Rory Cellan-Jones has a nice article on the BBC website on the prospects for the Government’s ‘Tech North’ initiative, building extensively from my work with Emma Vandore on Tech City in London. Here’s some further thoughts.
Tech North was launched by Nick Clegg last week: it’s one of the products of the DPM’s recent Northern Futures initiative. The idea is to promote tech clusters in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle: Clegg has put £2m/year on the table to support local firms, and to attract FDI to the area.
Politically this is a no brainer. It meshes with the government’s ‘rebalancing’ rhetoric. And it fits the new mission of TechCity UK, which has expanded its remit from just East London to cover the whole country. TCUK is publishing work next month looking at digital clusters, which will put some new numbers behind the policy.
So will it work? Rory is fairly sceptical in his piece. I’m still unclear what the programme will actually do: so here are five issues policymakers should be thinking about.
1/ Real geographies – Tech North connects five big cities with over 150 miles between them. In the real world, urban tech is in very tight microclusters: neighbourhood scale scenes which allow for lots of face to face contact. In Liverpool, for example, a lot of the action is in Ropewalks or the Baltic Triangle.
In London, Ministers originally hoped to ‘connect’ the Shoreditch cluster to the Olympic Park a few miles away. That hasn’t proved possible, not least because Old Street firms didn’t want to move there and saw no connection between the two.
So the chances of creating a single super hub across the Pennines are slim at best. There are worrying echoes of the Thames Gateway here: a planning concept, not a real place. On the other hand, as we found in London, the area branding might prove a helpful way to raise the profile of these local scenes.
2/ Who’s in and who’s out? The DPM seems to have focused his attention on the five Northern core cities. Fair enough, in that these are the economic powerhouses of their wider regions. But the real geography of tech activity is a little different. But cities like York and Sunderland also have quite a lot of tech firms. So why aren’t they included?
3/ FDI versus growing our own – firms cluster because co-location makes sense: they can tap into new ideas and pools of skilled workers and can share useful inputs (like fast broadband or VC investors). On the other hand, clusters have tensions built in. As more firms enter, pressures on space build up, so rents rise. And competition rises, for staff and for market share.
Given all this, it’s risky to base cluster development policies on foreign investment. If FDI simply brings in big multinationals, these might displace smaller, younger UK businesses. I doubt that’s what Government or cities want. Agencies like UKTI typically try and maximise the count and size of foreign investments. A different approach is needed here, which is to focus on the type of foreign inputs.
4/ Infrastructure – FDI programmes should try and enrich the rest of the ecosystem, especially specialist services tech firms need: finance, lawyers, accountants and workspaces. This stuff is only just starting to appear in London at scale, and is likely to be a priority for other UK cities. Certainly, the UK’s VC scene is pretty weak outside the capital.
Equally, fast internet (and fast connection to it) is a basic need. For me, this is now a public utility, so it’s disappointing that the Superconnected Cities scheme has retreated from rolling out faster systems to everyone, to simply providing vouchers to SMEs. The CORE programme in York, Peterborough and Derby is an interesting exception (thanks to Tom Forth for the link).
5/ Policy architecture (and whether it really matters) – cluster policy advocates like Michael Porter assume that cluster development has to be local, since clusters are local phenomena. But this doesn’t follow.
First, Tech North has little cash on the table: its five-city budget is about the same as the original budget for Shoreditch. Second, a lot of the relevant policy levers are held at national level: tax breaks for investors, crowdfunding regulation, immigration and skills. That still leaves some local levers: branding, networking, planning and any local investment pots. But it’s limited stuff.
Arguably some of these national levers should be devolved: that’s started to happen through City Deals and Local Growth Deals. But we’re at the very start of this process, and though the post-Scotland moment may yet shake things up further, what Ministers are handing over in powers they’re currently taking away in cuts.
But perhaps that’s too pessimistic. As Emma and I found in the East London research, the Old St scene grew quietly for years without policymakers really noticing. That could well be the likely trajectory for the many clusters under the Tech North umbrella.