Local growth: some thoughts on the preliminary findings of the Witty Review

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Yesterday BIS published some preliminary findings from Sir Andrew Witty's Independent Review of Universities and Growth.

The review set out to explore how univsersities can support growth by working with local organisations including the new network of LEPs.

Sir Andrew correctly identifies that universities can play an important role in supporting growth, but:

  • There is room to improve SMEs' access to universities
  • SMEs can find universities difficult to engage with: for example it can be difficult to know who to contact within a university
  • This is a key issue because supporting innovative SMEs will be a key way to help ensure greater commercialisation of the cutting-edge research generated in UK universities.

Of course, universities are far from the only drivers of growth in a local area. LEPs will have a role to play in developing strategies for their areas that deliver growth. With regard to these strategies:

  • While EEF would argue that a national overarching Plan for Growth should be a starting point for LEPs' growth plans, it is sensible that sectoral strengths, clusters and supply chains should also influence LEPs' local growth plans. That said, Sir Andrew's point that “England is smaller than the areas covered by some sectoral clusters in the USA” is a pertinent one.
  • There will need to be collaboration between LEPs on supporting the component parts of each sector as a whole, and this should be an important factor when it comes to assessing LEPs' growth plans.

This does feel like it's picking up in the right direction of travel. Looking at where things go next with LEPs, we need to ensure that what they do goes with the grain of the way that businesses look to collaborate, innovate and work with external organisations. For this reason, we might have some concern if LEPs were enabled to make investment decisions in R&D commercialisation.

The recent move towards delivering innovation support through the TSB – a national agency – was a positive one. It removed confusing regional support and reduced the potential for duplication of efforts – something that is particularly important given the relatively small budget for innovation. As such, we are concerned that innovation funding could be channelled through LEPs. LEPs are likely to develop expertise that could help to shape and inform how the TSB allocates its funding, but the ultimate decision should lie with the TSB, which itself has oversight of national priorities.

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