Greg Wright: Investment in Leeds by Sky and Channel 4 provides leverage in transport investment battle

Stephen van Rooyen. Picture Bruce Rollinson
Stephen van Rooyen. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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Apart from creating a war for talent in the North’s creative sector, Sky and Channel 4’s investment in Leeds also provides leverage for those who are calling for more investment in the North’s transport system.

The fact that Stephen van Rooyen, a senior figure at a global media giant, is concerned about “long known challenges” with public transport systems in the North must make Ministers sit up and pay attention.

Growing numbers of sophisticated technology and creative firms are beating a path to Yorkshire. These national brands will not tolerate a second rate transport system. They have the ears of the powerful in Westminster and will undoubtedly lobby hard if they feel Yorkshire and the North is being betrayed.

Mr van Rooyen’s passion for Yorkshire is palpable. Sky’s team in Leeds is working on digital innovations that millions of consumers have come to rely on.

Anyone who questions the North’s ability to attract the brightest and best really should pay a trip down to Leeds Dock. For years, the area around the dock struggled to attract jobs and investment. It seemed to be just another sad reminder of Leeds’ faded glory.

Today, it is a hub for one of the biggest entertainment companies on the planet, with around 650 skilled staff producing technology of the future, including augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

When I arrived for my interview with Mr van Rooyen, he was in the closing stages of a Q&A session with hundreds of staff.

You could have been forgiven for thinking you had walked into Silicon Valley, if it hadn’t been for the thin drizzle outside.

In recent months, much of the focus has been on Channel 4’s decision to establish its headquarters in Leeds. But Sky has been quietly building up a digital powerhouse on Leeds Dock.

Sky opened its first office there in late 2015 with the aim of recruiting around 400 technology roles.

This investment has proved to be a stunning success. It now employs 650 people, which is around half of Sky’s total staff number in Leeds.

Sky’s team in Leeds is looking at using Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence to solve customer queries. The team is responsible for the My Sky app and the development of bots

and artificial intelligence.

Working with global software firm IBM Watson, Sky launched a “concierge bot” with asynchronous (time lag) messaging to manage customer queries within the My Sky app, Facebook Messenger and SMS.

All this activity places Yorkshire at the cutting edge of innovation.

It also offers graduates from local universities with the chance to find skilled long term career opportunities with a global employer on their doorstep.

But in order to attract talented workers from the widest possible catchment area, Sky - and every other major employer in the region - is demanding collaborative action to fix the transport system.

Mr van Rooyen is particularly concerned about the time keeping and general reliability of the train services between Leeds and Manchester.

If the Government is serious about spreading wealth and influence around the regions, then it must welcome investments from the likes of Sky and Channel 4 in Leeds.

So policymakers should also heed Mr van Rooyen’s wise words: “We and others in the media industry, who look to this part of the country to become a creative hub, feel passionately about the connections between Manchester and Leeds and the reliability of the train service.

“Collectively industry, Government and councils need to work together to find ways to make sure that connectivity can be improved so that the catchment area of the workforce in the North can become much better than it is today.”

Sky’s faith in Yorkshire’s skilled workforce has paid off. But the advantages provided by our low cost base, world class universities and superb quality of life are being undermined by failings in the transport network.

If the new Prime Minister wishes to establish their “One Nation” credentials, they must provide the North with more than platitudes.