Borderlands deal must put digital first

Borderlands deal must put digital first.

Plans to invest heavily in transforming the economy along the England-Scotland border will only succeed with critical improvements to digital connectivity.

The Borderlands Growth Deal will see funds devolved from the UK and Scottish governments to support economy-boosting investment in the Borderlands.

It was announced in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s 2017 Autumn Budget and will target the entire Borderlands region – encompassing Cumbria and Northumberland in England and Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders in Scotland.

Policy North believes, however, that urgent attention must be given to the area’s flagging digital infrastructure, if the ambitious plans are to be successful.

With over 75 per cent of the Borderlands considered to be rural, many parts of it are among the most remote areas of Britain.

While 85 per cent of Borderlands properties have access to 30mbps broadband, for almost a fifth of postcodes coverage is less than 70 per cent; In five per cent of them, coverage drops below 50 per cent. This means for 25 per cent of people, mere access to broadband is a key issue, with connectivity and quality issues affecting many others. 

The Borderlands Growth Deal must be the catalyst to enabling everyone in the area to engage in the growing digital economy.

Investment in a hyperfast (1GB) infrastructure would tackle many of the challenges which arise in the area’s poorly connected, dispersed communities and bring many new opportunities to the Borderlands.

Greater digital infrastructure will improve productivity and innovation and enhance the reputation of the area as a place to do business for investors nationally and internationally.

The growth deal must empower the Borderlands to take full advantage of the opportunities of technology and connectivity for businesses and households. Improved broadband connectivity creates opportunities for smart solutions that facilitate and are fundamental to peoples’ everyday lives and the development of business ideas, wherever people are located.

Policy North’s recommendations were set out at the Borderlands meeting of local authority leaders and north MPs, which took place at Northumberland’s Walwick Hall hotel with Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry MP. 

Other attendees included Hexham MP Guy Opperman, MP for Carlisle John Stevenson and the Duchess of Northumberland.




Moving our railways into the digital age, reducing overcrowding & cutting delays

Policy North welcomes announcement that will move our railways into the digital age, reduce overcrowding and cut delays. 

Earlier today the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne launched the ‘Digital Railway Strategy’. It will ensure train journeys become faster, more punctual, more frequent and safer with the introduction of innovative digital technology across the rail network. 

The newly unveiled strategy will ensure all new trains and signalling are digital or digital ready from 2019. This will allow more frequent services resulting in lower rates of overcrowding, cut delays by allowing trains to get moving more rapidly without disruption, safely allow more trains to run per hour by running trains closer together, and enable vastly improved mobile and wi-fi connectivity – allowing passengers to make the most of their travel time.

This is a revolutionary step that marks the shift of our railways and travel infrastructure into the digital age as we stand on the precipice of the upcoming and highly anticipated 4th industrial revolution. 

Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, said: 

“We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railway since Victorian times to deliver what passengers want to see – faster, more reliable and more comfortable journeys.

“Passenger numbers have doubled in recent years – which means we need to invest in new technology to help deliver the reliable and frequent trains that passengers want.

“Investing in a railway fit for the twenty-first century will help the UK become a world leader in rail technology, boosting exports and skills. As we celebrate the Year of Engineering, this is a chance to show young people how digital innovation is opening doors to careers that will shape the future of travel.”

The introduction of new innovative digital rail technology will make sure the best use is made of the £48 billion that is being invested in modernisation of railways across the UK between 2019 and 2024. This renewal will include new and replacement signalling. The Government has also announced a £450 million budget specifically for digital railway schemes. 

Policy North is confident that when our national rail infrastructure is improved, the north of England will benefit from the boost in national connectivity, creating stronger links between the northern economy and the rest of the UK. We welcome the £5 million the government has set aside for Network Rail to develop proposals for embedding digital technology between Manchester and York. The £3 billion upgrade of that route, which is due to start next year, is what we and passengers have been calling for, so we are eager to see work get underway.

Staying in the Customs Union is the worst of both worlds

Commenting on today’s House of Commons debate on Customs and Borders, Callum Crozier, policy director at leading northern business think tank, Policy North, said:

The North of England economy is worth over £300bn and makes up 19 per cent of total UK output, but it has the potential to be so much more after Brexit, as long as we leave the Customs Union.

If we do not leave the Customs Union, there is no point in leaving the EU. Being ‘out’ of the EU but having to abide by its tariffs and being unable to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world defies logic.

With 90 per cent of global growth over the next 10-15 years set to be from non-EU countries, it makes no sense to lock ourselves out of these lucrative markets.

Policy North has proposed establishing free ports in the North post Brexit. There are currently no functional Free Trade Zones in the UK because membership of the Single Market and Customs Union effectively prevents us from creating them. That’s why leaving the Customs Union is essential.  

If the UK remains in the Customs Union, the Department for International Trade will rendered pointless as we will be unable to negotiate independent trade deals with other countries.  People will then rightly ask in what way we have left the EU. This debate is simply an attempt to frustrate Brexit and undermine the referendum result.

