Northern powerhouse: devolution steps up a gear

So what’s all this fuss about a Northern Powerhouse?

The phrase conjures up images of JB Priestley’s polluted industrial landscapes, dark satanic mills, flat caps and ferrets, but this could not be further from the truth. We are talking about corridors of power from Liverpool, through Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield to Hull and Newcastle, based on investment in better infrastructure and building upon the physical and cultural renaissance in the major northern cities.

Lord knows that the regular drivers of trans-Pennine M62 and the rail commuters from Liverpool to Hull will be crying hallelujah for the investment in the connections between cities. Never have so many people languished for so long in the packed carriages and car park mimicking roads of the UK countryside. In Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s words: “The transport network in the north is simply not fit for purpose.” It is quicker to travel the 283 miles from London to Paris by train than it is to travel less than half that distance between Liverpool and Hull.

Within 40 miles of Manchester, you have Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire – a belt of cities and towns that contains ten million people – more than Tokyo, New York or London. Sopra Steria’s base in Cheshire supports activity in the public and private sectors, delivering digital solutions to global and regional business problems on a local basis.

But it’s more than investment in the physical environment, it’s also about the devolution of powers to the region. A Minister for the Northern Powerhouse working within the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), a Teeside MP James Wharton, was appointed by government in February and he will oversee the devolving of powers over skills, housing, police, health as well as transport to the northern region. Within a month an interim Mayor will be appointed by council bosses to lead the Greater Manchester Combined Authority before the election of a successor in 2017.

Mr Osborne has promised just over £11m to invest in tech incubators in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield to support SMEs to grow into the engine of the northern powerhouse. Further investment has been promised for a Fintech Innovation Hub focusing on the financial service. His Tech Nation report published in February, noted the 170,000 currently working in digital business. The Budget announcement detailed further investment and support that could be called upon to deliver:

More than ever before, the advantages that digital can bring will need to be applied with vigour. The perceived disadvantages of distance from the financial and business markets of central London will need to be foreshortened through virtual cosiness. The vibrancy of northern business will need to radiate across electronic networks to attract further investment and growth on a global basis to prevent leaching from other UK regions. Devolved development is all about placing the whole of the UK on a higher platform for economic performance.

The public sector could benefit from this burgeoning of local digital business and innovation as it will face major challenges to meet the demands of the northern citizenry while managing within an ever tightening public purse. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority will be fully responsible for how this transformation of the public services unfolds, and the scrutiny of this change will be acute, particularly with the health and social care services at a cost of £6bn. Other regions, such as Wales, have felt this high degree of scrutiny over their stewardship of health services and been found lacking, so the achievement bar is high.

The potential is there for a Northern Powerhouse, supported by digital innovation, emerging and pioneering business and local democratic muscle, that develops its own wealth-generation and shapes public services to reflect the needs of their local communities.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below or contact me by email.

Mixed gender teams are more successful

.. And it has been proven by academic research. Single sex teams do not show the same flare or creativity as a mixed team and therefore are less successful. It’s not an earth shattering headline until you realise that only 13% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs in the UK are occupied by women.

Equality in the tech workplace, it seems, still eludes us and the reasons for this start early with girls tending to choose topics at school and university that are less male-dominated. The statistics show that social norms and societal expectations are pressure enough to drive girls into careers where their gender is less noticeable.

It is not all bad news though, as women become successful leaders in their chosen fields and as the world of business cranks up the opportunity provided by digital innovation, women and technology become reacquainted. Fifty women were identified last year through Inspire Fifty, a pan European initiative to encourage, develop, identify and showcase women in leadership positions within the technology sector: of these women, 17 lived and worked in the UK. So women are finding more opportunity in the UK in comparison with the rest of Europe, but there is no room for complacency.

It’s known that women are generally not so good at pushing themselves forward and believing in their own capabilities. A man is much more likely to “go for it” than a woman. Harriet Minter, Editor of the Women in Leadership section of the Guardian recommends that girls and women to “proceed until apprehended”, to not ask for permission before doing something that we believe in but to just go ahead and do it.

As a woman working within the field of technology I have had the full range of experience from being the sole woman in a peer group meeting (only red dress in a sea of grey suits), being mistaken for the lady who does the coffee at a meeting (I’m not bad at making coffee but that was not why I was there), leading a team where the dominance of women inadvertently silenced the only male member, to being part of a mixed team that was diverse, energetic and high performing.

I also have the experience of talking to people about developing their careers as a coach and mentor. Most of the coachees were women – wonderful women with incredible skills and abilities who were not sure how or whether they should make the next step in their career. The key is always to step past the fear of failure and do something, but it helps to have an ally or a mentor that will help you along the way when you feel a wobble in your intentions.

It is for many of these reasons that Nadira Hussain, president of Socitm, is keen to give women in the IT industry more visibility and recognition to become the role models young girls can aspire to be. Socitm is setting up a Woman in IT Network to offer coaching, mentoring and open discussions about career choices in both the public and private sectors . Getting involved in these networks can help guide women and young girls into an exciting and rewarding career within an industry that is growing rapidly. For the industry to be at its best we need diversity at all levels up to the board room.

What’s your view? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.