Bringing high tech business to the North East

Putting in place the infrastructure for new kinds of business requires vision and leadership.

Everyone knows the phrase "coals to Newcastle". This is a tale of "software to Cambridge". From Newcastle. When I started my business thirty years ago it seemed far-fetched. There were less than 10 technology businesses in the whole of the North East. Now there are over 300, from software to computer games to cloud computing. Only London has a higher rate of high tech start ups. So we are doing our bit for "rebalancing" the economy.

The obvious questions are why and how? The simple answer is that while some industries depend on capital to get going, for technology companies it is people.  Software and computer games are by their very nature "weightless" products that can be sold in every corner of the world over the internet without any significant transport costs – the exporter’s dream. If you can sit a talented programmer or a creative designer in front of a computer, they can be producing saleable products that are instantly exportable.

The greatest asset for any region is its universities. The greatest problem in the North East is raising the aspirations of our own population to go to them. In a global competition for talent, you need places "where talent wants to live". This means that you need to have a buzzing music and cultural scene – Newcastle has been voted one of the world top party cities - good affordable housing and easy ways to get to work. Tyneside and the rest of the region has a justifiable reputation as a great place to be and this has been fostered over the last decade by a combination of strategic, long-sighted public investment in creative and cultural infrastructure like the Sage Gateshead, and the establishment of organisations like Generator who support the music industry and make events happen.

University involvement and partnership with business has grown by encouraging graduate internships and establishing "hatcheries" nurturing embryonic businesses. Publicly-funded initiatives like Sunderland Software City and Digital City on Teesside have been able to provide guidance, mentoring, premises, and networking for new business. Organisations like North East Access to Finance help fund the growing numbers of start-ups and high growth companies.

I chaired the Regional Development Agency until it was closed this year. Its founding idea – that public and private sectors need to support each other - is right. Here are three things that would make the biggest difference in the next ten years. Firstly, there needs to be more productive and innovative partnerships between the private sector, the universities and the public sector. Each offers different elements to the mix. Entrepreneurial ideas and drive, a trained and educated workforce coupled with innovative research and development in the right "connected" locations are the fundamental building blocks for this industry. Secondly businesses like this need finance. Often UK banks are reluctant to lend to this sector so we need to create small grants that allow clever people to test ideas and then more substantial equity investments as businesses mature and develop. Finally we need vision, leadership and role models. People who see what the North East's economy could look like and have the ambition, drive and determination to make it happen. The region has changed much since the dark days of the Likely Lads, what we need for the future is tomorrow’s Bob and Terry having Masters degrees in software engineering and creating world-leading software.

Paul Callaghan is Chairman of Leighton, the North East-based technology, software, media and communications group that he founded.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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