Can place based partnerships drive innovation and growth across a city region and provide the key to levelling up?

This panel event looks at how a place-based approach involving businesses, academia, science and local government can accelerate the region's economic vision and deliver on levelling up.

Innovation GM is a key pillar of the city-region's economic vision, with a plan to deliver a fairer, greener and more productive Greater Manchester economy beyond the pandemic. Leveraging the success of GM's existing research and development hubs in global frontier sectors including advanced materials and manufacturing, health innovation, digital and creative and clean growth.

  • David Collins, Northern Editor, The Sunday Times (Chair)
  • Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester
  • Jessica Bowles, Director of Strategy, Bruntwood
  • Prof Richard Jones, Professor of Materials, Physics and Innovation Policy, The University of Manchester
  • Joanne Roney OBE, Chief Executive, Manchester City Council
  • Dr Beenish Siddique, CEO/Founder, AEH Innovative Hydrogel

This event was recorded on Monday 4 October 2021 and formed part of our party conferences fringe programme. 

Panel discussion summary

Below is a brief summary of the key points of the panellist speeches, followed by questions asked.

Andy Burnham (starts at 02:18 minutes)

Digitalisation and decarbonisation will be the driving forces of the 21st century economy. We need to innovate to reach Greater Manchester city-region’s net zero target of 2038, and the Levelling Up Deal that we have put to the government brings together three things: net zero, levelling up, and innovation. All three of these goals need to be linked for us to succeed.

Our bid to the government for the Levelling Up Deal means we are committing to a number of objectives and the government can hold us to account. It’s also an opportunity to rebalance R&D spending across the UK. We led the first industrial revolution, why can’t Manchester city-region lead the fourth? And we believe that the drive to decarbonisation can make a more equal society. The Levelling Up Deal takes us into the delivery phase, so we can innovate and progress rapidly to a fairer, cleaner future.

Follow-up questions (09:49)

  • Do you think that innovation is a priority for the government and ministers such as Michael Gove?
  • Are you giving the government a deadline to agree to the Levelling Up Deal?
  • The city of Manchester is thriving, but how will innovation and growth impact on those living in the towns?
  • Are there enough skills in towns to support the growth plans?

Jessica Bowles (23:03)

We believe that innovation needs to be driven by the private sector and supported by the public sector. Ecosystems are incredibly important to innovation. Bruntwood’s research found that place matters, and what makes innovation work is proximity, density and a culture of collaboration. Having a place perspective and coherence makes a massive difference for businesses, building skills and establishing networks.

We are bidding for the government to help create place-based innovation deals, with Innovation GM. That means investing in high-end R&D but also ways to commercialise it. That means we need good transport, good housing, good skills and business networks, so that we can create space for SMEs to generate their own ideas.

Follow-up questions (29:20)

  • Have you seen a slowdown post-COVID-19 for businesses wanting space for labs or similar?

Richard Jones (30:57)

Innovation GM has found that productivity needs to be at the core of the levelling up agenda. The UK is regionally unequal, and one of the ways that manifests is a disparity in productivity, which is the value an average worker produces in an hour of labour. We expect cities to drive productivity, but big cities underperform. We also have many deindustrialised towns, such as Oldham and Rochdale, which have very low productivity. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that funding to improve productivity is currently being funnelled into already productive areas.

We need to work with people who understand the local economy to better understand how to best involve private sector investment. We also need to connect innovation and skills on a local level and much more than we have in the past. Innovation GM wants to work with government to drive growth and opportunity. It’s all about place and building an ecosystem that connects the centre and outlying areas more than ever before.

Follow-up questions (41:00)

  • What is the real life impact of a lack of R&D spend?

Joanne Roney (42:58)

Of course place-based partnerships can drive innovation, but the question for me is can we do it at pace? Greater Manchester has many strengths, but we need to connect the city with the suburbs. We’re also working across political and geographical lines, with Cheshire, Leeds and Liverpool along with businesses in those areas. We aren’t letting politics or geography limit our ambition.

We’re letting businesses lead the call for skills, and are focusing on constructing an ecosystem to support the call for those skills. There are still huge issues with inequality in Greater Manchester, so our approach to levelling up needs to be across whole of Greater Manchester.

Innovation GM provides practical opportunities to build that ecosystem in the here and now, and to turn them into investment and jobs. That includes projects like the Salford Innovation Triangle and Northern Gateway, which are examples of place-based partnerships with clear goals, objectives and pipelines.

Follow-up questions (52:02)

  • You brought several officials up from London to get a better understanding. Can you talk to us about what it’s like behind the scenes talking with the Levelling Up Unit?
  • Are you seeing a difference with this government? Is there more of a commitment to the Levelling Up project?

Beenish Siddique (57:26)

Everyone uses the term net zero homes and net zero transport, but we don’t talk about net zero food production. People don’t realise that our food production isn’t made with net zero in mind, so I established a company with a vision to decarbonise food production, especially for things like leafy green vegetables. For example, the UK produces spinach for 26 weeks in a year but the demand is for 52 weeks. For the remaining weeks it is transported from abroad, and that transport means greater carbon emissions.

20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the agritech sector, and we need to change consumer behaviour to start taking it into account. It was initially difficult to get food production companies on board, but new legislation around peat means it’s likely to be banned in future, and alternatives like our hydrogel need to be sustainable, decarbonising and affordable. There are huge barriers for investment in areas that don’t seem immediately beneficial, such as food, and those are compounded for female founders, especially those with an international background.

Follow-up questions (01:09:32)

  • If there’s one practical thing you’d like to see Innovation GM do that they could do for you, what would it be?

Audience Q&A (01:12:58)

  • For Joanne, how have you created a culture where everyone is getting something out of this, across party and geographical lines?
  • For Richard, in terms of levelling up, there are so many things under this banner especially in the short term, what’s the risk that innovation gets squeezed out given that it’s a medium to long-term investment?
  • The Thames Estuary Growth Board is trying to change the approach to engaging with government, aiming to become a strategic investment partner to government. Do you have any thoughts on this and how to move around political divides?
  • For Joanne, there’s a discussion about high level skills, but many people are lacking basic digital skills, what are the plans to improve those?