Category Archives: Economic Development

Into 2017 on the Front Foot…

ABRE is looking forward to an exciting year of research and evaluation in 2017 – a year which will be shaped by the 2016 EU referendum, the changing role of evidence, new innovative research methods and opportunities for professionalisation in evaluation. Here are some reflections and useful links for the year ahead!

Firstly of course, the UK’s decision to leave the EU is seismic and begins a long term process of transforming uncertainty into opportunities for economic development and other sectors. While UK Government funding commitments to 2020 are welcome, they also heighten the need for organisations to get their ducks in a row for a new operating environment in the near future. For example, funders’ increasing emphasis on demonstrating accountability and value for money already appears to be generating a culture change in the voluntary and community sector. The message for all seems to be get ready for change.

The past year has also seen a public diminishment of facts and experts on both sides of the Atlantic, in politics at the macro level but also at much more micro levels as reported in the ABRE blog one week before the EU vote. The research and evaluation community has a lot to do to win confidence in a changing world. Sites such as Sense about Science, Full Fact, BBC R4 More or Less and The Guardian’s Reality Check provide useful starting blocks (for the UK at least). Similarly, from this year’s personal reading list, the paper on New Political Governance by Jill Anne Chouinard and Peter Milley provides a helpful primer from North America on some key considerations when a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to evidence exists.

More positively, 2016 has allowed for some exciting new research approaches and innovations. ABRE has recently been collecting video feedback from participants in a Big Lottery funded youth employment programme, and development of the Assess-Evaluate-Develop Framework has progressed with the website launch in July and continued refinements into 2017.

ABRE also continues to support steps to enhance the evaluation profession in the UK, which has involved Andrew’s participation in the UKES Voluntary Evaluator Peer Review (VEPR) pilot in March, attendance at the UKES national conference in May, and election to the UKES national Council in December.

Many thanks to colleagues, clients and friends in 2016, and ABRE looks forward to continued work together throughout 2017. Finally, end of year thoughts with the family, friends and colleagues of David Kay who will be sadly missed but whose enthusiasm and kindness of character will be fondly remembered!


Remember, remember the 6th of November, a memorable day for the North?

Originally posted 6th November 2014


Deputy PM Nick Clegg addresses the Northern Futures summit in Leeds, 6th November 2014

The Northern Futures summit was hosted by the Centre for Cities today and was an opportunity for civic leaders, businesses, residents and other stakeholders to discuss ideas on how to create an economic core in the North of England that’s globally competitive.

The day involved the pitching of nine ideas contributed to the Northern Futures team over the past four months, along with keynote speeches from Jim O’Neill, Chair of the City Growth Commission, and Prof. Ed Glaeser of Harvard University.

Five quick points from the day:

  1. Enhancing skills was probably the most cited and widely agreed on theme of the day, both at the level of schools (importance of teaching quality) and employers (increasing demand for skills uplift). There was also a recognition of entrepreneurial skills as key drivers of growth.
  2. Transport improvements, largely in terms of road/rail infrastructure and services, received popular support among participants, but there were questions raised whether they could be treated as fundamental to growth. Local connections within city-regions and inter-city connections across the North were both viewed as high priorities.
  3. There was no clear consensus on the importance of decentralisation to economic growth in the North, although there was support from councils for greater autonomy in an environment of budgetary pressures. There was recognition that the Greater Manchester agreement represents the thin-end of the wedge.  There was a sense that a lot of the ideas are not especially new (i.e. references to The Northern Way), but the opportunity for cities to have greater control of their economic growth was seen as a new development.
  4. The pitched ideas have implications across a range of scales, from local empowerment, selling the North as the economic alternative to London at the national level, and calls for cities to work together to be relevant at the global level. There was also debate on whether the greater emphasis on cities leading growth would be at the expense of rural areas and smaller towns.
  5. This is just the beginning. The day was a success in terms of bringing together many civic leaders and policy professionals, but there was also recognition that the audience did not represent the diversity of the population at large, and that change would be gradual.  The call from two local Year 13 students at the beginning of the event to be “youthfully ambitious” was frequently referenced throughout the day and this is fitting given that a lot of the proposed structures and collaborations are at a youthful stage of development.  The Chancellor’s Autumn statement would appear to be the next opportunity to hear next steps ahead of the run-up to the 2015 general election.


