Exclusive: London is full, declares top tech entrepreneur

One of Britain’s most successful technology entrepreneurs has given his backing to the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, declaring that “London is full” and young people would be better served living and working in towns and cities in the North.

Peter Wilkinson

One of Britain’s most successful technology entrepreneurs has given his backing to the idea of a Northern Powerhouse, declaring that “London is full” and young people would be better served living and working in towns and cities in the North.

Internet pioneer Peter Wilkinson described the scheme to combine the economies of places like Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield as “a phenomenal opportunity”.

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But he warned that the plan needs the equivalent of London mayor Boris Johnson to give it a strong voice and win popular support.

Mr Wilkinson’s views carry some weight - his business ventures including Freeserve and Sports Internet Group have created thousands of jobs and generated a personal wealth estimated at £365m.

In an interview with The Yorkshire Post at his offices in Harrogate, the 60-year-old said politicians and businesses leaders should “park their egos” to make the vision a reality by coming up with a 10-point plan with business creation, transport and housing as the top priorities.

He said: “The Northern Powerhouse is about creating jobs and the only way you can create jobs is by making it a phenomenal environment for entrepreneurs of all ages.

“You should be starting a 100,000 businesses a year and if they average 10 people each you are creating a million jobs a year.”

He set out the strengths of the region. “You have fantastic centres of commerce, all the top law firms, all the top accountancy firms, all the venture capitalists coming into the area. All that infrastructure is here.

“On top of that, which London doesn’t have, is an enormous potential manufacturing base. It has the most phenomenal potential if somebody can find a way of getting hold of it.”

The Yorkshireman added: “They can’t go on forever shovelling people into London. They need to put the ‘full’ signs up. It’s closed. But they keep doing it because there’s no alternative.

“It’s not as though you are going into France and trying to do something in Lyon, which sits there on its own with nowt around it.

“Manchester’s got Leeds. Leeds has got Manchester. Leeds has got Sheffield, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Castleford, Featherstone, Wakefield. Then Manchester has got the same. And the two places, when you get to the peripheries, are probably only 20 miles apart.”

He said the national media portrays London as the “most fantastic, beautiful place to live” when in reality people live in squalid conditions with very expensive rents.

“If you are going to make money, everybody thinks you have to go to London,” he added.

“But I’m an example you don’t have to. Paul Sykes, Ken Morrison, the Healey boys... there are lots of examples you don’t have to, even without going over the other side of the Pennines. But it needs investment in infrastructure.”

Mr Wilkinson questioned the need for vast public expenditure on the HS2 high-speed train link between London and the North.

He said money would better spent enhancing the M62 motorway and speeding up the rail service between Liverpool and Hull - “two magnificent ports... one serving the Americas and the other Europe” - and making it easy to travel between towns and cities.

He also called for a consolidation of Yorkshire’s aviation capacity and said “it can’t be that expensive to build an airport.”

Mr Wilkinson said universities in the North should set up innovation funds to back students with new ideas for businesses to capitalise on the brain power that exists in the institutions.

These efforts to support job creation should be matched by local and central government, he added.

Chancellor George Osborne relaunched the Government’s programme to rebalance the UK economy during a visit to Manchester this week.

Mr Wilkinson said: “You have got to have a plan. The people in the North have got to understand that plan so it’s not going to be some highfalutin esoteric load of bull****.

“Whatever job you do, from emptying the bins to being some high-flying executive, everyone needs to buy into what you’re trying to do.”

He said the Northern Powerhouse idea has “great legs” but needs a few individuals and a strong spokesman to make it work.

Mr Wilkinson ruled himself out of a foray into politics. “I’m a dictator,” he said.

One A-level leads to stellar career

Peter Wilkinson left school with one A-level but as a serial entrepreneur went on to build an estimated 15 successful businesses.

A timeline on a glass wall at the new headquarters of InTechnology plc in Harrogate charts the story.

It begins with the founding of Storm in 1983, which became one of Britain’s largest data storage distributors.

In 1998, he was behind the UK’s most successful consumer internet services provider Freeserve.

BSkyB bought Sports Internet Group for £301m in 2001.

In 2013, InTechnology plc sold its managed services division for £65m.