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Business & Economy

Empowering North East communities through adaptable research

Durham University Business School works with the wider university and other partners to deliver local regeneration projects through knowledge exchange. Here, Dr Ladan Cockshut discusses the School’s involvement with Creative Fuse North East and The Auckland Project.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social occasions became a novelty for many families. Opportunities for health support and meet-ups between new parents with little ones were – and in some cases still are – disrupted, as critical mechanisms of early years support were affected.

The Auckland Project’s (TAP) community engagement team hosted a day out in Auckland Castle’s Deer Park to allow their children to play, explore and interact with other youngsters, and worked in partnership with the NHS to support participating families by helping to signpost local resources and answer questions.

The event was part of TAP’s ongoing work, particularly its Woodhouse Close regeneration project, to support the wider Bishop Auckland community.

The work has been funded (largely through a grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation) to support sustainable, community-led regeneration in the area.

Woodhouse Close Central is the most deprived lower-layer super output area (LSOA) in County Durham and the 150th most deprived LSOA in England (out of 32,844).

With high levels of deprivation, poor health outcomes and unemployment, this legacy echoes the economic and societal changes the North East has faced as mines and other industry closed and new routes to economic growth and stability were disrupted or diverted, creating a lasting impact on generations of local families.

Working with local stakeholders for expertise and collaboration opportunities, TAP is committing many years to this complex and significant project.

One such opportunity includes a research collaboration established in December 2020 between
TAP and the Creative Fuse North East (CFNE) project, in the management and marketing department at Durham University Business School.

The Durham team is focused on supporting and mapping the creative economy across County Durham.

It is part of the region-wide CFNE partnership of all five of the North East’s universities, which works closely with creative practitioners, businesses and organisations to strengthen the creative economy across the region.

It operates across the intersection of interdisciplinary support and interventions, and also facilitates research collaborations and knowledge exchange that benefits the creative landscape and university research.

The TAP-CFNE research collaboration supports the TAP community engagement team in its regeneration work through knowledge exchange activities and by providing research insight and resources from the university that complement TAP’s work at Woodhouse Close.

As Laura Emerson Roberts, head of community engagement at The Auckland Project, says: “Our aim in supporting Woodhouse is to empower members of the community to participate in designing and choosing the nature of any support we might offer.”

In February 2021, CFNE hosted an interdisciplinary showcase event, where more than two dozen researchers from across the university gathered to learn about the regeneration project and to consider future collaboration with TAP.

This led to TAP and Durham’s assistant professor of anthropology Jed Stevenson working together on Masters level dissertation research with new mothers at Woodhouse, to explore their experience of parenting

CFNE also went on to host educational seminars for

the TAP team, with the first seminar, on understanding how participatory research can work in complex systems, delivered by emeritus professor of sociology David Byrne in July last year.

The CFNE team continues to hold regular mentoring sessions with the team at TAP around identified areas of concern, such as evaluation methods, project adaptations and optimising reporting mechanisms for funding bodies.

In August last year, as COVID-19 restrictions eased, I was able to observe the work of the community engagement team and explore further refinements and project activities.

This level of ongoing interaction and support between the two partners is central to the ethos of CFNE’s research collaboration mindset: research- driven, organisation-focused, mindfully supportive and adaptive to their needs.

This approach is allowing the collaboration to
adapt to the needs of the project, for example, the transformation of TAP’s 300-acre Binchester Hall Farm.

Through the commitment and engagement of the Sedgewick family, who have farmed the land for generations, and the vision and support of Tam Mayor, TAP community projects officer, the working farm is transitioning to using holistic farming methods.

It will also set up an innovative educational centre that will not only demonstrate novel and timely approaches to farming amid the climate change crisis, but will also provide critical access to a natural learning environment.

The work at Binchester Hall Farm is just getting underway. In the meantime, CFNE has committed to hosting another showcase event in early 2022 for the farm, to help it identify resources and potential research partners.

For CFNE, working in close collaboration on a project like this has allowed it to provide critical skills support for the delivery team, while also positioning itself as a supportive, action research-oriented partner that helps cultural organisations, or charities like TAP, not only achieve their goals but also know they can look to their nearby university for support.

It speaks to the vision of a university that is not merely a site of learning and research for its members, but is also a place of mutual transformation and growth that can benefit itself, and the wider community around it, through collaboration and knowledge exchange