Deputy Prime Minister’s Office (2014) Northern Futures Summit Draft Communiqué, (retrieved 6 November 2014)

Ideas for the North of England in 2030

Originally posted 21st October 2014


How should cities like Sheffield develop in the future?

If you’re aware of the UK Government’s Northern Futures consultation, you will have seen that they’ve been seeking ideas on future growth for the north of England and a vision for 2030.  The range of opportunities and challenges this opens up is vast and makes it difficult to know where to start.   A limited scan of evidence however finds that certain areas may have a meaningful impact on creating an economic core to compete with the biggest cities in the world.  This includes:

  • Connecting the north through world class transport services and infrastructure
  • Promoting inward investment and international trade in the north
  • Advancing existing sector specialisms to develop renowned centres of industry and learning
  • Encouraging and embracing sustainability as part of a northern identity

What will happen as an eventual outcome from the Northern Futures consultation (with a general election seven months away) is a separate question.  At this point in time, this set of suggestions simply scratches the surface and highlights areas that government and other stakeholders may wish to consider when developing plans in the north of England.  It also advocates the importance of having a solid evidence base to inform future decision-making. Further commentary on each idea is provided below.

Ideas for the North – pdf

1. Connecting the North

Improved transportation and travel services across the north of England could offer several important benefits, not least the economic impacts from reduced congestion and shorter journey times.

Focusing on the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) regions between Lancashire and the Humber, Figure 1 highlights how many people commute to work by car, van or train within each of the LEP regions and how many commute in and out of the surrounding LEP regions.  It shows that the number of people commuting between cities in the north is a small fraction of the number travelling within the city regions.

From one perspective, this could suggest that any future investment should perhaps be directed at improving services within the city regions that people actually use already.  Alternatively, it could be interpreted that people aren’t commuting between northern cities precisely because of the current state of transport.  This is an area that would certainly benefit from further research.

North Commuting

Figure 1: Number of People on a Daily Commute Within and Between Northern LEP Regions by Car, Van or Train. Source: Office for National Statistics (ONS), Census 2011, Origin-Destination by Mode of Transport

2. Promoting the North

There is potential to re-examine how the north of England is promoted around the world for inward investment, tourism and trade.  At the moment, LEPs in the north are playing an active role in inward investment but also rely on UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) for the delivery of investment projects. This is in contrast to the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London that have separate teams with responsibility for project delivery.

Publicly available data on inward investment is limited, especially at regional and local scales, and Figure 2 provides a breakdown of the 1,773 inward investment projects undertaken by UKTI in 2013.  It also includes a column chart which finds that the number of projects in England (excluding London) is generally lower than other parts of the UK according to size of population, number of businesses and value of the economy.

The relatively strong performance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland suggests that the north of England could do more to get to these levels.  For example, it might be advantageous for the north to have an individual team responsible for project delivery, similar to the devolved nations.


Figure 2: UKTI Inward Investment Projects in 2013. Source: UKTI Annual Report 2013-2014; ONS Mid-Year Population Estimates; ONS Business Count; ONS Regional Trends

3. Centres of Industry and Learning

The north of England has a considerable number of large companies and institutions that are well embedded in the region and offer valuable supply contracts to surrounding firms.  There are also examples like the AMP in Rotherham, the Centre for Life in Newcastle and Sci-Tech Daresbury in Halton where long-term investment and partnerships are helping centres to become world-renowned.

Figure 3 presents the number of enterprises employing over 1,000 people in the north and it finds that there are up to 325 large organisations in the private sector alone.  Dedicated local or regional support to key employers and greater recognition of firms that call the north home could potentially encourage a shared spirit of growth among northern business leaders.


