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Policy Leeds Partnering with Leeds City Council to identify local knowledge needs


The University of Leeds has partnered with Leeds City Council to develop a series of Areas of Research Interest, identifying the Council’s knowledge needs in the areas of culture, digital, food and inclusive growth.

This is helping researchers to direct their research expertise towards addressing critical policy knowledge needs, and so improve the lives of the people of Leeds. The identified research needs have already guided the development of 13 research projects, representing an investment of £700,000.

Professor Sara González parks her bike outside Kirkgate Market in Leeds City Centre.

Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) were first introduced by national UK Government after the Nurse review of the UK Research Councils in 2015. They set out the most important research questions facing each Government department. These ARIs allow researchers to see where they can best contribute to urgent policy questions, and for more strategic use of limited funding. Since then, ARIs have been developed by the UK and Welsh Parliaments, and other public bodies such as the Food Standards Agency and Met Police.

Leeds City Council, in partnership with the University of Leeds, is now trialling this approach, to activate the immense research power in the city to address pressing policy questions. Over the summer of 2022, we held a series of four focus groups, with key colleagues from the Council and University, to discuss the knowledge needs of the Council in the priority areas of culture, digital, food and inclusive growth.

Discussions took place within the context of Leeds City Council’s Best City Ambition, which sets out their mission to tackle poverty and inequality, and improve quality of life, by improving outcomes across health and wellbeing, inclusive growth, and zero carbon.

The priority areas were selected for being particularly timely. With the launch of LEEDS 2023 City of Culture, the Council is keen to learn and create a legacy from this year of activities to inform development of their next Culture Strategy. Similarly, the Council is currently in the process of finalising its new Food Strategy and doing a refresh of its Inclusive Growth Strategy. A new Digital Strategy was recently launched, produced in collaboration with the now West Yorkshire Integrated Care Board. Digital inclusion, skills, and approaches are all vital foundations for modern life, and we need to get this right for Leeds to thrive.

The knowledge needs identified by the focus group members were drawn together to produce the Leeds City Council Areas of Research Interest for Culture, Digital, Food, and Inclusive Growth. This document aims to start conversations between the Council and researchers, both by surfacing existing research that could go towards answering the questions, and by providing a starting point to shape future research collaborations.

The strength, reach and ambition of the academic institutions we have in Leeds is a huge strength and asset for the city.

"The University of Leeds already plays an important role in our anchors network as a major employer, and our programme of policy-research collaboration is helping to grow and strengthen our relationship further to make an even bigger impact on the ground. We have always valued the wealth of knowledge and innovation that researchers can bring to tackling some of our biggest social and economic challenges — and this programme of collaboration is extending the benefits of our work together into new policy areas in a hugely exciting way. The council is determined to be a partner of choice for researchers to connect with, providing a route to harness the enormous potential of the academic community for the benefit of citizens right here in Leeds.”  Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council

“At the heart of the University Strategy 2020–2030 — Universal Values, Global Change — is that Universities are here to make a positive impact. I am incredibly excited about the prospect of working closely with Leeds City Council, with whom we already share many areas of cooperation and collaboration, to develop this programme of research interests. Themes such as culture, digital, food and inclusive growth affect every single one of us on a daily basis and have never been more relevant in today’s society. Working together, teams across the Council and University will support evidence-informed policy making and its delivery to make a real difference on the lives of individuals and communities across our region.”  Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, University of Leeds

To stimulate activity, the University of Leeds ring-fenced part of its Research England Policy Support Fund allocation for 2022–23 to support projects addressing the Leeds City Council ARIs.

Researchers at the University were invited to submit proposals in autumn of 2022, which were aligned to the identified areas of interest and engaging with Council colleagues. We received a tremendous response, showing both the expertise on offer and the interest in using that research power to make a difference locally. In total, 10 projects were funded responding directly to the ARIs, with a further three projects that are of interest to the Council, equating to an investment of over £700,000 (see our February signpost blog for a list of projects).

This large number of projects is exciting in terms of starting to address the policy challenges Leeds faces, but it also gives a fantastic opportunity to learn what works by seeing the process through from defining ARIs all the way to project outcomes, and whether these successfully contribute to the Council’s work.

The projects are all due to finish by the end of July and we will be holding two workshops that month to share the project outcomes and draw out lessons from the collaborations. This will feed into future work to improve collaborations between the University and Council, including continuing to develop ARIs.

In the meantime, work is currently underway to develop a set of ARIs for Leeds City Council around the theme of place and place-making. An innovation forum will be held in early March, bringing together colleagues from the University of Leeds, Leeds City Council and other city partners to discuss what place means in the context of Leeds and what are the most pressing research questions around this.

While we have made a start, there is still plenty to do. Many of the questions posed are part of much bigger and complex problems. As such, we will need to be ambitious and think about how to integrate these research needs alongside other work to attract external funding. The Council and University don’t have enough resources to address all of these questions on their own and, while Leeds can provide a test case, it’s not the only place that will want answers to these problems.

Where we can find a win-win for collaboration between the University and Council, it will be the people of Leeds who win the most.

Researchers at the University of Leeds interested in engaging with the ARIs should get in touch with Juliet Jopson at Policy Leeds in the first instance. Researchers and knowledge providers from other organisations, should contact Mike Eakins at Leeds City Council.

Thank you to all the Leeds City Council and University of Leeds colleagues who took part in the focus group discussions to shape the Areas of Research Interest. Particular thanks goes to Mike Eakins, Leeds City Council, for support coordinating this work. We also acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the late Simon Foy, Leeds City Council, for his work to drive forward collaboration between the Council and University, he is much missed. This work was supported by Leeds Social Science InstituteHorizons InstituteKnowledge Exchange and Impact team, and Policy Leeds.