The higher education sector and local government share many common challenges – reduced financial support from central government, acute housing pressures and facilitating effective community outreach, to name a few. Better collaboration between the sectors has the potential to help improve outcomes in education, health and housing, but too often relationships are purely transactional rather than strategic. LGiU has been working with London Higher, the membership body for London-based universities, to explore these issues and build bridges between councillors and senior university staff.
Following a successful dinner meeting with Leaders and University VCs in Autumn 2018 to identify the most useful areas for collaboration, we were joined by Cabinet Members from London Boroughs and Directors of University Estates for a lively breakfast roundtable in January to explore physical space and infrastructure in more detail, chaired by LGiU Chief Executive Jonathan Carr-West.
To open the session, Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, Director of Property & Facilities Management at University of London, outlined the challenges facing London’s higher education (HE) sector including a huge increase in student numbers and a corresponding shortfall in purpose-build student accommodation, putting additional pressure on the private rented sector. Similarly, teaching and research space is in short supply and their historic building stock is often not suitable for the demands of modern learning environments. The additional funding universities used to receive from Government for maintaining historic buildings has been phased out and they are having to find new ways of funding their upkeep without using student fees. Many universities are expanding into campuses outside central London which could represent opportunities for these boroughs.
To help universities and their partners in the public and private sector to plan the future of HE provision in London, UoL has undertaken an ambitious mapping project. The maps are intended to allow universities and councils to see the opportunities for regeneration and development using data on property prices, current and future estate holdings, student accommodation, new transport improvements, travel time and local planning information. Roland Shanks, Strategic Projects Manager, gave us a demonstration and explained that the maps were developed as a free and open tool – they can be accessed here.
We then opened the discussion to the group, asking how they see the current state of collaboration between the sectors and what could be done to build upon this.
- Councils have huge housing targets from Government and a need to enhance industrial/business space in their local area. This can often cause a conflict when working with HE as there are lots of conflicting demands on the space and councillors must try to balance their statutory obligations with their place-shaping ambitions.
- Due to its size and the sheer number of public sectors organisations operating within it, there are more personal relationships to manage in order to share insights and develop joint plans. It was suggested that an annual conference of London public sector representatives could help in collaborating across this scale.
- There are often tensions among stakeholders when proposing new developments, for example when building student accommodation in a new area or new private housing in the vicinity of established university buildings. There is also nervousness over disclosing use of specialist labs which can attract negative attention. Part of the issue is that universities are often viewed by the public as just benefitting students, while their wider societal impact is less known.
- Universities receive the same income stream regardless of location which is making things difficult in London because of the higher costs.
- To make better use of existing public sector assets, it was proposed that linking up longterm plans across other local bodies such as health and schools could prevent assets falling into disrepair or being sold off. One Public Estate and ePIMS were flagged as useful projects helping public bodies share plans for their physical assets. It was also mentioned that competition between universities for land/buildings was driving up prices and that having a joint strategy would help rein in these extra costs.
- Councils and universities could collaborate on joint venture projects where, for example, the local authority could access the finance through the Public Works Loan Board. Lots of developers are keen to work with HE on joint venture projects but often the proposals do not deliver the best value to the area.
- Although planning is a major area of cross-over, it was agreed that we cannot rely on planning applications to gain insight into each other’s plans. We need to share strategy more proactively at the outset.
- Sharing knowledge could come in the form of sharing/seconding staff and tying in academic research.
- Local government is in a good position to play a brokering role between other local stakeholders, and in particular engaging with local residents with whom they already have good relationships. For instance, councils could signpost resident groups who need community space to universities who can often provide it.
- The problems are different in different boroughs and it is important to tailor the projects to specific local contexts. For instance, some universities have too much real estate while others are desperate for more; some have wide recognition among residents while others aren’t well known in the community.
- Business incubation and work space was proposed as a key area for collaboration. Local authorities are losing a lot of commercial space due to Permitted Development rules but they still need to attract more businesses – universities could help with this.
- Attendees highlighted the importance of ‘slow burn’, organic relationship building with communities, rather than focusing on targets and ‘quick wins’, which requires vision from leadership.
- By sharing the council’s particular priorities, such as tackling obesity or improving dementia support, universities can make sure their wellbeing and outreach activities support their aims.
For more information about University of London’s mapping project, visit the website. They are keen to hear feedback from local authorities on how it can be expanded with new data that would be useful to councils. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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