Figure 3: Enterprises Employing 1,000 or More People by LEP Region, 2013. Source: ONS, Business Count

Centres of excellence and innovation not only emerge from world class employers though, they also come from world class universities.   As shown in Figure 4, higher education institutions across the north had over 500,000 higher education students enrolled in 2012/13, including many international students.  The impression they take away of the north will likely influence whether they stay in the region or come back to work in the future, bringing their skills with them.


Figure 4: Number of Higher Education Students Enrolled on Courses by LEP Region, 2012/13. Source: Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA), Students by HE Provider, 2014

4. Sustainable and Green

A final idea is to encourage and embrace sustainability to the extent that it becomes part of the north’s identity and at a level that competes with leading sustainable cities in Europe such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  This could help to address issues as diverse as affordable housing, supporting an aging population, energy security, environmental protection, and improving health and quality of life.

There are relatively few indices that track the sustainability performance of UK cities but one example is the Sustainable Cities Index produced by Forum for the Future between 2007 and 2010 which covered 20 UK cities and 13 indicators. Figure 5 lists the average ranking for each city over the four years of the index.

As can be seen, Newcastle is the highest ranking city in the north, followed by Leeds and Sheffield.  Four other northern cities are in the bottom half of the ranking list; Manchester, Sunderland, Liverpool and Hull.  If steps were taken to transform the north into a more sustainable economy, the northern cities ranking poorly between 2007 and 2010 could be setting the highest standards for the rest of the country by 2030.


Figure 5: Sustainable Cities Index Average Ranking (1-20) between 2007 and 2010. Source: UK Sustainable Cities Index, Forum for the Future, 2007-10


The Northern Way (2011) Transport Compact 16/10/14)

Campaign for Better Transport (2014) Right Track North webpages (retrieved 16/10/14)

UK Trade & Investment (2014) Annual Report 2013-2014 16/10/14)

HESA (2014) 2012/13 Students by HE Provider (retrieved 16/10/14)

Forum for the Future (2007-2010) UK Sustainable Cities Index (retrieved 16/10/14)

Siemens and Economist Intelligence Unit (2009) Green Cities Index (retrieved 16/10/14)

City Growth Commission (2014) Unleashing Metro Growth: Final Recommendations of the City Growth Commission, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) – (retrieved 22/10/14)

Swinney, P. & Bidgood, E. (2014) Fast Track to Growth: Transport priorities for stronger cities, Centre for Cities – (retrieved 22/10/14)

West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority (2014) Midlands Connect: How better connectivity will maximise growth for the Midlands and the nation – (retrieved 22/10/14)

One North (2014) A Proposition for an Interconnected North – (retrieved 22/10/14)

An English decentralisation decade?

Originally posted 15th September 2014


Deputy PM Nick Clegg endorsed findings from the IPPR North report ‘Decentralisation Decade’ in Sheffield on Friday 12th September 2014

Comparisons to 2004

It’s fitting that the latest report from the IPPR North sets its sights on a future decade of decentralisation because it also reminds us to take stock of the political environment ten years ago. [The same good timing can be applied to the ResPublica report ‘Devo Max – Devo Manc’ published three days later on 15th September 2014].

In 2004, similar to now, the deputy PM and MP for a northern English city was campaigning on the benefits of greater decentralisation to a generally disinterested public while governance structures evolved in the background and warnings were voiced over a democratic deficit.

Decentralisation was still riding the wave from devolution campaigns in the home nations and London between 1997 and 1998 and the underlying thinking seemed to be that the English regions would follow suit, albeit using their own model. This hit the buffers somewhat when the 2004 referendum in the north east rejected plans for a regional assembly.

So what’s changed?

Without going into great depth, a lot has changed in English governance and economic development structures since then, not least the 1994 regional boundaries and agencies going out of favour, the political drive for localism, local mayors and support for combined local authorities, and the designation of the 2011 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

Centralisation of many functions has eroded and reshaped the middle tier(s) between local government and national government, as reflected in the IPPR North report’s recommendation to enable partnership bodies between local authorities and functional economic areas (e.g. LEPs, combined authorities, police forces) at a ‘mezzanine’ or sub-national level.

