The North of England should do studies of its digital economy itself and look first to similar cities around Europe for inspiration, citicism, and advice.
We know that Leeds and the wider North of England is a great place to do digital business. Not because we think it is but because together with members and sponsors at ODILeeds we have invested in collecting the data that shows it.
ODILeeds exists because its founders, associates, members, and sponsors identified the need for a strong global institution and meeting place for innovation in the North of England. It side-stepped the barriers that existed and created the most successful open data institute node in the world. This happened at no small risk to its founders and sponsors, including local government. It happened without any direct central government funding. It is a great success story.
Recently TechNorth commissioned a report into digital businesses in the North of England. We were disappointed not to be invited to tender and then disappointed not to be involved. Our work with Data City, Bloom, KPMG, and Leeds City Council means that we have access to the best data in the world on digital opportunities in the North of England. ODILeeds’ space in central Leeds is well-established as a great meeting place in the city. Our global network has the expertise to conduct such research.
At the risk of being overly blunt, I was doubly disappointed that the team carrying out the report came from London. There is much to learn from that great city but there is also talent and insight in the North of England that understands the region better. We think that there is much to learn from the more similar cities all around the world who we work with so well such as Amsterdam, Dublin, Helsinki, and Rennes.
Recently the successful team from ImpactHub Westminster and the RSA came to Leeds to listen to us describe our digital economy. At the meeting I highlighted three key concerns which I repeat here.
The current analysis of digital strengths in the North of England omits “data” as a strength in Leeds. This is clearly wrong. With similar previous reports Data City identified this omission to be the result of weak methods which are easy to fix. I am concerned that the same mistakes are being made here and that the impacts extend beyond this single example.
I am concerned that the report’s authors are largely unaware of what is already happening in the North of England. The meeting in Leeds was at an odd location and on the same day as Leeds’ enormous digital job fair. The conveners were first unaware of, and then unable to visit, a globally important meeting of the North’s tech employers and talent. In the presentation of things the North might wish to emulate, Philadelphia’s civic innovation pathway was highlighted without reference to a long-running and successful similar scheme in Leeds that has since been emulated in cities around the world. These are some of more examples.
I am worried that some common TechCity creation myths are being taken seriously. During the session it was suggested that both London and Berlin’s tech hubs grew organically and without state intervention. This is absurd. Eurostat data on public-sector investment in many areas and notably in R&D clearly shows that huge state investment in London and Berlin preceded the rapid growth in digital businesses in those places. We are confident that this played a role — though neither necessary nor sufficient — in attracting the technical talent that enabled the digital sector’s rapid expansion in following years. It is essential that such myths are challenged robustly whenever they are raised.
In addition to repeating my concerns I am very happy to offer my views in writing in response to the three questions posed at the meeting.
What local opportunities and assets are tech businesses making use of in Leeds?
New institutions like FutureLabs, FutureEverything, The Manchester Growth Company, New Economy Manchester, DotForge, ODILeeds, and TechNorth.
Big companies and institutions like BJSS, Sky Bet, KPMG, FirstDirect, Yorkshire Water, Leeds Building Society and our universities and colleges.
The existing European and global connections of many of our companies, the international airport at Manchester, and the world-famous brands of Manchester, Liverpool, and Yorkshire.
What are the barriers to capitalising on these opportunities?
Poor infrastructure — public transport within the North’s cities is extremely poor. Public transport between the North’s cities is not much better. Superfast broadband investments have been led by national government and as a result have been inefficient in delivering better connectivity to as many people as possible. Poor infrastructure has cost us a huge amount of growth over the past decades. It will continue to cost us for at least a decade after we begin fixing it. We must start now.
Poor visionary leadership — it is no secret that Whitehall and the Leeds City Region have been unable to agree a devolution deal. The lack of a visible and accountable leader who could strengthen Manchester’s voice and stand up for the North is a barrier to growth in Leeds and across the North of England.
Lack of independence — almost every spending decision that affects the North of England is taken in London. Even this report will be written by people who live in London and work for London-based organisations. It was procured by an organisation whose independence is unclear. The people who will make the North of England’s economy grow faster want to work with the world not just a single city.
Which interventions could help bridge connections to these opportunities?
Leeds City Region’s asks and requirements to accelerate growth and become a net contributor to the treasury are contained within its devolution proposal. My understanding is that it is Whitehall not Leeds City Region that is blocking that deal. Signing the deal would be the single most important intervention in boosting the digital sector in the Leeds City Region.
We strongly believe that the North of England should lead this and future studies itself. Instead of being forced to look to London for help we would suggest that outside criticism and assistance comes preferentially from similar geographies that have developed successful tech hubs. We have much to learn from the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, and Scotland and we should not let the UK government’s preference for domestic solutions narrow our search for inspiration, guidance, and criticism.
Graph 1: High state-backed spending in research & development in Berlin and London preceded and played a key role in the establishment of high-growth digital sectors in those cities.