The Government’s proposed Northern Powerhouse is all well and good, but, asks Anita Greenhill, where does the digital economy fit in this?
The concept of a Northern Powerhouse and establishing an alternative to the dominant ‘London Powerhouse’ has strong Government support. It also has cross-party backing, with both the Conservative and Labour parties proposing their own initiatives in the run-up to the General Election.
Northern cities’ transport infrastructure is to be improved under these plans, with the cities becoming unified through improved physical connections. Local government is also being unified, with Greater Manchester to have a single elected mayor. Increased investment in the region’s science and knowledge innovation capacity is to be welcomed.
However, there is still much work to be done for a true Northern Powerhouse to come to fruition. That work needs to include a legislative commitment to more autonomy for the North, leading to more balanced wealth distribution across the country, including a larger resource focus on the North. Additional infrastructure improvement is required – and for this to happen there needs unification of some decision-making across the Northern region and more public funding.
For example, who is leading the cities agenda within the North? This question has been illustrated most dramatically in the UK Government’s $40 billion smart cities in the UK report. Here the only Northern city mentioned is Manchester, with the report stating that “Greater Manchester is working to take advantage in development on the use of data, such as mobile phone data, vehicle systems, satellite data and camera data.” But the example quoted refers to how this research will improve transport management and seems to assume that the North has equal access with the capital to high quality broadband infrastructure.
This belies the situation where many businesses and organisations complain about the poor speed and capacity of broadband in parts of Northern England – including in Manchester. Nor is this only a problem for Northern England. While a 10Gbps (gigabits per second) internet service is planned for the whole of South Korea, BT has warned that the UK will not have ultra-fast broadband connectivity without additional public funding. Progress is likely to be limited to speeds of just a few hundred megabits per second for most businesses and homes across the UK, even by the end of the decade.
True, there have been welcome signs of progress in Manchester. The just published TechNations report finds that Manchester is home to a growing cluster of digital businesses, which has been building fast since 2013. More worryingly, though, the concept being urged on Manchester is simply to copy the experience of TechCity in London – ignoring the cultural, social and historical differences between the two great cities.
The digital economy is key to the success of the Northern Powerhouse. It is clear that if a Northern Powerhouse is to be built around data, vehicle systems and such like, great strides need to be made in terms of city planning, legislation relating to the internet and the digital domain. Yet crucial challenges such as fully integrating the digital infrastructure in the North including its rural communities remain off the agenda. This is essential, not least because the internet needs to be recognised as part of the infrastructure – an essential utility in terms of promoting economic and social activity.
Furthermore, extending and opening up the North to data and knowledge-driven innovation needs integrated planning across the region. That planning will have to take into account the historical and community strengths of the North. For example, Manchester’s industrial, manufacturing and textile history still plays a key part in the cultural psyche of communities in the North and there is physical evidence of that history everywhere from the
Current broadband expansion plans to build broadband connectivity for businesses and to connect business premises with fibre connections starting in CorridorManchester, East Manchester and the Enterprise Zone are not nearly ambitious enough for a global hub, nor for a city-to-city expansion approach.
At a technological level, a significant problem remains when expanding the broadband infrastructure from the central fibre optic network to street level as it is expensive to link the existing copper of phone line with the fast fibre optics – this challenge cannot be overlooked, nor underestimated.
The broadband extension plans need to be backed by effective strategies for skills creation and knowledge acquisition. The scale of the skills challenge must not be ignored. Manchester’s community strategy 2012/15 states: “By 2020 half of all jobs will require level 3 skills or above.” We are nowhere near achieving this as yet and significant changes will be needed to our education and skills training systems. Those changes can only be embedded effectively if the next generation of workers and their communities can be persuaded of the benefits of these skill acquisitions. For this, communities will need to feel reassured that the plans and strategies build on the industrial and social histories of the North.
Nisp Connect’s Knowledge Economy 2014 report found the North West is currently doing poorly both in terms of knowledge economy output and growth. The North East’s knowledge economy is growing faster, but doing so from a low economic base.
It is clear that an underlying issue is how the digital economy should be managed. The manner in which this happens will have a direct effect on the potential of Northern cities to play their part in encouraging future smart city development and the building of a smart digital society and digital economy.
Legislation must do more than encourage business development and growth. It must also enhance citizen potential and well-being, while placing investment in the future within a historical context.