As we enter the final leg in the race for Number 10 and pre-election madness is dictating the activities of our politicians, we're seeing a small break in the flurry of recent announcements concerning the North's tech industry.
Indeed, over the past couple of months, there has seemed to be more excitement and passion about the tech and digital industries than ever before - with Manchester and the North right at the heart of it. Cameron's Northern powerhouse, TechNorth, Devolution and a new £4m tech hub in Manchester, are just some of the recent announcements that if handled correctly, should build upon our already dynamic tech sector.
I'm all for rebalancing the economy and while devolution is not a novel idea, the opportunity for Greater Manchester has never been bigger and without a shadow of a doubt, it's the only way we can turn regional ambitions into realities. The government's objective of creating a Northern powerhouse of jobs, investment and prosperity has been a long time coming and with just over a month until the general election, a change in power could mean major political changes to the tech agenda.
New governments obviously want to make their mark but I hope that any changes are applied with a degree of common sense and we do not waste years reinventing the wheel, or delaying the initiatives that will genuinely help our industry progress. A cohesive approach to developing the sector must be implemented - from funding, to infrastructure, to education, to jobs, and looking at how these fit together. Policy makers have been traditionally bad at connecting the dots.
So how can the wider industry help fulfil ambitions for a Northern powerhouse? Manchester Digital held an event last month which put the region's digital and tech communities in the spotlight. Below are some of the issues which were unearthed and my thoughts on how policy makers might want to think about approaching them:
1. Access to funding: One of the biggest concerns for Manchester's digital and tech businesses is the difficulty of securing funding in the North, compared to London. The North West fund has served a purpose over the past few years but it runs out soon and there's been little information about whether or not it will be replaced. Given the amount of momentum and focus that's been given to developing the start-up scene in Manchester this is a real shame. We are actually seeing start-ups leave to go to London and other cities where there seem to be wider opportunities to secure investment. Initiatives like UP Accelerator, which has just launched at MediaCityUK, are a step in the right direction but we need other funds that will support broader tech development.
2. Education and skills: Demand for digital skills is increasing all the time, causing a huge gap in provision of the technical skills our businesses need to grow. Industry must inform education - not politicians - which unfortunately isn't the case at the moment. Politicians currently have more influence on education policies and teachers are under pressure to deliver their agendas which do not always match the skills needs of businesses. There are promises from all parties to increase the numbers of apprenticeships available to students, the problem in our sector is that the infrastructure is not there. There isn't a big enough pipeline of school pupils considering apprenticeships in digital, good provision of technical apprenticeships is limited and businesses, in particular SMEs, find the landscape confusing. For these things to bed in there must be some continuity. Things like HS3 would improve the amount of people prepared to commute from other cities into Manchester but this is years off so other short term solutions must be identified.
3. Encouraging a scalable environment for businesses: We need current industry leaders to dedicate time to sharing their experiences and passion with the next generation of digital and tech entrepreneurs. The region does not have great connections between its large players and the smaller innovative businesses, yet there is mutual benefit to both sides. The region is also service heavy with a competitive digital agency scene; many of these companies have IP and products within their portfolios that with the right encouragement could be spun out and developed as businesses in their own right.
These are just some of the things I believe could be tackled, but regardless of who holds power following May's general election, they need to have a clear vision for how the North's tech industries can work together and make a significant impact to the UK's wider economy.