North East Northern Powerhouse insight: Paul Lancaster talks tech and digital entrepreneurship
In an ongoing series, Jamie Hardesty is talking to North East business leaders in an attempt to understand the region’s feelings towards the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.
Today we present the views of Paul Lancaster, a well-known name working across the Northern tech scene. Formerly of Shell LiveWIRE, Sage and Tech North, Paul launched Plan Digital UK in April this year, offering innovation, digital marketing and business development services for people across the North.
With the Northern Powerhouse’s digital undercurrent becoming an increasing area of debate in our interviews, Paul is the perfect man to elaborate on the role played by tech and digital entrepreneurship in the North East.
Hi Paul, what does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
Whilst some people may recoil at the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’, I’m excited by the opportunity it presents us with to rebalance the UK economy by making it less London-centric and giving more decision-making powers and budgetary control to our great Northern cities. Before starting my new business on 1st April, I spent 8 months as the ‘Community Engagement & Partnerships Manager’ for Tech North, a Government-backed organisation created to support and accelerate ‘digital entrepreneurship’ in the 7 cities of Newcastle, Sunderland, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull.
During this time, I witnessed first hand that the Northern Powerhouse is a very real thing with many talented and passionate people in the North working hard to make it work. It’s gone beyond being just a marketing slogan so it’s down to everyone in a position of influence in the public and private sector to get behind it and make it work for our regions.
Are there signs of the Northern Powerhouse starting to bear fruit in the region?
The Northern Powerhouse was already here in the North East, it just hadn’t been given a collective name that the politicians and media could get behind. The North East has many success stories to be rightly proud of and we have a history and heritage of innovation and invention that has turned into world-class businesses.
Because of the work I do now, my time at Tech North and at Sage before that, I’m particularly excited by the tech, digital and IT industry we have here in the North East which is 2nd only to London in terms of how many businesses there are and how fast-growing the sector is here. Admittedly, a lot of this was already happening but it’s important to acknowledge and remind people both within the region and outside just how good we are at tech/digital, our access to talent, relatively good transport links, low cost of office space and high quality of living.
The work I was doing at Tech North and which my former colleagues there are still doing was all about making sure that the North East had a seat at the table and didn’t miss out on any Northern Powerhouse opportunities that arose. The recent announcement that Newcastle University’s new ‘National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI)’ would receive £15m from central government (towards a £30m budget) would not have happened if it wasn’t for the Northern Powerhouse and the fact that many people had already been telling them just how great our city was in terms of skills and expertise.
Has the government done enough to convince you of its commitment to Osborne’s vision?
Yes, I’m a believer. From my experience at Tech North which included meeting senior ministers and civil servants, I’m convinced that George Osborne and central Government is committed to the Northern Powerhouse.
It’s already happening with money being spent and diverted to the North, a huge marketing and PR campaign both within the UK and overseas through organisations like UKTI and the Prime Minister’s own trade missions around the world encouraging foreign businesses and investors to look to our Northern cities.
You also then have the issue of devolution which is playing out across the North to varying degrees of success and speed. Really, I think the Government is doing a lot by shining a light on all the great things we have in the North and giving us the opportunity to grow our regional economies.
However, it’s down to us to seize our chance and ride the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ wave to encourage more inward investment, job creation and skills development. It’s there for the taking.
Transport improvement is intrinsic to the Northern Powerhouse. Do you believe that spending billions of infrastructure will improve Northern productivity?
Investment on road and rail infrastructure is long overdue but it’s wrong of everyone to believe that this is all the Northern Powerhouse is about. In my opinion, there’s far too much focus on this in the media which does a disservice to all the other great work going on and the important issues of skills and training, access to finance and talent that are arguably more important and urgent to address.
If you work in tech/digital you can run your business from anywhere and have customers all around the world just as long as you have a fast broadband connection, great ideas and a talented team around you.
Compared to London and other parts of the UK, it’s also very easy to get around the North East in a short space of time by public transport or by car and the train journey to other Northern cities is pretty good too. In 8 months of travelling around the North by train each week, I only experienced 2 serious delays to my journey.
Are there any other areas which you believe money should be spent on, ahead of transport?
My background is in marketing and PR so I’d like to spend some money and effort on rebranding the North East beyond just the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
One North East’s famous ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ was good in terms of promoting the North East as a tourist destination but it did nothing to celebrate or promote our fantastic businesses and homegrown industries.
I’d therefore like to create a new campaign that elevates the North East beyond just being a great place to visit and for a cheap/fun night out, to one that celebrates our rich industrial heritage and world-class innovations whilst celebrating our new businesses and future industries.
This is something I’ll be focusing on over the coming weeks and months and am in conversation with various partners on how we can bring this to light.
Does the North East need a mayor? If so, who should it be?
I’m not sure. At present, Devolution and all that entails in terms of budget and decision-making power is on offer but in return, the Government wants us to elect a regional Mayor. From their perspective I can see why as it’s far easier for George Osborne or the Prime Minister to deal with a small number of Mayors who in theory should be able to represent the needs of everyone in their region.
In practice, the North East is not a uniform, homogenous place with some cities and towns already performing better and having a louder voice than others and many years of inter-regional rivalry does not disappear overnight.
The reason Manchester is leading the way when it comes to the Northern Powerhouse is that although it’s controlled by the Labour Party, they’re putting their political differences to one side and recognising the huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the Conservative Government is giving them to define and control their own future.
It’s hard not to make comparisons with what we have here in the North East and wish that we were moving faster and following Manchester’s lead. However, I don’t know all the ins and outs of what the devolution deal entails and trust that our local councillors and politicians know what they’re doing.
It’s important to get right not just for now but for future generations. I have a couple of people in mind who I think would be good as a North East Mayor but I’m undecided who I would back yet as it requires someone with a very special skill set and the ability to fight hard for their region behind closed doors but present a united front with the Government in public.
Will the Northern Powerhouse be realised in the North East?
As I said above, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is already happening and the North East is a vital part of it. From my travels across the North, few people like the phrase but they love the ideas behind it.
Manchester needs Newcastle just as much as Newcastle needs Manchester but there is a very real risk that we will be left out unless we send out a clear and consistent message that we want to be part of it, are open for business and are flexible and willing to negotiate to get a good deal for everyone.
The first thing we must do is stop being so negative about the Northern Powerhouse concept and see it for what it is – a huge opportunity for us to promote our region on the national and international stage.
Until we do that, we undersell ourselves and risk looking like a region with a huge collective chip on our shoulder that isn’t open to working with people from London which isn’t true of most entrepreneurs and business leaders I’ve met.
We need to be less ‘North East versus London’ and more North East plus London, Manchester, Scotland, Scandinavia and mainland Europe if we are to grow our economy, attract and keep talent in the region.
Great stuff, thanks Paul.
To find out more about Paul’s new venture click here or Tweet him @lordlancaster.
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