For many years there have been calls to bridge the UK’s stark north-south divide. These have come under many badges, from “rebalancing the economy” to “building a Northern Powerhouse”.
Now, “levelling up” is the choice term for a government ambitious to deliver for voters who tore down Labour’s so-called “red wall” in December’s election. It was a major theme of last week’s Budget.
While the devolution of powers to city mayors and the redevelopment of areas such as Salford show some progress, the UK remains the “most geographically unequal developed economy in the world” according to the Centre for Cities think tank.
The economy of the UK is overwhelmingly reliant on London and the south east. The capital alone is responsible for almost a quarter of the country’s economy, despite making up just 13 per cent of its population, placing unsustainable pressure on a city facing its own post-Brexit challenges.
Those in the north should remember that London is no “land of milk and honey” — Londoners face a trifecta of high living costs, rising house prices and growing wealth inequality.
Investment into levelling up could help to relieve some of this pressure. According to Centre for Cities, if the largest eight underperforming cities closed their output gap, the UK economy would be £47.4bn larger.
So how do we do it?
Now, more than ever, policymakers are recognising the importance of research and development in solving our most pressing productivity challenges. Last week, chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged to increase funding for R&D by 15 per cent, investing £22bn by 2024–25.
But there is a danger that this will exacerbate current regional inequalities. Last year, 57 universities in the south east were receiving more than half of the UK’s entire research funding, with a smaller share going to 77 institutions in the north and Midlands.
There is sometimes a misconception that it is necessary to create an innovation ecosystem from scratch outside the radius of London. But in fact, the north and Midlands have their own world-class universities, with pioneering innovation structures already in place.
At the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Nuclear AMRC, we bring together industry, academia and government to develop research and innovation across a range of sectors — including aerospace, nuclear and construction. We also educate and train apprentices to address the skills gap that acts as a barrier to growth in businesses of all sizes, across the country.
Our approach has had a significant impact in levelling up, not only in our own corner of south Yorkshire — attracting investment from global powerhouses such as Boeing and McLaren — but also in other parts of the country through our satellite centres in Broughton, Preston, Derby and Birkenhead.
We stand ready to roll this model out across the UK, and hope to work with public and private partners to drive more economic growth to communities with traditionally low levels of productivity.
A government committed to levelling up must be committed to world-class R&D, in all parts of the country. This will unleash the opportunity to relieve the burden on high production areas such as London, Oxford and Cambridge, and rebalance our economy so that cities and towns across the country — including London — can realise their true potential.
Main image credi: Getty