Yorkshire's small businesses key to bridging North/South divide - the Northern Affinity's Michael Edwards

The North/South divide is a tale as old as time.

The Leeds skyline. Picture: Simon Hulme.

From the geological divide in landscapes of the land to the industrial revolution, to today’s political landscape, the divide has manifested itself in many different ways, but the fact remains – the South has had a hold over the North for as long as history has been written.

The North/South disjointedness is once again at the forefront of the political agenda. At least that’s what the Government is telling us. With promises of a ‘levelling up’ and huge-scale investments in business and infrastructure, one could believe that the North’s time is now.

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The thing is, we don’t know how long this will take if we sit by and wait for it to happen. There have been one too many empty speeches to sit by and see such little action. The North needs to take action now, and from within. Through the maximisation of small businesses and community we can even out the playing field and fulfil the potential we all know is there. A primary issue surrounding the talks of levelling up is the reference to the North being one place.

We all know this isn’t true – and the industries and histories that each town or city was individually built on cannot be blurred together to get a dreary picture of the north. We are not the same. Look between the Lake District and Manchester and what do you see? A rural community that is reliant on their landscape for a thriving tourism industry versus a professional hub for the creative and tech-savvy alike.

These regions do not face the same challenges – though both in the North – policies and investment cannot adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach for somewhere that has such nuance.

Infrastructure is an important investment that the North needs. Travel between Manchester and Leeds, for example should be seamless. This isn’t just about the big cities though, with rural towns and villages having little access to larger cities, it is no wonder young workers flee to the capital looking for work. So, how can we keep workers and graduates from migrating south?

The North is home to world-leading universities and yet come graduation day students wave goodbye and head off to London for shiny grad schemes. We need to retain our talent. A positive that has come out of these difficult 18 months is that people are starting to realise they don’t need to be right in the hustle and bustle every day to have a successful career. This could be a step in the right direction for us. If business owners in the North can appeal to the talent then we will be dipping into a never-ending talent pool. It’s about striking a balance.

People now more than ever are looking for a work-life balance. Offering employees the chance to find their balance through hybrid work, for example, is key.

This is where small and medium businesses come in. It seems impossible to compete with the huge corporate grad schemes offered, but by being nimble and keeping with the times by offering what people want as opposed to just a shiny office and desk, people will soon realise where they want to be.

Small businesses are quick on their feet and able to home in on new talent, offering much more variance to a job role than the larger, more corporate firms that are a big attraction for new hires.

The talent is here, we know this. We also know the abundance of amazing small businesses, with the potential for growth. The issue is opportunity. We need to be able to link the abundance of talent and potential for growth with opportunity.

To do this, schemes and funding programmes need to broaden their horizons. While regional investment and funding opportunities in the North are there, it is not inclusive for all businesses.

With sole traders and businesses with less than five employees with great forecast for growth often not meeting the criteria for investment due to too few employees, this needs to change.

Here lays an abundance of businesses that with the right investment could be the bedrock of opportunities for the North that allows its growth and prosperity.

Through the power of small and medium businesses creating a united network and offering attractive employment opportunity, being mixed with tailored funding opportunities which fit all business types and models, the north will become a honey pot for new talent and by making these small progresses, the North/South divide can be bridged.

Michael Edwards is the founder and director of The Northern Affinity, which enables collaboration between northern businesses.