Examination of Witness

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:27 am on 21st June 2022.

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Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser gave evidence.

9.31 am

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Do any Members wish to make declarations of interest in connection with the Bill? I do not see any Members signalling that.

We will now hear oral evidence from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we will stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has just agreed. For this session, we have until 10.10 am. Dame Ottoline, you are very welcome. Would you introduce yourself for the record?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

It is a pleasure to be here. My name is Ottoline Leyser. As you said, I am the CEO of UK Research and Innovation, which is the main public sector funder for research and innovation in the UK. We invest about half of the public sector research and innovation spend, right across the UK.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q Thank you, Professor Leyser, for coming this morning. I start with a very open-ended question. To what extent do you think the Bill will help achieve some of the goals set out in the levelling-up White Paper?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

Goodness, that is a big question. My interest and expertise are particularly around the R&D aspects of the Bill. One of the really encouraging and exciting things going on across the Government at the moment is the attempt to tackle some of these huge cross-cutting issues, and levelling up is very much one of those things. That absolutely requires concerted, co-ordinated action, right across the Government, through virtually all the Departments, in a way that is aligned and co-ordinated and which really delivers on very broad priorities. Levelling up is a really good example. Net zero is another one.

Those kinds of things require different ways of working. This Bill is one framework in which that kind of joined-up thinking can be set out and embedded in the way in which government works. Yes, I think it absolutely has the opportunity to deliver on the ambitions set out in the White Paper. That depends very much on the alignment between the mechanisms and framework set out in the Bill and the missions element that is core to pushing forward the White Paper agenda.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q The Bill sets out various measures to widen the devolution agenda. It also puts into law the various missions set out in the levelling-up White Paper. For context, will you explain how in your particular area of expertise that fits with the wider agenda of ensuring that research and development spending serves the goals of levelling up, and what that means for UKRI as an organisation?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

Absolutely. Research and development has an important role to play in the levelling-up agenda, in the context of economic regeneration right across the country. What we see at the moment is huge disparity in all kinds of measures, but one of them is total factor productivity across the UK, and R&D-intensive business and industry are critical to generating those high value-add activities that support economic growth across the UK, bringing with them a whole variety of high-quality jobs. One of the things that is important to emphasise is that innovation-led growth is not just about jobs for innovators; it is a huge ecosystem of activity that goes around that, which will provide economic growth and high-quality jobs and opportunities for people in local innovation clusters right across the country.

That is the goal. The role that UKRI needs to play is critical in that. We have this extraordinary opportunity, with the formation of UKRI four years ago, of bringing together all the disciplines and all the sectors. In the same way as I mentioned that cross-Government co-ordination is needed, cross-R&D co-ordination is needed to deliver some of the activities. We span the whole system in UKRI, so we can build back better aligned investment that can support open economic growth—as I said—right across the UK. We need that balance, co-ordinating across different inputs, to drive growth which is led by R&D and innovation. That is multiple things, some of which are in my remit and some of which are certainly not—that is another key point.

The co-ordination locally is important, but in the broader national context—that is also important. This is not about fragmentation; in fact, it has to be the opposite of fragmentation. While local empowerment and local choice are critical, that has to be embedded in a much wider national context. We cannot have a situation in which, across the country, every region decides that it aims to specialise in the same thing. That would obviously be incredibly counterproductive for everyone. That balance between national co-ordination and local empowerment is critical across my kind of investment and across the broader range of leaders as set out in the White Paper.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q One of the missions takes forward the Government’s ambition to increase our public domestic R&D spending outside the greater south-east by a third over the spending review period. How do you feel about that mission? On the level of ambition, are there things you would change about it; is the balance right; should we be doing things in a different way; should we be locking it in more tightly? Given all those different sorts of questions, is that balance between that objective and other priorities for UKRI right? How do you feel about the mission broadly speaking?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

It is good to have those kinds of clear targets and goals. That is helpful. I think it is a long-term ambition, and that is another critical element of both the Bill and the missions, having those clearly articulated long-term goals to steer towards. The SR element of it is obviously much more rapid, and made in the context of the rising R&D budget across the SR, so I think it is achievable.

