Insider talks to Dr Chris Low, Chief Executive at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park as part of their series on the Northern Powerhouse.
Q: What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
A: The Northern Powerhouse is a valuable lobbying tool that advocates for the central idea that the North has a huge number of major economic and innovation assets that have historically been underutilised and specific place-based policies and initiatives are needed to address this. The NPH is about being joined up and strategic in our use of devolution, physical infrastructure, skills and education and investment to ensure the North is considered as good a place to invest, grow, learn, study and live as any other part of the country.
Q; Nine years have passed since the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
It was always going to be difficult to maintain momentum against the backdrop of political upheaval that followed the Brexit vote. However, it is also true to say that there isn’t a fixed end point or completion date – in many ways it is a perpetual endeavour. The North has lagged behind other regions in terms of productivity, GDP growth and many other statistics for some time, so there is a lot of work to do. The progress that has been made over the last nine years has been meaningful, but there is a deeply entrenched perception that the ‘Golden Triangle’ is where the best investment opportunities lie and that there isn’t much beyond it worth investigating. This is changing, as we have seen first-hand at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, where we have attracted major international investors and US tech firms.
Some of this progress wouldn’t have taken place without the Northern Powerhouse agenda, but I’d like to see more co-ordinated efforts between government departments to accelerate the benefits it can clearly bring.
Q: How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
A: Metro mayors are important catalysts for regional growth and attracting FDI. They can deploy public funding in a hyper targeted way and use their convening power to make things happen. I think it is this ‘soft power’ that is their biggest asset – it is undoubtedly helping us to attract international investment, particularly from the US where regional government is seen as a powerful and significant stakeholder. Metro mayors can put policies in place that make sense for their regions and enable each area to develop unique strengths and build ecosystems that create pockets of excellence. This is happening with health and wellbeing here in Sheffield, where the support of the Mayor, Oliver Coppard, and his team at the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority have been invaluable in growing this capability.
Q: What needs to be done to help the North recover from the Covid-19 pandemic?
We have already seen much of the ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic, though the economic scarring is likely to be seen for some time. Inflation has taken over as the far more important issue from a business point of view. Instead of holding back because of uncertainty as they did during Covid-19, some investors are seeking to deploy funds rapidly to avoid erosion and to secure inflation beating returns. Creating the environment for this to happen more easily would certainly help the North recover from the pandemic even faster.
Q: What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
A: Innovation-driven growth. This offers a rallying point for lobbying for a range of initiatives, including improved transport links, digital infrastructure, and place-based investment vehicles. This needs supporting domestically, for example through the recent pension fund reforms freeing up investment capital for high-growth companies, and also through targeted policies to increase foreign direct investment. The UK is a very attractive place to invest, but many international investors look to London and the South East as the first port of call. The North has hugely investable assets and thriving ecosystems that offer attractive value, especially in HealthTech.
The House of Commons Treasury Select Committee recently released a report on Venture Capital, which found that there is a disproportionate focus on London, even amongst UK VCs. This needs correcting, so if one issue had to dominate, I think it would be a focus on supporting innovation throughout the country that would deliver the most significant changes.
Q: Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
There is inevitably some inter-region rivalry following devolution, but there are clear signs that increased collaboration is happening. I recently attended a NPH event where four of the Northern Mayors took part in a panel and emphasised their intention to work together while also highlighting their own primary objectives for their region. The new South Yorkshire Investment Zone will be focusing on the collaboration between towns and cities and making a strong case to the UK Government for greater devolution and more control over regional investment.
Q: How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
At Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, we are already seeing the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse agenda. We have something unique here in that we are the only Olympic Legacy Park in the world outside of a host city, acting as a hub for innovation, research and commercialisation across healthcare and wellbeing by bringing together both public and private sector organisations. The NPH agenda is helping to create the conditions for inward investment that are vital for the success of all of our stakeholders. If the NPH succeeds long term, it could genuinely catalyse huge improvements in population health as a result of the research and technologies being developed here – the potential gains are enormous.
Dr Chris Low