This was the question most asked of me during the recording of BBC4’s The Bottom Line, which I was invited to take part in a few weeks ago. Ok, it was filmed in the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce in front of an audience almost exclusively from the local area, but, frankly, who can blame them? From Manchester’s point of view, Newcastle feels like a long way away.
And my experience travelling there felt the same. I had to take two trains, which were both late. If the journey time had been 15 minutes longer, I could have made it to London – about 100 miles further away. Although the internet connection is rubbish on the London trains, it does eventually work, so you can at least make some use of your time. Traversing the Pennines, however, I didn’t even have a phone signal.
My fellow guests on the programme were designer and entrepreneur Wayne Hemmingway (delayed even longer by the trains than I was), Vanda Murray, an independent director of Manchester Airports Group and Sir Richard Leese, Manchester City Council Leader and Chair of Transport for the North. I was there to speak from my own experience within the tech community.
For many of us this “Northern Powerhouse” still seems conceptual and, as such, reflects each individual’s hopes and fears. Hope that each place will get a leg-up and fear that someone else will get it instead, leaving our community at a disadvantage.
I did have to keep fighting the North East’s corner to be recognised, which you’ll probably pick up in the broadcast. While not all the panel voiced such opinions, I got the impression that the audience wondered why we were even talking about Newcastle at all. And that is a shame.
By far the most valuable assets the Reframed team has built is our connections and community. We benefit from the hard work of tech accelerator Ignite, whose team, have brought the startup and tech community together at Campus North. It’s important to mention that Ignite is a privately-funded venture and, in my opinion, it’s the single greatest advantage for the North East tech scene. And now it’s expanding into Manchester and London too.
The Tech Nation report, published this February by Tech City UK, found that 74% of UK digital companies are based outside London and usually in “tech clusters”. Within the North East, Newcastle and Sunderland form the core.
In Newcastle, talented teams from all over the world are attracted to Campus North to become part of the Ignite family. We mentor each other, see connections, make introductions and give one another much-needed support. Reframed has also had support from other region wide initiatives such as Sunderland Software City and Middlesbrough’s Digital City.
It’s entirely possible that the tech community has a head start. We’re used to shared problem solving and open source mentalities. And of course we also have the newly-formed Tech North, whose head Claire Braithwaite described their remit at Thinking Digital Manchester last week as “supporting the development of relationship networks” – which of course you can watch back on the Reframed TDCMCR Livestream.
It’s this sense of greater collaboration across the North that I’d like to see. We’ve been squabbling amongst ourselves as “the regions”, but in order for the Northern Powerhouse to work, we have to work together. Yes, us Northerners are very proud of our cultural identities and roots. I’m a proud Yorkshire lass, who’s also proud to call Newcastle home, so working together doesn’t mean surrendering these identities.
With the report on the Northern Transport Strategy published in March 2015 and Sir Richard on the panel, it was inevitable that transport would be on the agenda. Yes, the north is a big place and while transport is an important issue to remedy, we don’t need to let physical geography be a barrier when communication technology can bring us closer together. The North East has benefited from superfast broadband after all. So let’s use it. Many teams work from different locations, such as Tech North themselves. At Reframed, we travel to London a few times a month and have been proud to represent the North East at pitching events. When we’re not able to be there in person, we just schedule do Skype calls or presentations.
Incidentally, as I prepared to write this blog, I looked at the Wikipedia entry for the Northern Powerhouse and had to add Newcastle as one of the Core cities. Seriously!
We were recording for far longer than the length of the show, so the broadcast will be heavily edited. As I don’t know exactly what’s going to be used, I’m as intrigued to hear it as everyone else. For me, yes, Newcastle and the North East are very much part of the Northern Powerhouse. As Sir Richard pointed out: we need each other. Manchester can no more pack a punch without Newcastle than Newcastle can without Manchester. And this has been the problem so far. It’s now time for us to work together.
I’ll be live tweeting during the programme so join me @joyork for a listen of #BBCBottomLine at 8:30pm on Thursday (19 Nov) on Radio 4, or on catch-up at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pdcf6 and let me know what you think – is The North East part of the Northern Powerhouse?