Posted by Dr Max Nathan, SERC and NIESR
Rory Cellan-Jones has a nice article on the BBC website on the prospects for the Government’s ‘Tech North’ initiative, building extensively from my work with Emma Vandore on Tech City in London. Here’s some further thoughts.
Tech North was launched by Nick Clegg last week: it’s one of the products of the DPM’s recent Northern Futures
initiative. The idea is to promote tech clusters in Liverpool,
Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle: Clegg has put £2m/year on
the table to support local firms, and to attract FDI to the area.
Politically this is a no brainer. It meshes with the government’s ‘rebalancing’ rhetoric. And it fits the new mission of TechCity UK,
which has expanded its remit from just East London to cover the whole
country. TCUK is publishing work next month looking at digital clusters,
which will put some new numbers behind the policy.
So will it work? Rory is fairly sceptical in his piece. I’m still
unclear what the programme will actually do: so here are five issues
policymakers should be thinking about.
1/ Real geographies – Tech North connects five big
cities with over 150 miles between them. In the real world, urban tech
is in very tight microclusters: neighbourhood scale scenes which allow
for lots of face to face contact. In Liverpool, for example, a lot of
the action is in Ropewalks or the Baltic Triangle.
In London, Ministers originally hoped to ‘connect’ the Shoreditch
cluster to the Olympic Park a few miles away. That hasn’t proved
possible, not least because Old Street firms didn’t want to move there
and saw no connection between the two.
So the chances of creating a single super hub across the Pennines are slim at best. There are worrying echoes of the Thames Gateway
here: a planning concept, not a real place. On the other hand, as we
found in London, the area branding might prove a helpful way to raise
the profile of these local scenes.
2/ Who’s in and who’s out? The DPM seems to have
focused his attention on the five Northern core cities. Fair enough, in
that these are the economic powerhouses of their wider regions. But the
real geography of tech activity is a little different. But cities like
York and Sunderland also have quite a lot of tech firms. So why aren’t they included?
3/ FDI versus growing our own – firms cluster
because co-location makes sense: they can tap into new ideas and pools
of skilled workers and can share useful inputs (like fast broadband or
VC investors). On the other hand, as Henry Overman and I have argued, clusters have tensions built in. As more firms enter, pressures on space build up, so rents rise. And competition rises, for staff and for market share.
Given all this, it’s risky to base cluster development policies on
foreign investment. If FDI simply brings in big multinationals, these
might displace smaller, younger UK businesses. Even if this raises aggregate productivity, I doubt it's what
Government or cities want in this case. Agencies like UKTI typically try and maximise
the count and size of foreign investments. A different approach is
needed here, which is to focus on the type of foreign inputs.
4/ Infrastructures – specifically FDI programmes should try and
enrich the rest of the ecosystem, especially specialist services tech
firms need: finance, lawyers, accountants and workspaces. This stuff is
only just starting to appear in London at scale, and is likely to be a
priority for other UK cities. Certainly, the UK’s VC scene has been pretty weak outside the capital.
Equally, fast internet (and fast connection to it) is a basic need.
For me, this is now a public utility, so it’s disappointing that the
Superconnected Cities scheme has retreated from rolling out faster
systems to everyone, to simply providing vouchers to SMEs. The CORE programme in York, Peterborough and Derby is an interesting exception (thanks to Tom Forth for the link).
5/ Policy architecture (and whether it really matters)
– cluster policy advocates like Michael Porter assume that cluster
development has to be local, since clusters are local phenomena. But
this doesn’t follow.
First, Tech North has little cash on the table: strikingly, its five-city budget
is about the same as the original budget for East London.
Second, a lot
of the relevant policy levers are held at national level: tax breaks for
investors, crowdfunding regulation, immigration and skills. That still
leaves some local levers: branding, networking, planning and any local
investment pots. But it’s limited stuff.
Arguably some of these national levers should be devolved: that’s
started to happen through City Deals and Local Growth Deals. But we’re
at the very start of this process, and though the post-Scotland moment may yet shake things up further, what Ministers are handing over in powers they’re largely taking away in cuts.
But perhaps that’s too pessimistic. As Emma and I found in the East
London research, the Old St scene grew quietly for years without
policymakers really noticing. That could well be the likely trajectory
for the many clusters under the Tech North umbrella.
Originally posted on the squareglasses blog.