Can the Advanced Manufacturing Park fix Sheffield – or other struggling cities?

Jeremy Corbyn learns about the AMRC.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

Sheffield, as we’ve often noted in these pages, is, economically speaking, a bit of a mystery. It’s one of England’s major provincial cities, at the heart of an urban region of nearly 2 million people. Yet it underperforms on most economic measures, even compared to other big post-industrial cities.

We’ve been through all this before, more than once. So today I’m going to ask a different question: can advanced manufacturing fix it?

This is not a theoretical question. The city is home to the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP), which in turn contains the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, or AMRC. (If anyone has any synonyms for the phrase “advanced manufacturing” going spare, this is the time to tell me.) These places link academics directly with major multinational firms like Boeing and McLaren, enabling the latter to access expertise and the former to commercialise their work.

It also uses, in the words of a recent Centre for Cities report on the AMP, an “open-source research model, that shares discoveries across the AMRC’s network without patents”: the park is focused almost entirely on research, rather than production, and is a place where firms from separate industries are encouraged to work together. Today it’s home to several hundred high paying manufacturing jobs of the sort that economists swoon over whenever they’re comparing Britain’s economy with that of Germany; fully half of these have arrived since 2012.

It has, in other words, been rather successful, even compared to similar manufacturing parks such as i54 in Wolverhampton or the Cody Technology Park in Aldershot. Look at the share of well-paying advanced manufacturing jobs, in dark green:

All of which raises two questions. Can this revive Sheffield’s economy? And could it do the same elsewhere?

The answer to the former seems to be a resounding “maybe”. Anthony Breach, the CfC researcher who authored the report, notes that firms from “different parts of the country and all over the world are now trading with Sheffield, because of the knowledge coming from the AMP”. It is at least putting the city on the radar, and the idea a Boeing, say, may one day want to create more jobs in the city so as to maximise access to the research park is not a crazy one.

On the flipside, though, the number of jobs in the park is 499 – the fact it’s not a round number gives it extra pathos, somehow – which is not to be sniffed at by any means, but is a drop in the ocean in a city of this size: it’s only 3 per cent of the region’s advanced manufacturing sector jobs. Even by the standards of similar parks, it’s small:

If it’s to have a hope of catching up with Leeds or Manchester, Sheffield needs to attract more high-skilled jobs. In practice that probably means attracting service businesses in sectors such as finance, law or publishing. That in turn means both attracting more graduates and improving the skills of the existing population: all the difficult, boring stuff we tend to go on about on this bit of CityMetric.

If the benefits of the AMP to Sheffield are limited, the case for replicating it elsewhere is decidedly thin. One of the reasons AMP has worked is because it’s the advanced manufacturing park – a single place where different industries and academies can cluster together and share ideas. (What’s different about those other larger industrial parks is that they tend to have production lines, rather than merely R&D.) There’s a danger that trying to set up copies would simply dilute the benefits, which come from having all those different firms, people and industries in one place. “If you had dozens of advanced manufacturing parks across the country,” argues Breach, “it’d defeat the purpose.”


None of this is to say it isn’t valuable – quite the opposite. “A lot of the research that goes on in the AMP improves productivity in Sunderland or North Wales,” notes Breach. “It’s a national asset, and the government should support it because of its national economic benefits.” That seems fair – if the nation gets the benefit, the nation should bear the costs. But it won’t magically sort out Sheffield.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report on the AMP here.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.