Posts Tagged ‘leeds’

Can ‘Tech North’ take off?

October 27, 2014

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.

High Speed Two: what’s in it for cities?

March 16, 2010

Originally posted March 2010, updates Jan 2012 and Jan 2013.

It won’t be here for another 15 years, but HS2 has triggered a mass outbreak of trainspottery enthusiasm. The Guardian even live-blogged Andrew Adonis and Sadiq Khan’s announcements, for goodness’ sake.   The big issues last week were route, timing and cost – so I want to focus on impacts, particularly for cities. I’m not sure these will be all they’re cracked to be.

Dermot has helpfully summarised HS2 and the Conservatives’ plans, and R&R round up the reaction here. It’s all fairly positive (although the headline numbers don’t add up – £30bn over 20 years is £1.5bn per year, not the £2bn quoted by DfT). All the positivity explains why the Conservatives feel they need separate proposals – more on those later.

Let’s take environmental impacts first. HS2 is being pushed as green infrastructure. But as Henry points out, the CO2 impact of the line isn’t at all clear: it could take reduce emissions by -0.41m tonnes, or raise them by about the same amount. This is a pretty small fraction of total UK emissions, and doesn’t seem to significantly change the overall cost-benefit ratio. However, the lack of certainty is a worry – and dents the line’s green image.

There’s more detail on the economic impacts (summarised above). The bulk of the benefits accrue to individual travellers and firms via time savings, which feed into productivity gains at the national level. Time savings also help increase competition between firms.  Labour market impacts are much smaller – it’s unlikely HS2 will dramatically change commuting patterns, for example.

In theory transport improvements boost urban agglomeration – and thus productivity – by improving linkages between firms, and between firms and workers. By bringing agents closer together, we improve cities’ ‘effective density’. HS2 modelling suggests that for North-South high speed rail, these impacts are pretty small – £3.6bn over 60 years, just over 10% of the overall benefits of the line.

This is partly because HS2 doesn’t connect anywhere that’s not already on the rail network. By contrast, SERC’s research suggests that plugging new cities into high-speed infrastructure delivers a bigger charge to output.

So what does HS2 mean for cities? Urban firms and travellers are the big winners, which is good news for cities if more productive businesses raise wages or employment. Some cities get the kudos of being on the line, and may get a regeneration boost from new stations – although that could turn into a windfall gain for developers. But fairly few firms will relocate, and agglomeration impacts will be pretty small.

On this basis, HS2 isn’t likely to fundamentally change the UK’s economic geography. Rather, it will speed up the economic geography we already have.

Two final points. First, for Northern cities, the big agglomeration gains will come from speeding up links into urban cores, or bntter connections between nearby cities like Manchester and Leeds. This is the message of the Eddington Report, and it’s important it doesn’t get lost.

Second, the final shape of HS2 may look quite different. Last week’s report also did some preliminary modelling of high speed lines to Scotland – much closer to the Conservative proposals. While there’s a ‘good case’ for a high speed link to Manchester, the early numbers suggest a ‘particularly strong’ case for lines to Leeds and the East Coast of Scotland. That implies a cash-strapped future government might want to choose between two halves of the Y – a very tough political choice indeed.


Update, Jan 2012: the Coalition has now given HS2 the green light. It’s also published some updated cost-benefit modelling. Three things stand out from this.

First, my analysis holds. The overall shape of benefits and costs is the same, although the recession and higher building costs have changed some of the numbers slightly. See page 10 for the new figures.

Second, the modelling almost perfectly explains the politics. Those who gain from HS2 (business, core cities, those in ‘the North’) are strongly in favour; those who lose (communities and homeowners along the line) are vehemently against. Local opponents of HS2 are hardly irrational – quite the opposite. This also suggests that rather than handing a windfall gain to business by pegging HS2 fares to conventional fares, HS2 tickets should be pricier – at least in first class.  That provides another way for taxpayers to recoup some of the initial outlay.

Third, the agglomeration benefits for Phase 2 (Manchester and Leeds) seem much larger than Phase 1 (London to Birmingham). Why? Rather than connecting two relatively distant cities, Phase 2 links a lot of nearby places (e.g. Sheffield/Meadowhall to Leeds in 20 mins), and provides indirect access to big cities not on the line (e.g. from Manchester to Liverpool). The fact of HS2 thus strengthens the case for complementary investments like the Northern Hub, which will bring Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds closer together.


Update, Jan 2013: we now have the detailed route maps for the full Y network. Note that these are ‘preferred routes’ – a lot of other cities (e.g. Liverpool, Warrington) are now going to push hard to be included. And it’s still possible that the two legal challenges may change the network shape, as well as slow down implementation.

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