Bridging the gap: bringing local evidence to national policy

Urgency to address regional disparities is clear and urgent shouldn’t mean we invest in untested, ideas, policies or businesses without evidence or strategy
Photo: Kay Roxby/Alamy Stock Photo

By James Canton

19 Jun 2023

Levelling up – it's a slightly controversial name for an uncontroversial idea. While you can quibble with the exact meaning of "levelling up" and how best to achieve it, the need to address regional disparities is clear and urgent. But that urgency shouldn’t mean we invest in exciting, but untested, ideas, policies or businesses without evidence, a plan or strategy. We first need to know how to invest and where, we need policy expertise, and we need local know-how. 

At the moment, we’re often lacking access to precisely this kind of detailed local evidence and knowledge to address regional disparities, and it’s holding us back.  Here’s how a pilot scheme run by the Economic and Social Research Council, together with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Innovate UK, aims to contribute to addressing this problem. 

The local/national evidence gap 

The challenges for local and regional policy development are often magnified by: 

  • a limited capacity to evaluate ‘what works here’ 
  • data not being available for the right areas or the right geography 
  • a limited capacity to engage in local areas, whether with universities, businesses or local communities 
  • a limited ability to tailor approaches to local need 
  • a limited understanding at the national level around local challenges and opportunities 

This means new policies and programmes can be developed and implemented with limited capacity to learn from broader evidence, previous experience or to learn from the new activity. 

As research funders we are working with researchers, local policymakers and the civil service to help address some of these challenges by making it easier to work together around challenges that matter to local areas. 

Bridging the gap 

This is where the Local Policy Innovation Partnerships programme comes in. LPIPs is a £23m, UK-wide investment spread over four years with the aim of supporting sustainable and inclusive economic growth and reducing regional disparities in the UK. It will generate detailed evidence about local opportunities and challenges and providing actionable solutions based on a knowledge of ‘what works here’. 

Right now, ten projects are using £50,000 each of seed corn funding to work with local stakeholders, including local authorities and businesses, developing proposals to host one of four multimillion-pound LPIPs in their regions from late 2023. 

Those that get the funding will then work hand in hand with local policymakers, businesses and charities to:  

  • work with communities to understand the challenges faced by local people and organisations through workshops, research and partnership working 
  • provide access to critical data and evidence through data dashboards, reports and publications 
  • test new approaches to policy in local areas to understand what works and why  

Their aim is to understand what is needed in the LPIP areas, from how to protect the East Anglian coastline, to tackling health and social deprivation around Glasgow to addressing challenges in the rural economy in Wales.  

This approach will provide evidence and policy advice at a more granular, local level. It will help us to avoid top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions that fail to recognise the specific conditions and priorities of each area. 

National applications 

That is not to say, however, that the lessons learnt will be confined to the areas where the LPIPs are based. The projects will be supported by a national co-ordination hub, hosted by the University of Birmingham, that will connect the network with national policymakers. 

The LPIP programme will enable national policymakers to access people, places and evidence of what is working in various local areas, especially when national support might be required. It will also test the role collaboration can play in understanding what works in local policy, generating insights for other areas while strengthening skills and resources. 

In this way, it aims to give national policymakers the insights they need to use the lessons learnt at a local level to improve lives across the UK. 

What this means for the civil service 

As a project aimed at both national and local policymakers, the civil service is of central importance to the LPIPs. The projects we are funding have the potential to provide you with knowledge around effective place-based approaches to drive sustainable, inclusive growth and reduce regional disparities. 

We, at ESRC, in the LPIPs and in the LPIP Hub, need your engagement with the projects to make this programme work. 

Case study: Social Mobility Innovation Partnership

The Social Mobility Innovation Partnership: City Regions LPIP will focus on social mobility with an initial geographic coverage of the Greater Bristol area. Addressing:

  • Access to skills, education and meaningful employment opportunities to improve local outcomes
  • Sustainable living, exploring ways to improve access to the natural environment, make domestic enrgy more sustainable, and improve transport mobility
  • Enhancing community engagement and participation in local change initiatives

The Social Mobility Innovation Partnership is a partnership hosted by the University of the West of England with the University of Bristol, Bristol City Council, West of England Combined Authority, Black South West Network, Babbasa and Bristol Green Capital Partnership

Please get in contact if you have an interest in engaging with this scheme. 

James Canton is deputy director of public policy and engagement at the Economic and Social Research Council

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