Chief Operating Officer Alex Wilkinson recently took part in a Q&A series on the Northern Powerhouse. Outlining what the initiative means to him, Alex explains the need to maintain momentum, and what can be done to ensure tech investment and economic growth matches that of the South.
What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
Being Yorkshire-born and having our Solutionize Global headquarters based in the county, a focus on the northern economy is really important for us. However, a catchy title shouldn’t ever become an empty phrase. That would be a gross injustice to the people who have brought investment and innovation to the north of England and located their businesses outside of London.
There is much to celebrate with Manchester’s MediaCityUK and Leeds firmly cementing itself as a finance and tech hub with businesses like KPMG, Deloitte, and EY. Then there is Channel 4, and the public sector workforces behind NHS Digital, and DWP so it’s an exciting time to be part of the north.
As we look to strengthen the UK economy against a difficult global impact, it’s imperative that the investment and infrastructure to support success is spread throughout the country. Many industries that were huge northern employers in the past typically don’t exist anymore and so there needs to be longevity in a plan to empower the next generations to work in new sectors – and keep our regions thriving. Technology is hugely important for the UK, and globally because it forms an intrinsic part as to how we work and live.
Five years have passed since the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
Progress is happening but from what I have seen it has been slower than hoped. The announcement recently regarding the improvements to the TransPennine railway routes has been welcomed, but it’s been in the pipeline for many years and the road infrastructure between the major cities is still poor.
Today’s modern workforces are operating in ever-evolving office infrastructures and that means many large premises, particularly in city centres, may not be at full capacity for a long time.
And now, people might be less inclined to use public transport because of the current climate so there’s a real shift in how employees commute and conduct their work. The per capita investment in the south is still substantially higher than the north which creates a two-tier structure too. Therefore, a level playing field and a clear plan – which is visible and time-bound – are exactly what residents and businesses should have access to and understanding of.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
I feel having appointed mayors to champion their individual cities is definitely beneficial. The key is to continue collaborating and communicating to ensure there is strength in numbers. It’s important that they share their own successes and failures for the collective good of the whole county and beyond.
What must the government do to re-energise the Northern Powerhouse?
Like any initiative, there needs to be a consistent approach to maximise buy-in, alongside having a clear plan and timeline of what will happen and when investment must take place.
It’s important to keep up the momentum – even during the toughest of economic climates – so business recovery and success, Brexit, and other factors all remain top priorities for us as a collective country, to encourage investment, drive growth, and secure jobs for the future.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
To ensure tech investment and economic growth can match the south. We need to spread the wealth and investment and show the value of the skills in the north so that people continue to develop at the pace in which tech dictates.
There is still a huge digital divide in some northern areas and educational results are proving to show that young people in the north are a whole grade lower than those based in the south. This must be addressed to ensure our next generations can aspire to be the best they can be – and that means equipping them with the right tools, skills, and support to achieve their ambitions.
Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
Naturally, cities will work in silos and want to promote their own agenda, however, there is greater strength in numbers. As a business, we have always believed in strong collaboration and this should work cross-city to maximise the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse.
A good example of success via the sharing of ideas is the Leeds Digital Festival. It’s been assisting other cities to run their own events and make sure there is a regular calendar of technology events throughout the north.
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
Research launched by Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) revealed that Yorkshire has seen a higher rate of growth in the digital sector over the past three years than anywhere else in the country.
Yet, as a business, we have struggled to recruit the right tech skills from the north into our organisation. Because of this, we are launching our own academy to support apprenticeships and the upskilling of talent.
A positive message around growth and innovation, alongside suitable investment, is beneficial to ensuring longevity for the region, salary normalisation, continued creativity, and the opportunity to make even more of a substantial impact on GDP – both now and in the future.