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Will the industry heed the Digital Powerhouse Report?

Last month The Digital Powerhouse Report, commissioned by Tech North and published by the RSA was released. It looks at the Northern Powerhouse, the digital industry, the region’s digital economy and future. The report outlined how the northern tech sector could improve its business performance and reach full potential.

As Marketing Manager of a northern technology company, a copy of this report naturally found its way to my desk. I was interested in what the report recommended; it is after all the north’s first major guideline to becoming a ‘Powerhouse’. Anything that aims to improve business infrastructure in the region should be welcomed and, more importantly, acted upon.

What does this report bring to the table?

What’s so striking about the report are the key recommendations for the north to grow. Suggestions such as establishing a digital powerhouse contract portal were – in our eyes – unexpected. Many northern tender portals are in existence already, such as YorTender, Due North and YPO. I believe that instead of reinventing the wheel, we should start turning the wheel that exists already. Yes, these portals haven’t been set up specifically to cater for the digital industry but they do exist and they do work.

Problem-based commissioning, data on KPIs and procurement results are brilliant recommendations and we’d like to see activity of this type in the region. The report also encourages the use of open source software, which is something we have been passionate about since we first opened our doors back in 2004.

There are some solid recommendations within the report which, if undertaken correctly, will certainly bring the north’s tech businesses closer together.

Retaining graduate talent in the north is key

I believe one of the stickiest problems facing the north are the demographic differences we’re seeing between the north and south of the UK. We need to retain our talent and encourage graduates to seek employment within the region.

This is something we at Isotoma are passionate about, investing a lot of resources into our junior onboarding and training work, ensuring that we give graduates the tools they need to thrive in a working environment. This is a long-term investment on our behalf as current apprentice schemes do not apply to individuals with degrees.

When it comes to higher education, the north is well catered for – the region contains 23 universities, 6 of which rank in the top 20 for research excellence on a national scale. However we don’t seem to be utilising the facilities on our doorstep, The Guardian’s Northern Powerhouse article states that “Only three cities in the north – York, Warrington and Leeds – feature in the UK’s top 20 when it comes to the number of workers educated to degree level.“

So it would appear that less people are attending Universities in the north, and can we blame them? We’ve all seen the media coverage about the rise in tuition fees, can students afford the financial setback that getting a degree now brings?

London is growing, is the North shrinking?

According to the official government projections, an explosion of growth in London’s East End boroughs will bring London’s population to nearly 10 million within eight years. Compare that to the shrinking population of the northern boroughs such as Blackpool, Richmondshire and Cumbria predicting the biggest fall in population in England, declining by 4.3% by 2024.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an article 2 days after the Northern Powerhouse report was released with some worrying projections about the north-south working-age and retired population; “Barrow-in-Furness is predicted to lose 4.3% of its population by 2024, while Tower Hamlets in London is expected to grow by 25%“.

So, do we need better transport links?

Commuting from Leeds to Manchester alone is a nightmare, the M62 is one of the worst motorways I’ve had to commute on. The northern rail links are awful. More often than not there’s no chance of working from the train as the mobile signal is non existent most of the time, especially when going over the Pennines. The Government has announced many elaborate plans to improve the transport links in the north, such as the HS3 rail link between Leeds & Manchester, however no deadlines have yet been announced.

What else does the report recommend?

The report has 14 overarching recommendations, most of which we wholeheartedly agree with and are more than happy to pioneer. One such recommendation is to champion the tech cooperative model. This idea has legs, but tech cooperative models are very expensive to form contractually. Model contracts and assistance in making this work would be needed.

Another recommendation from the report is to kickstart new corporate-backed accelerators. I agree, and this is already happening, but the businesses seem to naturally migrate to London and not stay in the north, so is this really going to help?

In summary…

You can find evidence to back up any argument you want to make on the topic of the Northern Powerhouse, but will it be such a hot topic after the next general elections..? I hope so.

Identifying the problems that exist in the north for business is half the battle won. We live in such an exciting era of emerging technology in an ever changing landscape of tech invention… meaning we need to keep our graduates. The onus is on employers to incentivise graduates with great jobs, exciting technology and amazing career opportunities!

Transport links need to improve from city to city, as well as inner city links. York has an excellent brand new Park and Ride scheme which uses electric busses, free Wi-Fi and parking to attract commuters, in comparison the northern rail network between the major cities needs substantial improvement and investment.

Most importantly the recommendations in the Northern Powerhouse report need to be owned, actioned and supported by all of us, those northern tech businesses the report is aiming to help.