From my point of view, it is important to stress that our spend distribution does not meet the target from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is the broader Government target for the whole of investment, of 30% and 40% set out in the missions, and then there is a specific BEIS target of 55% outside the greater south-east. Our spend does not meet that at the moment—we are only part of the BEIS spend—but the critical element from that point of view is that in our open competitions for funding, we have flat success rates across the country. The news that we are investing more in the greater south-east than outside that area is because we do not receive the applications.

A lot of what we need to do is capacity building. We need to think hard about how we support the excellent research and innovation that we see right across the country to galvanise and bid into our schemes, making sure that the schemes we put forward are equally open to everyone right across the country and that the targeted interventions that we put in place, of which there are some—they are only going to be a small proportion of our overall investment—are carefully considered in the context of the wider capacity-building activity to drive up opportunity for everyone right across the country.

There is excellence everywhere, however, and we can see that, for example, in parts of the recent research excellence framework. One hundred and fifty-seven universities across the UK made submissions to have their research assessed in that exercise. There is world-leading research in 99% of them, according to the assessment process, which can lead activity. Harnessing the benefit of that will be critical to the levelling-up agenda and to the wider economic recovery from the pandemic that we need to drive.

Getting back to your question—are those the right ambitions?—I suppose I am inherently more in favour of outcome and output ambitions than I am of input ambitions but, none the less, I think having those clear targets behind which we can align our activity in UKRI and more broadly across Government is very helpful in embedding this agenda right across everything that we do. That will be critical to success.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Thank you, Professor Leyser, for your time this morning. In your role as a member of the Levelling Up Advisory Council, with respect to levelling up, do you think that at the moment things are getting better, or are they getting better quicklyQ ?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

That is quite a difficult question to answer. At the moment, things are very challenging right across the country. We have the inflationary pressures caused by a combination of the tail of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That has come on the back of the pandemic, which also caused a lot of economic and social shockwaves across the country. Both those things, if anything, amplify disparities for a whole variety of reasons. Because of those factors, it would be difficult to argue that things are getting better.

Having said that, and looping back to what I said at the beginning, I am very encouraged by the ambition—reflected in the Bill and the White Paper—to take on some of the really big, long-standing and multifaceted problems; to get to the root of them and tackle them through this concerted, aligned action. That is not typical, because we have tended to work in silos when dealing with particular aspects, which does not work as well as integrated, concerted actions. A lot of the important problems, such as health inequalities, are multifaceted, and we do not solve them by simply looking at, for example, the health system. I am encouraged by the new approaches that are being taken to try to address some of the problems, but I do not think they are yet biting.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q You mentioned the importance of the missions in your first answer. The missions themselves do not appear in the Bill in explicit form, as they do in the White Paper; rather, it is stated that there should be missions. You will have heard the concern from the Opposition, and indeed from others, that that approach will give Ministers a lot of freedom and perhaps the ability to mark their own homework. How do you think we could get some independence into the system?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

I think that, because these are really long-term missions, writing them into the Bill has a lot of risk. As we have just discussed, maybe the missions are not ambitious enough in some contexts; as time moves on, that gap might widen and it may be important to increase the ambition in a mission. There need to be embedded mechanisms to keep under review the success of the missions and then to increase them, for example, if that is the appropriate response, or to respond to an entirely new opportunity that was not envisaged when the missions were set. So not writing the missions into the Bill is actually a sensible approach.

Having said that, I agree with you that the whole point about missions is that they have to be really clear, identifiable and quantifiable targets that we are driving towards through multiple, concerted actions, and there has to be continuous monitoring of the progress being made. That has to be a key element of how the missions are run. I would absolutely hope that there would be external scrutiny, as well as transparency in the publication of the progress towards these goals, and then at least parliamentary scrutiny, which I am sure will be rigorous, of that progress and of the actions that need to be taken if the progress is not as robust as one would like.

Should there be some completely independent external body? In the spirit of the missions, only if it has a really clear purpose and remit beyond what can be achieved through the transparent publication of progress towards the targets and the scrutiny that there will already be on those targets. I agree that what is happening needs to be really clear, as does what needs to be done if progress does not happen fast enough. There are many options for how that is achieved and I am sure the Committee will have the expertise to make choices about which of those options is preferable.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you. I have just one more question, turning to your work and your previous response on regional growth. You have been part of a really successive triangle of work in Cambridge that brings together business and academia and has had great development success—success that we are seeking to see elsewhere in the country. What are the features of a local economy that really motors like that? What do we need to have elsewhere in order to see that success?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

This is a topic of tremendous interest in UKRI: how do you build clusters of activity that create self-sustaining positive feedback cycles that really grow things, anchored in a place? A lot of work has been done examining this over the years, in many places. As usual, it is a combination of factors. In many cases there is a lot of evidence that anchor institutions seed a lot of that activity, be that an excellent university, some kind of prime industrial presence or an excellent research institute—for example, a public sector research establishment or a catapult. Some kind of anchor activity fuels a critical element of the cycle, which could be on the research side or the innovation side, or hopefully a combination of the two. That is one of the key components.

