On 23rd February, the Eastern Powerhouse hosted its first annual Conference, ‘A Growth Vision for the East’. Speakers and participants discussed the opportunities for growth in three key thematic areas – Skills, Innovation, Infrastructure – and what investment and policy interventions are needed:
Keynote speaker Sir Philip Augar emphasised the importance of skills, alongside investment and science, in meeting the UK’s productivity challenge. The most important priority is for a substantial refunding of the FE & Skills sector to reverse the downward trend in real terms funding over the past decade.
“The Productivity issue will be solved with a combination of Investment, Science, and Skills. Investment needs to come from Government, Business, and Learners. It needs to be a mix.” Sir Philip Augar
The expert panel reflected on the situation in the East of England, where travel to learn is a real barrier for students of all ages given the weak transport infrastructure. We need to raise aspirations amongst young people and make them more aware of all the options available. Schools currently don’t value vocational courses sufficiently, so teachers and parents need information, advice and guidance, as well as students.
Both Anglia Ruskin - with ARU Peterborough the youngest Higher Education Institute in England - West Suffolk College and the University of Suffolk are very vocationally focused and work actively with businesses to meet skills gaps, but the post-16 education system is complex and fragmented. One practical step forward would be the creation of a regional Skills Hub, a “one stop shop” where skill-seekers and employers could get full information on opportunities.
(Moderated by: Dr Marius Ostrowski, Executive Director, Lifelong Education Commission
Speakers: Sir Philip Augar; Prof. Helen Langton, Vice-Chancellor, University of Suffolk; Prof. Ross Renton, Principal, ARU Peterborough; Candy Richards, Development Manager, Federation of Small Businesses; Dr Nikos Savvas, CEO, Eastern Colleges Group)
This session discussed the importance of innovation to long term productivity and growth. It began with a conceptual understanding of innovation as it applies to different types and size of business with insights from UKRI and the Digital Catapult about the role of public policy and research institutions in stimulating research and development.
“We have a landscape that is littered with the heritage of various policies and strategies on innovation over the years. The more we can align, the more effective we can be.” Dr Jeremy Silver, CEO, Digital Catapult
Generally, publicly funded innovation programmes have a push pull approach – looking for specific projects in specific sectors but also open to new approaches. Both UKRI and the Digital Catapult stated their ability to grant fund at scale.
We heard that the East of England is endowed with knowledge-intensive and innovation-led sectors in new science and technology industries, such as life sciences, green energy, agritech, and information technology. Much of this is clustered around the world-class universities of Cambridge but there are other beacons of light across the region including: Norwich Research Park specialising in biotech, agritech and medical science; Adastral Park, in Ipswich, home to a global cluster of high-tech telecommunication and technology companies; and Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, a leading location for companies to develop and commercialise cutting edge therapeutics and gene cell technologies.
R&D funding in these industries is critical to increasing prosperity through the adoption of new products and services, and the creation of higher-wage jobs. But the uneven distribution of innovation and economic gains can potentially widen regional inequalities. Increasing public and private investment for R&D, universities and other research institutions is therefore a crucial element in boosting innovation in the East of England.
Panel members, which included Innovation leaders in the region like Lotus Cars and NIAB, spoke to the problems of relative skill shortages, transport infrastructure constraints, and a failure of public innovation policy to support clusters beyond the ‘golden triangle’ as a key barrier to boosting the growth potential of the East. Overcoming these constraints will be vital to those firms and sectors in which innovation activity is concentrated and in helping to crowd in smaller firms that may benefit from R&D.
Innovation policy, and public expenditure, in the UK needs to be more direct and less place-blind in order to narrow regional disparities.
(Moderated by: Phillip Blond, Director, Eastern Powerhouse Speakers: David Rogers, Deputy Director – Investment Strategy, UKRI; Dr Jeremy Silver, CEO, Digital Catapult; Prof. Mario Caccamo, CEO, NIAB; Dr Sally Ann Forsyth OBE, CEO, Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst; Jane Hutchins, Director, Cambridge Science Park; Matt Windle, Group VP and MD, Lotus Cars)
The panel discussed the requirements for investing in energy, rail and housing and the vital role this will play in economic growth, creating tens of thousands of jobs across the region, including some of the most deprived rural and coastal communities.
Transport is perhaps the most visible indicator of how limited infrastructure is holding back growth in the region. East-West rail will significantly improve connectivity between two of our country’s fastest growing innovation hubs (Oxford and Cambridge) but upgrades to the regional network must be extended to the main economic centres (Norwich, Ipswich, Peterborough) and beyond to coastal towns and communities. The panel discussed the concept of 30-minute cities and how better connections can improve commuting and accessibility while reducing the region’s carbon footprint. The upgrade to Ely North is central to this vision.
The region’s transport network should provide the basis for a spatial plan that can drive future development, densifying business activity and housing in and around major transport hubs as well as building along major corridors. Panellists discussed the difficulties of building housing, at scale, across different planning authorities and the need for improvements to the region’s energy grid so that the East can take advantage of its natural resources and assets to create green and sustainable energy.
A spatial strategy for the whole region will guide investment in infrastructure that can connect places – cities, towns, villages - to grow the regional economy as part of an integrated and coherent industrial strategy.
(Moderated by: James Palmer, Chair, Eastern Powerhouse Speakers: Lord Andrew Lansley, Chair, Cambridge Development Forum Sarah Jane Crawford, Principal Programme Sponsor – Anglia Route, Network Rail; Andy Hill OBE, Chief Executive, The Hill Group; Mark Sommerfeld, Head of Power & Flexibility, Renewable Energy Association; Beth West, CEO, East West Rail; Peter Whitmore, Managing Director – East, Morgan Sindall)