The North, quite rightly, has been recognised as an economic community with huge potential, whose productivity is held back by its infrastructure. The aspirations for sustained investment set out in the Strategic Transport Plan are a step on a journey towards better collaboration across the North and beyond, including our airports, and will pave the way for international business.
Over the past two decades, I’ve led companies that have built critical pieces of the UK’s internet infrastructure in the region and are responsible for much of the data flowing through the North of England. Part of this job has meant identifying and working with partners who, together, can create a digital region and a more productive North.
This connectivity infrastructure, means that digital and data-hungry businesses have been able to spring from, and relocate to, Leeds City Region because, from a digital connectivity standpoint, everything just works.
It’s been a 10-year journey of digital maturity for the region and the results are clear. Our tech sector is projected to continue adding thousands of high-skilled jobs over the next decade and Leeds boasts the fastest growing average digital salary in the country. What we’re seeing now is there’s a model for us to create the same enabling infrastructure in other cities across the UK, and specifically across the North.
However, we are at a pivot point where a city’s digital aspirations can now only be fulfilled if there is access to the right people and the right customers. This involves widening the ‘easy commute’ radius, and providing better access to other cities and international airports.
The Strategic Transport Plan, which was launched by Transport for the North on Tuesday from my company aql’s historic headquarters in Leeds, is aiming to build these physical transport links over the next 30 years.
That might sound like a long time and some of us will hopefully be retired by then, but an integrated strategic plan such as this isn’t only for those working or doing business. It aims to address end-to-end journey times – so, not just the time from train station to train station, but also the overall house-bus-train-bus scenario – as well as how green commuter paths can be built to create a more enjoyable travel experience. Much of this work is being pioneered at the Leeds Institute of Data Analytics.
While the huge infrastructure, such as tunnels, may take some time, smaller transformation to local services can and will happen sooner and will benefit everyone.
Smart ticketing that makes planning and paying for travel seamless across the North, and would allow you, for example, to use the same card to lock your bike safely at the station as for your ticket, is another piece of an integrated approach.
When it arrives in 2021, it will be the first visible implementation of the plan, and the first step in terms of how we engage digitally as we build more transport links.
I see this as a symbiotic journey over the next decade between our digital evolution and our improvements in transport.
Transport for the North’s new plan calls for long-term investment across the region to build infrastructure, strengthen skills, harness innovation and encourage smart technology.
It’s an ambitious plan that encompasses sweeping improvements to road and rail, and recognises the improvements needed in the region’s critical physical connectivity. It’s another exciting piece of the challenge to create a stronger North, and our support for the plan goes hand-in-hand with aql’s own mission and our backing of the Government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.
As a ‘city enabler’, aql is spearheading Leeds City Region’s bid to become a 5G pilot location. We have an aspiration to transform cities across the UK, and in particular cities across the North, and to support the uptake of these smart digital technologies to compliment the building of physical transport infrastructure.
Investment in new rail and road is only an opportunity if we are also doing all we can to drive efficiencies within this infrastructure. It’s a long-term vision, but the arrival of 5G mobile telecoms, and the innovation it unlocks, will sit at its heart.
We and the wider technology community have a fundamental challenge. We have to create technologies to manage a seamless transport experience, balancing long-term infrastructure projects, such as road and rail, with the exponential progress in technologies such as driverless cars and smart traffic management systems.
There’s much road ahead and much work to be done, but what’s certain is that the next generation of transport needs digital innovation and digital innovators need next-generation transport.
Adam Beaumont is the founder and CEO of telecoms operator aql. He plays a key role in the Government’s Northern Powerhouse proposal.