To solve the productivity puzzle, we need to talk about place

Mmmmm advanced manufacturing. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week the CBI raised concerns that Britain does not spend enough on research and development to boost its flagging productivity. It found that, at current spending levels, the country will not meet its target until 2053.

It is right to be concerned about this, but too much focus on overall levels of R&D funding risks overlooking the importance of turning it from an abstract national concept into a policy with tangible benefits for people, firms and places across the country, not just in existing research hubs such as London and Cambridge.

A greater focus on “making innovation real” is important because technological innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in places, and understanding the role that “place” plays not just as the location for innovation but also as the integrator of the various other inputs – skills, firms, research & development infrastructure – will be central to boosting the UK’s economic performance in the future and should be a core focus for the government’s Industrial Strategy.

The Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Park is a good example of the significance of “place as integrator”. It brings academic, government and business partners together in one place to develop new products, services and ways of working. It has been at the vanguard of shifting the city region from a place of mass manufacturing towards a place that is home to cutting edge technological research and development. Once perfected, the research is shared with places and firms not just in the city region but across the country in production centres like Airbus in Broughton in North Wales and Rolls-Royce in Sunderland, and indeed across the world.

The AMP is testament to what can be achieved when local and national interests understand the importance of working together. But it would have been unlikely to have been established at all if decision makers – private, public, and academic – had not had the foresight and appetite for risk to see the transformative effect that targeted R&D spending in a place such as Sheffield City Region could have.

The experience of the AMP tells us, that to boost productivity and deliver an effective Industrial Strategy, “place” must be front and the centre of the policy development process.

Ensuring that the jobs and skills development opportunities meet the current and future needs of firms requires a place based approach. Whitehall is too remote to meet this requirement, and local actors are much better placed to fix local problems. For instance, the AMP has been the site of a training scheme where over 1,000 apprentices have worked and received engineering qualifications on the site. This has worked because firms, local government and skills providers pool their knowledge about what is required and organise delivery to meet those needs. To repeat this success in other places, government should complete the devolution of the Adult Education Budget to the metro mayors and empower local leaders to find local solutions to their own skills challenges.

The government should also maximise the benefits of R&D spending by encouraging knowledge sharing between researchers and companies. Encouraging the take-up of patent-free research, as was done at Sheffield City Region Advanced Manufacturing Park, was a major factor in ensuring that the economic benefits associated with R&D were felt both in the immediate locality and across the country.

Having a high national R&D target is critical, particularly given our lamentable performance over the last few decades. Meeting such a target will be challenge. But an even bigger challenge will be ensuring that an increase in R&D funding delivers benefits for people across more of the country.

A greater role for place is vital because it enables us to coordinate policies, from taxation to skills and infrastructure at the level which can deliver tangible economic benefits for people. Leadership from cities is crucial to build the high-skilled, high-paying economy that will boost productivity, and ultimately raise national and local living standards.

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.


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.