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The Warwickshire hearing - 4 September 2015

Leamington Spa Town Hall - Location for the Chancellor's Commission Warwickshire HearingIt is under ten miles from Coventry Old Council House to Leamington Town Hall, but the second Chancellor's Commission hearing - focusing on Warwickshire challenges and opportunities - provided important juxtapositions to, and some distance from, the city themes of the Coventry event.

The Warwickshire hearing, chaired by Sir Richard Lambert, convened three tiers of local government - county, district and town council represented at Leader, Councillor, Chief Executive and officer levels; together with major role players - sub-regional to town; colleges, commerce to community.

The discussions - always purposeful and constructive - provided strong illustrations of the multi-faceted spatial character of University impact on place and community. In addition to the metropolitan agendas of Coventry, the University of Warwick (UoW) needs to understand and engage intelligently in development of Leamington Spa (as a highly successful and growing sub-regional centre). It should also contribute to diverse urban and rural county communities - large and small, affluent and deprived.

Jim Graham - Chief Executive of the County Council - recognised 'fuzzy (and inconsistent) boundaries' within which the UoW and partners must operate. How can decision-makers determine priorities of thematic and geographic focus in this uncertain and fluid context?

Given the hearing's location, Leamington Spa featured extensively in the discussions. With a population over 50,000, including many thousand students and staff, the UoW makes major contributions to the town's ambiance (described as vibrant and 'quirky'), and to housing, transport, and business configurations.

How should Leamington sustain and build on its success over the medium term? A 'sustainable housing demonstrator' project (as part of a Joint District/University Student Housing Plan); deepening sports and community wellbeing collaboration; UoW support for evolution of the town's growing gaming industry (and the 'Silicon Spa' brand), were the types of initiatives discussed.

At county level, prominent themes include population pressures and whether there should be an increasing 'University of the Third Age' dimension to UoWs footprint. Building aspiration and attainment in schools, stronger links with Colleges, a specific 'tackling underachievement' experiment (perhaps with Coventry University involvement) were also mooted.

Alongside differences, there are considerable synergies with the Coventry hearing discussions.

The Commission must consider how individual dialogue and initiatives sit within systematic and holistic UoW/local framework(s). 'Good practice' - whether existing, like 'Warwick Volunteers', or new experiments - need to be capable of being replicated and scaled up. The University's potential as an intelligent and expert problem-solver, as a source of evidence and advice, or even as an independent arbiter/mediator can be a powerful instrument for future local success. Joint research programmes, internship schemes, and a 'pooled public sector training' facility are examples of the types of interventions that might further these goals.

I shall finish these reflections with two points at differing ends of a continuum from local to global (or at least national!).
All delegates consider personal contacts and mutual understandings (professional and institutional) are crucial to making the most of UoW/local opportunity. There were examples quoted where a change in personnel had set back purposeful collaboration. The Commission should reflect on how to institutionalise (in a positive sense) strong personal bonds - to mitigate this risk of disruption.

The session was also enriched with examples from Dundee (a two-university town whose gaming industry has been integral to its reinvention as a 'tech nation' pace setter); and Nottingham (an example of the growing importance of universities as anchor institutions when traditional industry and large employer 'anchors' decline/change). Global insight and 'learning' will be an important part of our final report.

As with the Coventry hearing, this is only a snapshot of a stimulating and wide ranging discussion. I am very grateful to those who contributed - and invite them to post their reflections, or, indeed, comment on mine.

Further hearings will be convened in October with a local/neighbourhood and regional/Midlands focus. Should you want to participate in either of these; or if you wish to have a bilateral discussion with the Commission, please get in touch, in the first instance, with either myself, or Jo Thomas, Project Manager (jo dot thomas at warwick dot ac dot uk).

David Marlow, September 2015