The UK looks to innovation hubs to help ‘level up’ left behind areas

At the turn of the century, some disused coalfields in northern England were an ugly symbol of the UK’s industrial past. But today, where slagheaps once stood at Orgreave in South Yorkshire sits a thriving collaboration between university academics and leading companies on high tech manufacturing.

The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, founded in 2001 by Sheffield university and US aerospace company Boeing with government and EU funding, pursues world leading research into manufacturing that is of practical use to industry. Smart ideas are turned into commercial products, and the centre continues to expand: it recently opened a new site in Lancashire that is focused on aerospace manufacturing and clean energy technologies, among other things.

The government now wants to use a similar partnership approach between universities and industry in three “innovation accelerators” in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow city region.

Ministers hope these pilot projects, backed by £100mn of state funding over three years, will be important contributors to their efforts to “level up” left behind areas and narrow UK regional inequalities by improving productivity outside the South East.

They also see the initiative as part of the drive to increase public investment in research and development beyond the so-called “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

People involved in setting up the accelerators regard them as an opportunity for “proof of concept”: the chance to forge closer links between higher education and industry, and to tap more of the UK’s public R&D investment.

The accelerators are meant to be drivers of innovation and economic growth, capitalising on existing clusters of businesses in their areas that have cutting edge expertise. Greater Manchester’s focus will include health and textiles, the West Midlands will concentrate on automotive and medical diagnostics, while Glasgow will look at photonics. All will be involved in advanced manufacturing.

Professor Richard Jones of Manchester university, who helped establish the AMRC and is now closely involved in setting up the Greater Manchester innovation accelerator, said: “The goal really is about productivity and increasing the productivity of the whole of the Greater Manchester conurbation, and indeed beyond that.”

Jones has long argued that a “highly imbalanced” approach to public R&D investment has led to a vicious circle that reinforces regional productivity inequalities.

Professor Richard Jones has long argued for a more balanced approach to public R&D investment © Jon Super/FT

A 2020 paper by the think-tank Nesta, co-authored by Jones, found industry had nevertheless been investing significantly in R&D in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, despite a comparative lack of state funding, and suggested the government take note.

Ministers appear to have taken some of these arguments on board. The government’s levelling up white paper highlighted how 54 per cent of gross R&D spending was focused on London, the South East and East of England.

The document, published in February, promised to increase public R&D investment outside the golden triangle by at least a third by 2025.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which leads on the innovation accelerators, has pledged to focus more than half its R&D spending outside the greater South East on them over the next three years.

The government’s broader goals include increasing R&D spending from 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, although that would still fall short of the current OECD average of 2.7 per cent.

Chris Oglesby, a member of Greater Manchester’s local enterprise partnership board, which promotes economic development, said the innovation accelerator in the city region will set up “a series of co-ordinated projects led by businesses in our globally competitive sectors — health innovation, advanced materials and manufacturing, digital and green energy”. 

“It will encourage collaboration between businesses, which we know leads to greater innovation and better results, to generate ideas and deliver new products and in new markets,” added Oglesby, chief executive of Bruntwood, a commercial property company.

Mike Wright, chair of the West Midlands innovation board, which oversees the region’s innovation accelerator, was optimistic that the government would persist with nurturing R&D investment outside the golden triangle.

“The white paper had a long term element to it, in that they’ve made a commitment about the . . . allocation of R&D funding going out for a number of years,” added Wright, former executive director of Jaguar Land Rover, the carmaker.

Ben Johnson, head of research and innovation development at Strathclyde university, which is part the Glasgow innovation accelerator, said government policy was focused on connecting world class research to industry, and the AMRC was a “particularly compelling example”.

“Industrial research centres work because they are a vehicle for driving up business spending on R&D,” he added. “Industry wants to work with the best — so the connection through to excellent research is very important, as are the talent, skills and leadership of the people involved.”

Some people involved in trying to secure more R&D funding for regions beyond the golden triangle are concerned their efforts could be undermined by lobbying by their counterparts in Oxford, Cambridge and London.

An engineer controls an industrial robot arm at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Preston © University of Sheffield AMRC

Annette Bramley, director of the N8 partnership of research-focused universities in northern England, said any suggestion the government’s attempts to focus more public R&D investment outside the golden triangle would hurt Britain’s world-class science status was a “misconception”, however, because it could be a “win-win”.

“The region has not seen as much intensity of public R&D support as the golden triangle, but our research assets and our people are just as excellent, having won their funding through open competitions,” she added.

“While this means that currently our clusters are smaller and less well known than the golden triangle, this makes them an excellent investment opportunity with the potential for higher returns.”

Many of those involved in attempts to level up UK regions through increased R&D investment highlighted how innovation accelerators could be but one part of a broad push that requires decades of effort.

“In the short term, I see them as a good start,” said Steven Foxley, executive director of the AMRC. “But understand that it took us 20 years to get to where we are now.”

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