreated.  There is an urgent need for both greater awareness of mental illness and better access to mental health services across the country.

The role of peer-support

In recognition of and response to the need for better access to mental health support for pregnant and new mothers, a number of local ‘grassroots’ peer-support projects have been established by dedicated volunteers and campaigners.

One such project is Blank Canvas.  Blank Canvas is a creative journaling workshop in Lanarkshire, aimed at women during pregnancy or in the first two years since birth, who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

The project was set up earlier this year by midwife Elaine Connell, together with some of her midwife colleagues, who shared her dedication to improving mental health support for women in the perinatal period.

Elaine was keen to start her own peer support group following her own personal and professional experiences of perinatal mental ill health, and was inspired by the success of other projects focusing on art and creativity, such as Maternal Journal.

As Elaine explains:

It is free… …to access, and each attendee is given their own art kit to keep. We have a different theme each week and have guest speakers coming to do sessions also. During the group they can explore new art materials and create reflections in their journal, whilst chatting over some tea and cake. Each session they will take home a prompt card which can inspire their journalling during the week until the group meets next.”

Blank Canvas is free to access and works on a self-referral basis, with advertising mainly through Facebook.  A local shop and community space (Swaddle in Hamilton) donated a venue space, and all other costs (including materials) have been raised by volunteers committed to the project, through fundraisers such as coffee mornings and participation in the Kiltwalk.

Elaine has conducted an evaluation of the first 10-week block and feedback from participants has been extremely positive.  Word about the project has spread and the next block of Blank Canvas – which started on the 18th September – is fully subscribed (with a waiting list).  As Elaine notes, this is fantastic for the project, but highlights the high level of demand that exists for mental health support among new mothers.

The long term plan is to run 6-week blocks frequently throughout the year, moving to separate antenatal and postnatal sessions in 2020.  Elaine also hopes to start up a creative journaling group aimed at fathers too – noting that father’s mental health is often overlooked.

One of the key things Elaine has learned from the creation of Blank Canvas is that there is a lack of support available for people who want to establish their own peer-support groups:

What has been clear when forming the group, is that there is very little support to establish peer support. There are lots of people who want to help others but who won’t because they don’t know where to begin, or how to access funding, or lack of training opportunities.”

Grassroots peer-support groups are an important source of support for mothers in the perinatal period, particularly in cases of mild to moderate mental ill health, where NHS capacity is strained.

Attending peer-support groups such as Blank Canvas may also have a preventative effect for mums who attend during pregnancy. Statistically, women who experience antenatal anxiety are more likely to develop postnatal depression, and so early intervention could help to reduce that risk.

Urgent need for better access to specialist services

While these projects have been successful, they are aimed predominantly at women experiencing mild to moderate mental ill health.

For those experiencing more complex or serious mental ill health, there remains an urgent need for better access to specialist treatment and support.  The Maternal Mental Health Alliance ‘Everyone’s Business’ campaign calls for all women throughout the UK who experience perinatal mental ill health to receive the care that they and their families need.  Specifically, it demands that:

  • perinatal mental health care should be clearly set at a national level and complied with
  • specialist perinatal mental health teams meeting national quality standards should be available for women in every area of the UK
  • training in perinatal mental health care should be delivered to all professionals involved in the care of women during pregnancy and the first year after birth

Promising signs of progress

There have been some promising signs of progress.  NHS England recently announced their plans to rollout specialist perinatal community services across the whole of England, including the opening of four new Mother and Baby Units.

And in Scotland, the Scottish Government recently announced the rollout of an initial £1 million for perinatal mental health services, as part of a wider £50 million investment in mental health services.  This initial investment will support a range of areas, including supporting the third sector to provide counselling, befriending and peer support for women and their families.  It will also help provide more consistent access to psychological assessment and treatment, by increasing staffing levels and training at Mother and Baby Units, for women with the most serious illnesses.

The Scottish Government also established a Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Programme Board earlier this year.  The PIMH Programme Board aims to help implement the commitments to improving perinatal and infant mental health set out in the 2018/19 Programme for Government and Better Mental Health in Scotland.

Clare Thomson, Everyone’s Business Co-ordinator for Scotland, says “It’s fantastic to see the evidence-based approach to developing community perinatal mental health services and look forward to hearing about the first steps – particularly in the North of Scotland“.

Perinatal mental health is Everyone’s Business

However, there is still much to do, including ensuring that this funding translates into services on the ground.  Wales and Northern Ireland are still without MBUs and there is a pressing need to raise awareness of and address mental illness among fathers.

The cost to the public sector of perinatal mental health problems is 5 times the cost of improving services.  It clearly makes sense to invest in improving this care – not only from an economic perspective, but to help improve the lives of women, their children and families across the country. And while more funding is essential to achieve this, raising awareness of the importance of perinatal mental health really is ‘everyone’s business’.


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“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

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