The other absolutely critical element is about people—skills and people. A local environment anchors people there by providing the kind of living and working environment that attracts people to a region. Anchor institutions contribute to that, but so does the skills environment—the skills, training and opportunities that are available. For me, joining all those things up is particularly important. In the context of people, such an environment is one in which people go for a particular reason for a particular job, but the opportunities around that environment are such that there are other jobs that are also exciting.

It is about getting that dynamic mobility of people between, say, the university sector, the SME sector—small and medium-sized enterprises—and the more prime business sector, with people moving around and all the allied activities needed to fuel that, such as the local policy and the investment communities that go with that. Joining all that stuff up in the local ecosystem, through strong leadership locally—a critical element—and those key anchor institutions, provides exciting opportunities for people to build a whole variety of careers, working through that ecosystem.

Those are the key ingredients, and UKRI obviously has a role in supporting several of those, but they can only be successful in the context of that broader alignment between local leadership and the wider attractors needed in a local environment to bring people in and keep them there: transport networks, cultural institutions—those kinds of things.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

You will be aware of the allegations—the suspicions in certain quarters—about how transparent and impartial the allocation of the towns fund awards were. Given that similar concerns have been expressed by the Public Accounts Committee about the potential for this with levelling-up funds, what measures do you think would be helpful to allay the fears that distribution of levelling-up awards might be open to similar charges of lack of transparency and of impartialityQ ?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

I am not sure exactly which funding you are referring to. From the point of view of the funds that are being allocated through UKRI, as I mentioned earlier, the funds that are explicitly placed—targeted—are not a very large proportion of our overall funds. For me, the key goal is to think about it in the context of the capacity-building element that I said is so important. There should be local empowerment and local consideration about what would be the best interventions in those places.

We have run the strength in places programme for a while, and it has run on a fully open competition. One of the advantages of fully open competitions is that they provide an equal opportunity for everybody to begin with, which is good. On the other hand, they are slower and more bureaucratic, in that you have to run the open competition. There is an interesting balance to be struck between that process and the ability more rapidly and fluidly to allocate money to places, so that they can use the money in a way that targets their local priorities.

We are in the process of working out how best to work to deliver the new funds that have come through the recent spending review, which are being targeted specifically at three regions. Those regions were selected based on evidence that that kind of injection of cash could really drive the capacity building that I described. There are very high-quality objective measures of how you can consider that capacity in different places and, therefore, the impact of the funding that goes in. I would absolutely agree with you that it is really important, in the context of a levelling-up agenda, that funding is seen to be allocated fairly with the opportunity for everyone to access the benefits of those funds.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q To follow up on that, there are communities that would really benefit from levelling-up funding, and the indices of multiple deprivation to assess need are not being used here. Do you have any concerns or comments about that?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

I am specifically interested and involved in the funds associated with R&D investment, and the important thing about R&D investment is that there has to be the ability to use it effectively locally to drive and build local capacity in R&D activity. That has got to be the governing choice. It is clear that simply transferring money to places that are most in need of levelling-up, with the instruction that it should be spent on R&D, is not an effective way to tackle the specific, targeted issues in every region. As an accounting officer for this money, I have to deliver value for money, and that value for money has to be based on the ability of regions to use that money effectively to drive their capacity building in R&D activity. Wider investments should be made on different criteria, but for R&D investment it has to be R&D criteria.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q On the topic of R&D, do you think there is any merit in involving the devolved Parliaments at the decision-making stage, in terms of a strategic overview of the effective use of resources?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

UKRI is deeply engaged with the devolved Administrations on R&D investment. We have regular meetings and are working very hard to ensure that everything we do right across our investment portfolio, quite independently of the levelling-up agenda, is properly sensitive to the variation in need across the UK. Actually, we in UKRI have a lot to learn in the context of the incredibly successful activity going on in all the devolved Administrations on thoughtful, targeted investment, making use of the multiple streams that are available to drive up local economic growth.

