Digital economy driving the North forward

The Government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme is ostensibly all about rebalancing the economy away from London and towards the Northern regions. Based around the so-called ‘core cities’ of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Sunderland and Newcastle, it is argued that a strong, connected Northern economy is of vital importance to the health of the UK economy in the future. At present the economy of the Northern regions combined is over £300bn. This would make it the tenth largest economy in the European Union, but there is still significant room for improvement.

Digital economy driving the North forward

The South of England received the majority of infrastructure investment over the past few decades while the North has been largely neglected by successive Governments. Mooted projects such as HS2 and HS3 – high speed rail developments – suggest that focus is turning North and this structural imbalance is set to be redressed.

One of the great economic strengths of the North is the regional specialisations, for instance the ‘Energy Estuary’ along the Humber, the advanced metal working in Sheffield or the
strong financial services sector in Leeds. City identities rooted in individualism can make the idea of turning the North into one contiguous economic ‘Powerhouse’ daunting. However, there is one area in which all areas of the North can get together and agree – the digital economy.

The North has worked as one unit before, changing the world through the Industrial Revolution. If the regions are to grow in strength in the future then they must do so again by embracing the technology of the future.

The technology sector is incredibly strong in the North of England; it is currently worth £9.9bn, around 5.2% of the North’s economy, and employs 18% of the nation’s technology workers. One in 20 Northerners are employed in the digital economy, a figure which has risen 28% in the last five years and is set to rise 10 times faster than in non-technology sectors. Digital workers in the North are paid 60% more than the non-digital average wage in businesses covering topics as diverse as gaming, digital advertising and marketing, e-commerce and marketplaces, social networking, online gambling and connected devices and ‘the internet of things’.

The technology sector is incredibly strong in the North of England

In an ever more interconnected world, money should be poured into making the North a world-leading digital economy. Work has already started in this regard with many innovative ‘media clusters’ being formed such as MediaCityUK in Salford Quays and Software City in Sunderland which are both world-leaders in their fields. Large, worldwide companies such as Sage in Newcastle also call the North of England home.

Growth of the sector means that more workers will be required. As above, Tech North predicts that the rate of growth of jobs in the technology sector will be 10 times faster than rates in non-digital sectors over the coming years. Even if that turns out to be an overestimate, and there is no indication that’s the case, there will be a significant growth in the workforce and population of the North. The Government has mandated coding be taught in schools and organisations such as Northcoders are committed to upskilling the existing workforce, but despite such efforts there will still need to be a migration of workers heading North in order to meet demand.

All of these workers will need places to live. The housing markets – both for buying and renting – in the big Northern cities are already suffering from too-slow rates of new housebuilding in the cities, and that is just for the current population without considering out-of-town additions. Until 2015 no new dwellings had been built in the centre of Leeds for five years. Salford, the home of the BBC and ITV at MediaCityUK, is attracting people from all over the world looking to live and work in this booming city. The media is often driven to distraction by stories of potential skyscraper apartment blocks but the reality is that many of the most heavily marketed skyscrapers never get built and, therefore, do not end up helping undersupplied markets. Developments such as X1 Aire in Leeds and Adelphi Wharf X1 Media City in Salford Quays are the exceptions at present and will need company as the digital economy continues to expand in the North.

Preston Guide vertical - April 2019

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