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.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.