Reflecting on the voices of female entrepreneurs in shaping policy for York & North Yorkshire and beyond

Dr Rebecca Kerr, Y-PERN Policy Fellow (York & North Yorkshire), talks about her work examining the evidence around place-based approaches to supporting female entrepreneurship.

York and North Yorkshire finds itself at an exciting juncture of change. In the run-up to the new combined mayoral authority and mayoral elections, comes a distinct desire to ensure the policy concerns of the region’s residents are placed to the fore.

With this in mind, we initiated a piece of collaborative research focused on female entrepreneurship in the York and North Yorkshire region – working with the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Enterprise Works at the University of York. Research in this area generally exists at a national scale, but there’s clear demand for more place-based evidence which can inform sub-regional policy – as shown by the positive and enthused engagement from some of our region’s female entrepreneurs at a workshop we held at York’s historic Guildhall.

Throughout the workshop, women noted that they wanted support and mentorship from other women in business and not self-proclaimed ‘experts’ with limited comparable lived experience. This sentiment was placed to the heart of this research undertaken on female entrepreneurship in York and North Yorkshire, where each stage of research design was informed by participant engagement to ensure we were asking the right questions and collecting the most appropriate data. After spending time on community consultation processes and survey, the workshop event focused on solutions to identified challenges around seven key themes.

This research will be published in due course. In the meantime, the process offers valuable insights into regional policy development. It sheds light on the intricate balance between relying on ‘experts’, engaging in community consultation and learning from policy development experiences. This is especially pertinent in the context of navigating the complexities of a series of new devolution deals in Yorkshire.

From national to sub-regional policy, avoiding diluted success

Understanding the national picture is important when prioritising research as there is a clear rationale to reflect on pre-existing policy solutions. But the geographical, social, economic and political landscape can make the transferability of these top-level recommendations somewhat diluted. While there is pre-existing research on female entrepreneurship, notably in the Alison Rose Report and subsequent iterations, Professor Kiran Trehan (Enterprise Works and member of the Y-PERN Directorate) has argued that a place-based focused piece of research is needed to hear the experiences, challenges and barriers and potential policy solutions that are most appropriate for the region’s female entrepreneurs.

Peck (2011) highlights this sentiment clearly when considering the increasing permeability of geographical boundaries for policies, indicating that while policies freely cross these boundaries, their impact is not standardised across them. Policymakers have a responsibility to use high-quality evidence and not just prioritise the data that has been collected and measured (Hindkjaer Madsen, 2024). This implies that while pre-existing data is useful for supplementing policy development or in guiding discussion at community consultation stages, policy development should be guided by the needs of policy users within their own sub-region, as each comes with its own challenges.

Researchers and policy makers also need to be aware of the constraints of bounded rationality. For example, where a pre-existing policy solution has drawn some successful results, there is the temptation to adopt this policy and apply it at the sub-regional level, as this seems the rational thing to do. But the confines of bounded rationality may inhibit an appropriate cost-benefit analysis at the sub-regional level. This may even tether into lesson drawing and striving for ‘rational’ policy decisions, which comes with its own challenges (see James and Lodge, 2003).

Deliberation over the types of policies that are most successful has centred on a trade-off between intense and specific policy solutions, where intense policies represent a measure of a policy’s overall design and specific policies focus on targeted objectives (Sewerin, Fesenfeld and Schmidt, 2023). For example, an intense policy in the context of our research on female entrepreneurship may include a recommendation of increasing funding pots to local entrepreneurs by £5 million. In contrast, a specific policy may recommend a funding pot targeted at a specific sector, boarded and jointly managed by local stakeholder groups to increase ownership and input to such an initiative. The advantage of a specific policy is that they can be replaced by equally specific and intense policies, especially at sub-regional level with local stakeholder, actor and community buy-in.  

Sub-regional to sub-regional policy transfer and learnings

Policy failure may be encouraged by uninformed, incomplete and inappropriate transfer, a point made clear by Dolowitz and March (2002). Whilst they reference case studies of policy transfer between countries, similar reflections are relevant for UK sub-regional policy transfer. Indeed, Keating, Cairney and Hepburn (2012) demonstrate that the policies may be borrowed across the devolved nations simply because of weak policy development capacity in devolved governments. This reflection is important when applied to the devolved authorities across the Yorkshire region.

While it may be likely that York and North Yorkshire may have more in common with Leeds, Hull and Sheffield compared to London, each region has its own ecosystem that is a collection of smaller eco-systems. Within York and North Yorkshire alone, a challenge of policy development is the diversity within it. It boasts a coastline, rurality, market towns and a historic city to boot, but each bring their own set of policies for the female entrepreneurs within them. While we can look to neighbouring policy as a starting point and aim for joint initiatives across the Yorkshire region, this needs further thinking to ‘embed mobility’ into policy (Peck, 2011).

At a minimum, it requires the workshopping of solutions identified in one sub-region to another and naturally, some form of abductive data collection or knowledge exchange.

While recognising the significance of collaborating with neighbouring sub-regions for policy development – facilitating lessons learned, establishing common starting points, and sharing resources – it’s crucial to balance this with the implementation of place-based policies. These policies should respect and preserve the unique diversity within the Yorkshire and Humber region.