Northern transport bosses granted new powers

North transport bosses have been granted new powers to set the long-term priorities needed to get the North moving. 

On April 1st, Transport for the North (TfN) became England's first sub-national transport body. 

That means the North, through TfN, has a louder voice in bidding for cash and setting priorities. 

TfN now has the power to:

·         Develop and implement a Strategic Transport Plan

·         Act as ‘one voice’ for the North, relaying priorities to the Secretary of State

·         Coordinate and deliver smart ticketing systems across the North

·         Become a statutory partner in road and rail investment decisions

·         Oversee (jointly with DfT) franchised rail services covering Northern and TransPennine Express franchises through the Rail North Partnership team

·         Construct new roads, with the agreement of Government and relevant highway and local authorities

·         Decide on the allocation of capital grants

The new powers are being backed up by hard cash. 

Speaking at the first Transport for the North (TfN) Partnership Board in Liverpool, Rail Minister Jo Johnson said: 

“Between 2015 and 2020 the government will have spent over £13bn – more than any other in history – to transform northern transport, boosting economic growth and unlocking the incredible potential of the great towns and cities of the north. 

“Establishing Transport for the North is a crucial next step in giving the north greater influence than ever over transport investment. It is imperative that the north now speaks with a strong, unified voice to identify where we can work together to transform journeys for people."

The North now has more influence than ever over transport investment and money is being made available.  

The key now is to make sure we in the North use this new status to prioritise transport projects that will bring genuine economic improvements. 

Very few businesses believe moderately shorter journeys times between Humberside and Manchester or Newcastle and Leeds can catalyse serious growth in the North without an international vision. 

Brexit brings with it unlimited trading opportunities for the North. TfN must embrace this in its strategic plan and use its powers to create a Global North by integrating local transport alongside much better links with international transport hubs. 

Fintech - global potential for the North?

Recent developments in financial technology (fintech) could super-charge an already-buoyant sector and significantly boost the North East economy.  

The government this month announced its new fintech sector strategy – aimed at enabling the industry to flourish in the UK and cementing Britain’s position as a global fintech authority.  

The plan’s initial focus includes a new crypto assets task force, the next steps in ‘robo-regulation’ and a new UK-Australia partnership. Other measures include helping small firms to grow and reach new customers, new fintech regional envoys to ensure the benefits of fintech spread far beyond London and a set of industry standards to make collaboration easier. 

The strategy is a clear recognition of fintech’s vast potential,and the value of leading its international development.

The UK’s global standing in financial services is unquestionable. It can now build a similarly strong position in a related sector which has an incredibly bright future following rapid growth in recent years. 

The North East of England, still disproportionately reliant on public sector jobs, has much to gain.

A burgeoning fintech cluster is already taking shape in the region, populated by both start-ups and major employers, including True Potential in Newcastle, named European Business of the Year in 2017. 

It is somewhat fragmented, however, with lots of firms working on their own distinct part of the fintech market. The type of global fintech opportunities the government is courting, would help this cluster mature and develop a collective pull for more inward investment. 

Plans to forge a bridge between the fintech sectors in Newcastle and the Gulf market are already well underway, through various activities led by Policy North. New links to a lucrative region where fintech is underdeveloped but blossoming will directly boost the North East’s digital economy in the coming years. But fintech is almost universally growing in territories across the globe and there are many more patches of fertile ground to target. 

The new UK-Australia Fin Tech Bridge is a good start, and hopefully stronger bonds with other fintech markets will develop post-Brexit.

Just as in Britain, Australia’s consumers are clamouring for ever-more convenient and efficient ways of handling their finances. Organisations serving its 24 million population, meanwhile, continue to strive for tighter cyber security controls and new and innovative ways of ultilising data. 

The new fintech bridge will enable British firms to export their fintech products and services Down Under and bring together regulators, policymakers and the private sector from the two nations.

The government believes this will nurture a “fintech ecosystem” that supports the growth of both fintech markets.   

This is a prime example of the type of overseas agreement that could shape Britain’s success after Brexit. The new Global Britain will depend not only on the world’s appetite to buy our goods and services and do business here.

Eagerness around the world to tap into our knowledge and expertise in key sectors will also dictate our economic future. The UK has led the way in driving the advancement of fintech, and digital industries generally, in recent years; Yet we are still to foster a true home-grown giant on the scale of Amazon or Google. The sector strategy approach - combining our cutting-edge products and services, and openness to do business and share expertise – could change this, especially once we have the ability to fine tune our own trade deals.  

Other forms of support are now needed to bolster this broad fintech plan. Enhancing research and development allowances for fintech projects would be an obvious step forward. So too would a renewed push from the UK’s official innovation agency, Innovate UK, in promoting pioneering, UK-based research which has potential implications for fintech.

Such measures would act as catalyst for growth in this hugely exciting sector, and could bring much-needed opportunities to the North East.  

Stephen Purvis is chairman of the think-tank Policy North, which represents the interests of firms in the North of England.