Can small businesses benefit from the Northern Powerhouse?

Control F1 MD Andy Dumbell on his perceptions of the Northern Powerhouse initiative and why it’s so important to support small businesses in the region.

As cofounder and MD of a small tech business based in Yorkshire, and as a resident of the north-east, I have a vested interest in the North and support initiatives that will benefit the region.

With this in mind I recently attended the 2016 “UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference & Exhibition” held in Manchester, with the objective to understand what the NPH (Northern Powerhouse) is all about, and how it could benefit our region and its small businesses.

Prior to the event, like a lot of delegates I only had a vague understanding of what the NPH is; a concept that aims to rebalance the UK economy, pushing growth outside of London into Northern cities – from Liverpool through Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Teeside and Newcastle. It’s also a vision backed by the Chancellor George Osborne, who some say has staked his political reputation on its success.

That’s all well and good, but what does this actually mean for small businesses? What is the plan and who is leading it? How do we get involved and where are the opportunities? My hope was that the event would help answer these questions and leave us all feeling inspired and brimming with enthusiasm!

The conference was hosted by John Humphrys, who as you can imagine was witty, engaging and tenacious. It was split over two days and predominantly consisted of individual presentations and panel discussions. The calibre of the speakers was high and the format encouraged audience interaction through a social networking technology called slido.

The conference also offered some powerful networking opportunities with CEOs and other top executives of some of the largest companies and organisations in the UK, across various sectors. I formed promising connections with people whom I’d normally struggle to meet. For instance, I secured a private meeting with the President and CEO of one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK to talk about his challenges, what my business does and where we could potentially add value to his. We swapped business cards and my business has been invited to present to some of his senior team, to explore how we might work together.

On day 1 Lord O’Neil of Gately, Commercial Secretary to H M Treasury, kicked the conference off with his keynote speech on the governments’s NPH agenda with a focus on connectivity, communication and education. He talked about the NPH being a two phase project with the first currently underway, targeting awareness, devolution and improvements to transport links to better interconnect the North.

Phase 2 will be a continuation of the first, extended to address challenges in education and skills and their interplay with business. Lord O’Neil aspires to improve the outcomes and aspirations for the North, and central to phase 2 will be a low cost travel card similar to London’s Oyster card that can be used to commute across the North of England.

O’Neil’s introduction was a good start. The intention to provide better transport links should create new business opportunities whilst making commuting to work quicker, simpler and more cost effective, opening up access for businesses to a wider talent pool and encouraging local people to work in the region. However, connectivity issues within cities was not discussed and needs to be addressed in parallel to this wider piece.

There was considerable focus on education and skills throughout the event, especially given recent negative press on declining education standards in the North. I raised a question during a panel discussion on Science, Research and Skills: “what role will the NPH play in improving education standards and building a skills pipeline to meet future business demands?”

Professor Liz Towns-Andrew, Research and Enterprise, Yorkshire Universities, gave a passionate response and talked about her efforts to embed enterprise in the curriculum to create more business savvy graduates. She also highlighted the importance of listening to what employers and industry needs, and the necessity of getting these parties more engaged with further education.

This was encouraging and we heard about a number of further promising initiatives throughout the event. For instance, the International Festival of Business (IFB 2016) hosted in Liverpool later this year, a global gathering of international reach and significance. Over three weeks business leaders and thousands of international business delegates will get together, opening up opportunities in new markets. The festival includes a series of events, workshops and panel debates, with the intention to forge new connections and help businesses to secure new customers from key markets around the globe.

What wasn’t clear, though, was the role the NPH will play in all of this. Will it simply remain a concept; a platform for interested parties that share their ideas, debate and network, or will it be a real entity and the true driving force behind significant change? This wasn’t crystallised and the NPH is facing a fair amount of criticism. Social networks are loaded with frustration over the lack of a clear plan with some critics labelling the NPH as a gimmick without substance.

Geographical focus also presents a bit of an issue. Manchester is likely to become the capital of the NPH; it was quite telling that the chancellor’s first speech on the concept was delivered here, with events such as this one hosted in the city. But it’s important that the organisers rotate event locations across the north and don’t neglect cities such as York, Sunderland and Hull. It would be great to see future NPH events hosted in Newcastle and other major cities; otherwise we risk Manchester becoming the northern powerhouse and a new divide forming, breeding imbalance within the North which will undermine the initiative’s whole purpose.

So was the UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference & Exhibition worth attending? Personally, I didn’t achieve all of my objectives and like a lot of delegates, my understanding of the NPH is still relatively vague. Yet whilst I didn’t leave feeling wholly inspired, I am hopeful, and believe that the NPH – which is still in its infancy – can accomplish its vision if given the necessary support: as delegates we are responsible for ensuring ROI when investing our time and money into such activities. Returning to my original question – can small businesses benefit from the Northern Powerhouse? – I would say yes! Get involved; network, debate, collaborate and help play an active role in the NPH story – it’s what we make of it that counts.

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