I visited Northern Ireland fairly recently, where they have done a fantastic job of increasing the R&D intensity in a very effective way through this kind of careful, concerted investment in particular areas that are a focus for Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that deep consideration of the devolved Administrations is very important, both in making sure that what we do supports the whole the UK, and in learning from very successful interventions in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

ProfessorQ Leyser, thank you for being with us. The Bill states its commitment to widening opportunity and tackling disparities between regions. Obviously, economic disparities and opportunity disparities exist within regions and communities. The biggest driver of that must be access to housing that people can afford. In the last two years, there has been a 50% drop in the number of long-term lets available and an 11% rise in rents, which are clearly linked. If we are to tackle disparities, surely we will want to tackle the lack of affordable housing for so many people. What in the Bill enables that to happen, through either the missions or the powers that local authorities might be given to tackle that disparity?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

As I said previously, I completely agree that this is a multifaceted problem that has to be thought of in a joined-up way, which is why the overall approach set out in the Bill is good. My role is CEO of UKRI, so I am not in a position to provide any expertise or advice on how to solve the housing problems, but I would hope that you would have the opportunity to ask those who are able to address that question to give evidence to the Committee.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you. I represent a rural community in Cumbria. The problems there are specific. As a member of the advisory board, do you think there is room for different rules to apply in different parts of the United Kingdom, so that certain local authorities might have different powers from others to, for example, control the number of holiday lets and second homes, so that there is a decent number of affordable and available properties for a permanent population?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

Again, the specifics of that question are well outside my area of my expertise. From an R&D point of view, I hope I have been stressing all along that the key to success is specificity—it is understanding local regions and therefore understanding what the bottlenecks are to their growth and targeting investment very specifically in the context of those bottlenecks. That obviously requires really deep local knowledge and local empowerment.

I am absolutely in favour of careful consideration of local needs in the investments that are made. That is very much how UKRI is going about thinking about our R&D investments. I would hope that that approach is considered more widely, because I do not see how one can tackle these problems unless it is through putting in place specific, targeted, well thought-through locally aligned interventions.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Professor Leyser, given that economicQ cluster development grows exponentially, what risks do you foresee of the legislation choking off development space for the growth of economic clusters, particularly inward investment on key strategic sites? Housing developers getting a quick return and receipt, for example, could choke off the opportunity to grow a cluster outwards.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

As I have said, this careful alignment of multiple interventions is crucial precisely because if one rushes in with a particular input, its knock-on consequences are not always foreseen, and we need to be able to respond to them and adjust accordingly. It is critical to think hard upstream about the aligned series of investments being made, and to monitor and feed back, so that where the evidence begins to grow and the chosen interventions have some of those knock-on and unforeseen consequences, they are identified and rectified before things get dug in too deeply. Exactly as you say, growing those clusters is very much about creating the right ecosystem and the right sets of interactions between the different parts. That drives positive feedback and sucks in additional investment in the virtuous cycle that we are all seeking to build. That is critical.

The answers are very specific and depend on the particular element of the overall system that you are looking at. From our point of view, we are really keen to ensure that our investments build synergy between local specialisations and growth, and national capability and capacity. It is important that our investments outside the greater south-east do not in any way undermine the extraordinary powerhouse that the greater south-east is for our R&D activity, and that, rather, those two things are synergistic with one another and that the skills and specialist areas developed in particular parts of the UK work in synergy with activity in other parts of the UK. That local-national map is critical to ensure that we do not drive the negative consequences of interventions, which, as you have highlighted, are a risk.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Do you believe that there is anything missing from the legislation that could enhance economic opportunity?

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser:

These are long-term problems to fix, and they need multiple concerted and co-ordinated interventions. To me, a critical element is getting long-term cross-Government commitment to drive this through to completion. That is a very hard thing to achieve in the context of our parliamentary democracy, because those interventions will last over multiple Parliaments and everybody has to be behind them. That challenging aspect is, I hope, deliverable through the combination of the Bill and the mission statements, but, as we discussed earlier, it will require relentless focus on the missions, and accountability for delivering them through successive Parliaments.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Professor Leyser, thank you so much for your evidence, and in particular for the kind things you said about Northern Ireland—not that I am biased in any way whatsoever.