All roads can’t lead to London in our post-Covid economic recovery
Let's be at the forefront of the coming years of innovation by backing our regional R&D powerhouses
It seems aeons since the general election, but it has been just six months since Boris Johnson was voted in with his commitment to Level Up Britain and ensure opportunity is not contingent on geography. If anything, coronavirus has brought this agenda into even starker focus, with every region badly affected, both in terms of loss of life and economic impact.
With predictions we might be facing the worst financial slump in three centuries, there’s a mammoth rebuilding task ahead. The temptation might be to reconstitute in the image of what went before – after all, our economy was finally booming again. But we weren’t level then, and, while key London-based sectors will be important in getting us back on our feet, there are other sustainable roads outside of the capital.
To recover from such a seismic shock, we need to embolden areas that are already clearly ‘open for business’ or well-placed to attract foreign investment and innovative talent. We need to reverse brain drains towards London and harness the potential of those regions that have shown they have all the necessary tools in the box when it came to the pandemic, and have the appetite to be, or indeed already are global hubs for creating impactful solutions in our post-Covid world.
It is crucial to identify which industries will drive our recovery. Britain’s world-leading life sciences sector has responded to coronavirus with agility. In Cambridge, where I have worked for the last 20 years, We’ve seen the incredible, speedy creation of the large-scale testing facility on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, repurposing a laboratory practically overnight to be capable of processing tens of thousands of Covid tests a day.
The UK life sciences and healthcare sector is a backbone of this country’s research and development prowess, which includes everything from healthcare and diagnostics, to plant science and agri-tech. Add in technology, advanced manufacturing, logistics and future transport and it is clear these sectors are already job creators. Importantly, they are regionally spread, enabling growth that can truly level up.
From Manchester to Birmingham to Glasgow, R&D is happening, encouraging inward investment and strengthening our export potential; in Cambridge we play our part with the filing of the most patents of any British city by far – and we are one of only eleven net contributing cities to the Treasury.
In the Budget (another event that feels like it was another era), the Chancellor announced The Blue Skies Research Agency to fund “high-risk, high-reward science” and encourage R&D to “drive growth and prosperity across the country, and generate ideas and tools to tackle global challenges”. Now is also a chance to build a better economy; to achieve not simply growth but purpose-driven and sustainable growth. We need to boost those businesses seeking to solve real-world problems, from health challenges and food security to enabling clean energy and a more enlightened global system.
The coming years will bring innovations we can barely yet conceive of, from virtual pharmacies and e-hospitals to new education technology and the use of gaming to address issues such as climate science. To take advantage, policy levers and investment must be targeted towards areas primed to be homes for such innovation; places that already have the infrastructure, diverse talent base, skills and business networks, but crucially would benefit from additional support to progress further and retain the UK’s position as a global innovation leader.
Propitiously, Britain is awash with such areas. Cambridge, arguably Europe’s most innovative city, and certainly on a par with Massachusetts and Silicon Valley in terms of the concentration of high-tech businesses, is one example. A globally focused hub, home to two leading universities and world-class science, business, facilities and investment bases, it combines academic prowess, 800 years of stability, and a desire to innovate and ‘produce’ quickly. According to Cambridge Innovation Capital’s analysis*, Cambridge-based start-ups have attracted over £750 million of investment in the last 12 months alone.
We should be using places like this – and we have a number of them across the UK - to attract inward investment. They are innovation hubs where it is safe to do tricky things, and they will be the key to the recovery.
The Government’s post-Covid strategy must take into account where in Britain our strengths already lie; where there are already laboratories, science parks and incubators, then build on this – for example putting these places at the front of the queue for investment following the spending review. Because as we start to rebuild our economy, it’s crucial no part of the country is left behind. Next month’s emergency Budget is a good place to start.
It is time to invest in making our regions powerhouses in their own right: from the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine to the burgeoning Ox Cam Arc.
As our Prime Minister would say, it is time to level up.
Harriet Fear MBE is director of Cambridge&, former diplomat and the Prime Minister’s Business Ambassador for Life Sciences & Healthcare under the Cameron and May governments.
*According to Cambridge Innovation Capital’s analysis of Beauhurst data