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Fighting for your place: creating a just and net-zero society with universities at their heart

  • 20 January 2022
  • By Susan Lea

This blog was contributed by Professor Susan Lea, University of Hull Vice Chancellor.

The Government’s focus on place, tackling inequality through levelling up, boosting productivity and developing a green economy is roundly welcomed.  The image of a better and brighter future for all is both reassuring and seductive.  Yet, whilst the words spill easily from lips, the rhetoric belies the enormity of the task: tackling successfully the very real and complex interdependencies at the heart of achieving this reality.  As we anticipate the arrival of the Government’s Levelling-up White Paper in early 2022, now is the time to consider just how we aim to achieve these ambitions – and using the case of the Humber, successfully fight for our place.

Let’s start with the playing field. It’s not level; we are all agreed on that. Moreover, it is differentially level, depending on who is judging and what benchmarks they use.  Most notably, the Government’s distribution of its £3.6 billion Towns Fund, committed to place-based regeneration in the most deprived towns, was the focus of controversy.  In its assessment of the Government’s proposals, the Public Accounts Committee was ‘not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others’, noting that some towns were picked by ministers ‘despite being identified by officials as the very lowest priority’ and that this has ‘fuelled accusations of political bias’. More recently, the planned redeployment of 22,000 civil servants outside London by 2030 – also part of levelling up and ensuring policy makers reflect the population of the UK – attracted scepticism in my region.  On a national call explaining the initiative, we were told that York was selected as it was a ‘forgotten city’ raising some eyebrows from those us living in the less affluent conurbations of Yorkshire.

So, how do we level the playing field and achieve genuinely inclusive growth? According to Paloma Durán, Director of the UN Sustainable Development Goals Fund in 2015, ‘when you ask five economists to define [inclusive growth], you will likely end up with six answers’.  Of course, the enormity of this challenge, its sheer scale and multifactorial nature, can seem overwhelming. But, put plainly, our future is at stake and our legacy is on the line.  And the will certainly seems to be there – arguably, never before have leaders across the private and public sector been so committed to such a shared and ethical vision.   

The Humber is a case in point. This is a region that has the highest CO2 emissions of any region in the UK, would be one of the first areas to experience the impact of rising sea levels, and is riven with inequalities.  Yet, the Humber region is leading the way in the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The University of Hull, its researchers, regional industry, the public sector, SMEs and local communities are united in viewing these challenges as our greatest opportunity. They are working together to transform the Humber into the ‘Silicon Valley’ of renewable energy, providing a blueprint for how to successfully harness the power of place to develop the technologies and solutions needed for a sustainable future.   

‘Eyes on the Humber’, screened at COP26, reveals the opportunity for the region to serve as a living lab, a trailblazer, for decarbonisation and the development of clean energy technologies to tackle the impacts of climate change and address the yawing inequalities in education, health, employment and quality of life. Our region is grasping the opportunity to demonstrate that if the creation of a zero-carbon economy can be achieved here, it can be achieved anywhere. It is not just at the forefront of green innovation; its mission is to be a model for fair and sustainable social and economic regeneration.

Moreover, we are determined to succeed despite the barriers.  The Government’s change of policy in relation to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) resulted in the fracturing of the strong Humber LEP into the Greater Lincolnshire LEP and the Hull and East Yorkshire LEP.  Risk abounded as much of the work around decarbonisation takes place across the North and South banks of the Humber.  Battling politics with both a big and small p, regional leaders nonetheless came together to successfully secure a FreePort and most recently to form the new Humber Energy Board to drive pan-Humber initiatives within our collective strategic intent.  These positive developments must keep alive a deeply embedded appreciation of, and clear attention to, the interface of environmental sustainability and social justice: tackling child poverty, health inequalities, differentials in educational attainment, the digital divide, and inter-generational unemployment within the framework of a developing a green economy.  

Universities have a central role in facilitating the transition to a just and net-zero society. They provide thought leadership, internationally recognised research expertise, innovative solutions to global problems through knowledge exchange, and pipelines of talented graduates to fill the ever-increasing demand for new and higher-level skills.  In the Humber, the University of Hull prides itself on being what I term an ‘internationally-engaged civic institution’ – reflecting the thread connecting the local, the national and the global. Thus, for example, our academic experts deliver impactful research into flooding which have relevance for both our own Energy Estuary and the Mekong Delta, produce evidence-based reports which point the path to levelling up Hull and reveal implications for cities nationally, and through the Aura Innovation Centre lead the development of business solutions in low-carbon energy serving as a model for other parts of the country. Moreover, the education we provide our students is equipping the next generation of graduates with the tools they need to lead the future development of the green industries, not only in the Humber region but across the UK and the world.  

The Government’s Levelling-up White Paper must do more than just pay lip service to the importance of place, but must make it central to the UK’s social and economic future. Creating a just and net-zero society is going to be difficult – it requires that we fight for our place, which includes identifying resonance and seeking meaningful collaboration with others. We must move beyond rhetoric to confront reality. Already, there is much talk of hollow words at the political level and evidence of damaging conflicts of interest.   Surely, we will all stumble at times in navigating this future.  Honesty, integrity, transparency and fortitude will be key.  Speaking with one voice is half the battle, but delivering the other half is so much harder.  Therefore, we must commit to holding each other to account, to challenging magniloquence, to working together to climb this mountain. The consequences of not doing so are unthinkable, and the prize on the other side is a positive future for our planet and its peoples.


  1. Ros Lucas says:

    An interesting article and looks like Humber is leading the way to a more sustainable future, the only way forward.

    However, until Politics with a capital P is given much more consideration than the binary, non co-operative system without proportional representation, as at present, nothing will change that ensures all areas are treated according to their location and financial needs.

    At present there is only the ballot box and Shropshire showed one way forward to make changes.

    If we do nothing different, nothing will change.

  2. albert wright says:

    The trouble with “Place” is that we all have our own “Place” and all of us want to make their place the best place. This can lead to duplication and / or under supply and makes agreeing priorities for funding from national pots of money very difficult.

    The case for Hull above, looks to be a strong case and is well underway but is there a similar justification for Hartlepool and / or Felixstowe?

    It does not make sense to have every city and town on the east coast a “Centre for Excellence” for the same thing. The big question is how to make levelling up fair and just for all when we don’t have suitable structures and processes.

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