Getting to know your local universities, by David Marlow

On the cusp of a spending review expected to be 'brutal', the need to engage proactively, in innovative ways, with successful local 'anchor institutions' is acute.

In many towns and cities, the most prominent of these 'anchors' are the universities - large, non-profit (AND commercial) 'businesses', with primary social purposes, and significant attachments to their locations.

Last year the Russell Group of (24 more research intensive) universities (HEIs) analysed impact of their members' investment plans. These amounted to £9bn to 2016/17, generating cumulative impact over twenty-five years approaching £100bn GVA and 100,000 jobs.

Capital investments in these programmes include new 'districts' of major cities like London, Manchester and Cambridge; global-quality medicine, engineering, and office buildings; extensive residential accommodation and social facilities.

The Russell Group sit within a sector approaching 3% of UK value and employment (akin to chemicals, automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors combined). They are universally amongst the most important economic actors in those locations in which they are based. Their impact and influence on planning priorities and activity should be profound.

I am currently Executive Commissioner of the University of Warwick (UoW) Chancellor's Commission on future contributions of the university to Coventry, Warwickshire and the Midlands. Our emerging findings are of profound relevance to readers of this title.

First, relationships with local universities need to go well beyond efficient, effective processing of individual applications. There needs to be deep understandings of long term aspirations of Universities, and physical options for those ambitions. Larger campuses are like towns in their own right. Capturing and enabling campus growth through collaborative strategic and policy planning processes is a challenge which can become a 'signature chapter' of Local Plans.

Second, externalities - such as housing and transport consequences - need to be openly discussed, with joint commitment to their resolution. In Coventry, for instance, the two universities (UoW and Coventry) have grown, over fifty years, from small facilities with student numbers in the hundreds, to institutions approaching 50,000 students and over 9,000 staff.

In an ambitious city of 330,000 residents, these 'co-anchors' represent a major component of what Coventry is and may become in the future. We have floated ideas for a new type of quasi statutory joint housing plan (with Coventry and Warwick local authorities and the two HEIs) to better shape local housing markets.

Third, the university ought to be a major source of knowledge and capability to address overarching challenges facing the city - physical, economic, social, environmental, 'smart' etc. New strategic research partnership(s) can provide dividends to both city and university.

Finally, as I started with the spending review, Universities might play a major role in defining fiscal localisation - optimising their significant contributions to business rates (including enterprise zones), CIL/development contributions, economic and social investments, and public services reform.

These sorts of 'win-win' relationships won't happen automatically. They need energy and effort from councils and universities. Planning members and officers should be at the forefront of these processes. They might just provide amongst the greatest returns cities and communities will see from planners over the coming period of further austerity.

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