THE launch of the Northern Powerhouse initiative two years ago rightly put the concept of super-charged growth in the North of England at the top of Government’s agenda.
But in truth the North has long been powering the Britain’s economy. Two hundred years ago, it was businesses on both sides of the Pennines that turbo-charged the nation’s manufacturing industries. Now, as Britain enters a new industrial age, the North can once again be the focus of new growth.
What is now known as the First Industrial Revolution – when the country’s wealth was estimated to have grown 10-fold – was led by Northern industry powered by steam and coal.
Textiles produced in Yorkshire and surrounding counties were exported globally on ships made from Sheffield steel. Northern entrepreneurs such as Richard Arkwright with his water-powered spinning machine drove economic growth, and the wealth of Northern cities. Two further industrial ages followed, characterised by automation of production in the late 19th century and the advancement of computing power and the internet in 20th.
Now, as the world stands on the verge of a new, Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the Northern Powerhouse can be a blueprint for how Britain can be successful in the decades ahead by building on its heritage and adopting a nimble free-market, pro-innovation approach.
Just as steam, engines and railways drove a manufacturing revolution in the 18th century, today’s 4IR is being catalysed by artificial intelligence (AI), mass-automation and hyper-connectivity.
In the future we could see everything from parcels delivered to your door by drones to a new generation of driverless cars. However the upsides from the 4IR are not just eye-catching innovations, but substantial strategic, supply-side benefits for our economy too, including increased productivity, lower prices, greater consumer choice and new jobs in new industries.
Our new Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her commitment to the Northern Powerhouse when she wrote in The Yorkshire Post last month. She backed 4IR industries in the North, including quantum computing research in York and the new Royce Institute for Advanced Materials at the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield. In addition, funding incubator space for tech start-ups in Sheffield and Leeds will provide the right environment for the spirit of 18th century enterprise to be reborn.
I have secured the first ever House of Commons debate on the 4IR today, with cross-party support. It’s important that the Government acts now to put the 4IR and plans for our future economy at the heart of its long-term policy-making. It will be down to the Government to make sure that while nobody is held back as Britain innovates its way to another century of success, nobody is left behind either. The ideals of another great Yorkshireman, Joseph Rowntree, must not be forgotten.
To do this, we need to continue helping people gain new skills and experiences as their careers progress. This will help negate the threat to some low-skilled sectors of the economy especially, with it being estimated that close to half of all jobs are at “high risk” from the threat of automation in the coming decades. This means continued investment in education and training is needed.
During the Victorian era, it was the railway network that made the industrial revolution a success. Northerners such as Robert Stephenson, who built the Rocket, and the “Railway King” George Hudson, developed a transport legacy that benefitted the whole country.
Continuing that heritage, the Government is making £13bn of transport investment, including that on high speed trains, across the North, as well as promising that 95 per cent of the country will have access to superfast broadband by 2017. This connectivity will build upon the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution programme, which has encouraged job growth away from London and the South East. So far progress is promising: in the past two years, foreign investment has doubled in the North, with unemployment dropping by 127,000.
But as much as it will be down to the Government providing the tools, it will be the North’s entrepreneurial spirit which will allow us to master the 4IR. Yorkshire, for example, has a wonderful history of enterprise, continuing into the modern day with 50,000 more small businesses today than in 2010.
A wave of technological change can bring about substantial benefits from greater productivity to new jobs. Just as 250 years ago with its steam-powered cotton factories, the Northern Powerhouse can once again be the catalyst for strong economic growth, helping Britain secure its position as a world leader in the new Fourth Industrial Revolution economy.
Alan Mak is Conservative MP for Havant and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Entrepreneurship. He was born and grew up in York.