Local areas have been given greater agency in their own economic futures through the development of Local Industrial Strategies (LIS) – and universities and businesses are in the vanguard of creating these documents and will take much responsibility for delivering on their ambitions.

Better balancing the UK economy is a collective effort with collective rewards. Done carefully, it stands to unlock capacity for growth in productivity, jobs and absorptive capacity across the country. Just as different collaborations draw on different strengths and produce different outcomes, so places have distinct parts to play in the economic growth story. Partnership between higher education and industry has been part of the local growth conversation for decades.

In recent years, even as Sir Andrew Witty recommended that universities sit on Local Enterprise Partnership innovation boards, this joint involvement has been increasingly formalised. Universities are hefty local economic actors in their own right of course. But it’s at the junction between their activity and that of regionally embedded firms that so many multipliers can be unlocked.

“Partnership between higher education and industry has been part of the local growth conversation for decades.”

Government is supporting the development of Local Industrial Strategies across England’s LEPs and Combined Authorities. These were initially rolled out over a number of trailblazers which are being published now – but the starting gun has been fired for local leaders across the country to draw up their LIS in the coming months.

Following the example set by the Science and Innovation Audit programme, LIS are a clear policy expression of Government’s commitment to decentralisation of economic and growth-related planning. They are expected to be evidence-based assertions of real capability and opportunity – and to roadmap activities and interventions to maximally leverage these assets. This reflection of real capacity is key. Places are unique and their opportunities and challenges are too; on closer inspection, points of competition can sometimes be complementarities; and apparent limitations can lead to virtuous specialism.

As a name, perhaps ‘Local Industrial Strategies’ does not quite capture the crucial importance of engaging the research base. But we see it happening everywhere. Universities are working with their business-led LEPs to identify mutual goals and integrated activity. Teaching, research and knowledge exchange are all taking place with some relation to the needs and capabilities of places. And interactions being nurtured and their value captured regionally. We are seeing real co-authorship and real co-ownership.

Government and agencies are offering valuable explicit and implicit steers to sustain this effort. The Strength in Places Fund has funded 24 consortia – from an original applicant list of around 100 – to develop final bids bringing together research organisations, businesses, and local leadership on projects that can deliver real growth and productivity gains across the UK. These seedcorn applications will be narrowed down to between 4-8 sizeable interventions which can leverage quality research and innovation partnerships.

The importance of this is clear. Understanding how collaboration can make places more successful – and therefore more attractive to more investment and growth – can unblock years of sluggish growth and productivity to national benefit. And higher education and industry are at the heart of the architecture that can make it happen.

This article first appeared in the 2019 State of the Relationship report published 19 June 2019.