Some things haven’t changed though. The IPPR North report notes the continued lack of appetite for new tiers of government in England, while also recognising that imbalances from centralisation and public disenchantment with Westminster continue to exist.

Despite the IPPR North report being published within one week of the Scottish referendum, the publication of a national report on English decentralisation has still come as something of a surprise and raises questions whether its legacy will be to generate short-term publicity or longer-term policy impacts. Time will tell if decentralisation becomes a newly favoured version of ‘localism’.

Personal observations

1. Two main pillars: National government and local government are the two pillars of governance in England (excl. London) that generate the most engagement from the public and businesses, whereas functional economic areas and other regional levels mean many things to many people. On the one hand, middle-tier structures enable joint working between local authorities, promote economies of scale savings and act as a potential interface for decentralisation from central government. On the other hand, criticisms are levelled over unsuitable or changeable boundaries, democratic deficits, lack of necessity and poor value-for-money.

2. Flexible roles and geographies: A wide range of sub-national governance scales and structures operate in England, more so now compared to ten years ago. Instead of building up fixed identities or regional maps though, it might be more helpful to view the middle-tier of English governance as one flexible environment subject to changeable geographical boundaries that suit varying needs, conditions and demographics. Notably, the IPPR North report highlights how the Greater Manchester combined authorities model might be suitable for enabling decentralisation, but this may evolve over time as joint-working develops at one or more ‘mezzanine’ levels (e.g. across the north of England).  [Similarly, the ResPublica thinktank report ‘Devo Max – Devo Manc’ proposes considerable devolution of powers to the city-region].

3. Long-term planning: Too much flexibility carries its own risks too though. Any new governance structures that are set up through decentralisation should offer a level of certainty and confidence among citizens and businesses, potentially being promoted as protected, time-limited entities that are subject to regular scheduled reviews (much like the European structural funds or framework programmes). This also offers the benefit of smoother handovers to any future reorganisations of the sub-national level. Any entities with lifetimes covering multiple parliaments would require particular protection.

4. Democratic dilemma: Any serious decentralisation of powers raises questions of democratic accountability, with the decision to hold direct elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) representing one approach to addressing this. The continued lack of public appetite for middle-tier democracy in England creates a democratic dilemma however, whereby it may be more appropriate to form governance boards of directly elected local and/or national representatives. In any scenario, it looks likely that models of democracy for any new governance structures would have to be handled on a case by case basis.

5. Holding national government to account: There is a danger that perceived failings of centralisation become self-fulfilling and accepted wisdom, and that decentralisation is viewed as an easier option than tackling national government inadequacies. Before any significant decentralisation takes place, proposals would have to shine the spotlight on the national level and the ‘Westminster bubble’ to assess and demonstrate that imbalances or faults really are inherent in the system.

6. What about neighbourhoods?: The IPPR North report also touches upon the role for governance below local authority level, although it is still unclear how the role of parish or neighbourhood councils will develop beyond encouraging greater community participation.


The two pillars of local and national government seem to offer greatest stability and recognition among citizens and businesses, whereas history and evidence suggests that a well-functioning middle-tier plays a very important governance role as well. What this level looks like and how it supports any future decentralisation is open to argument however, aside from noting that one size doesn’t fit all.

For any future planning of middle-tier governance, it may be helpful to promote greater recognition of its flexible role, as well as a political commitment that any organisations operating at this level are given sufficient time, resources and security to make a mark.


Cox, E. Henderson, G. & Raikes, L. (2014) Decentralisation decade: A plan for economic prosperity, public service transformation and democratic renewal in England, IPPR North, (retrieved 14th September 2014)

Blond, P. & Morrin, M. (2014) Devo Max – Devo Manc: Place-based public services, ResPublica, (retrieved 15th September 2014)