What will drive the Northern Powerhouse?

Infrastructure isn’t just about transport – we need digital connectivity for future growth

What does business really require to deliver growth? What investment needs to go into a region in order to ensure future commercial and economic success? Are businesses, investors and Government really switched on to technological infrastructure requirements?

On the 24th February, I attended a North West Futures breakfast at Manchester Airport to address exactly these questions. I was part of a panel looking at transport and connectivity and how that needs to evolve under Greater Manchester’s devolved regional government in order to put in place the infrastructure needed to support the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

For those that aren’t closely connected to the city: Manchester has been thrust to the forefront of the Government’s strategy of regional devolution and should have its own directly elected Mayor by 2017. The deal will give the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) greater power over transport, housing, planning and public service reform as well as bring significant investment to the area in order to ‘maximise the economic potential of the North’.

At the breakfast, many of my fellow panellists, Jon Lamonte, Mike Blackburn and Eamonn Boylan, called for a long view of investment in the region. Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive at Transport for Greater Manchester: “We want to know what business wants, so we are delivering the right schemes over the next 20 years. Business knows more about what it needs to survive than anybody else.. What do the ports and airports need from connectivity? What do manufacturing businesses need? Where should we be making those investments?”

We need to encourage a creative eco-system of pro-Northern groups, individuals and businesses across the public and private sector which can learn from each other, share skills and resources, shape the development and inward investment and capitalise on the disruptive growth that follows.

Manchester has a history of innovative capability and, especially in the nineteenth century, the confidence to act on it. But today’s economy requires a very different infrastructure than that of the nineteenth century. Yes, transport infrastructure is essential to the development of the region but, in today’s internet economy, spurring stronger business growth in the North also requires its great cities to enjoy far better digital connections.

Because the Internet is ubiquitous, it’s easy to assume it’s just “there”. But every piece of the Internet, every server providing services, has been bought, located and connected in advance of the provision of any service in anticipation of demand. There is no reason why cities such as Manchester or Leeds should not be seen as the ‘go-to’ locations for innovative enterprise technology. But to achieve this requires an understanding of the digital investment that will be required.

Central to any digital-age Northern Powerhouse must be its digital infrastructure.

I’m also very acutely aware that some of the digital and network initiatives that were undertaken by Manchester City Council and the City’s Universities in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, led to the concentration of networks around Manchester Science Park which were so vital to the initial development of the Internet companies that I was involved in then.

However, it isn’t simply the provision of the underlying network that is important. At the North West Futures event, I was fortunate that Mike Blackburn, Chair of the GM LEP and the Vice President, Strategy & Planning, Government & Health, at BT Global Services was on the panel. He reminded me and the audience of very significant investments that have been made in the region largely by the private sector, and by BT in particular, to provide access to high speed broadband. This has already achieved in excess of 90% population coverage. Mike pointed out, however, that the take up of these high speed services remains very low.

It is too simple to say that all we need is basic infrastructure. Actually we need underlying communications infrastructure and rich services provided over this underlying infrastructure. Whether that is retail services to consumers or business services, this is the crucial next step in a really vibrant digital economy. That is very much a challenge to private sector companies: to innovate in services. Eamonn Boylan, Chief Executive of Stockport Council, reminded us, that the support of the public sector for business in the region, with consistent policy over many years, as well as the recent transfer of direct funding to GMCA, gives a challenge to the private sector to make the most of very fertile ground.

Another point that was raised at the breakfast meeting last week by Taylor Wimpey UK Director of Planning, Jennie Daly is worth recounting. She’s anxious that we “don’t get to the boundary of Greater Manchester and fall off a cliff.”

Manchester will require connectivity and richness of service, not only internationally and with established UK tech centres such as London and Cambridge, but across the Northern communities to ensure that the whole region benefits from the Northern Powerhouse’s economic success, and that the critical mass feeds back positively.