Regions need to address Brain Drain for UK to thrive

Since the decline of primary and secondary industries in the UK, London has been the driving force of the economy, but this has to change if Britain is to be successful in the digital economy.

This is not a new argument as regional politicians and business leaders have long bemoaned the influence and privileges the Capital has over the rest of the country, but the digital divide risks isolating communities further. This was the general view at a panel discussion earlier this week looking at how ‘Digital Super Towns’ can revive the fortunes of the regions.

“UK cannot be competitive on the global stage post-Brexit without addressing the digital gap between London and the regions,” said Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy.

“Still a travesty that the UK digital infrastructure is lacking compared to competitor countries,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey.

“The single biggest challenge in the Midlands is a lack of digital skills,” said Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands.

The event itself coincided with the launch of a Vodafone report which aimed to address the Brain Drain to London. This seems to be the major issue. Universities in the regions are creating the talent, but the vast majority of these individuals then move to London to ply their trade. And those who are educated in London stay there. The result is a Brain Drain which stimulates growth in the capital, but leaves the regions in a precarious position.

For those of us who live and work in London, it is an argument which is generally viewed as the regions being a bit moany. But there is credibility to the noted trend. Your correspondent grew up in Wales, went to university in the Midlands and have been working in London for the last decade. Also sat around the desk are Editor Scott Bicheno, who was brought up in London but went to university in Bristol; Head of Marketing Sophie Egan was also brought up in London/Milton Keynes and went to university in Hull; Light Reading Group Editor Ray Le Maistre was brought up in Jersey (don’t get him started on seaweed and potatoes – its five minutes of your life you will never get back), and went to university in Stirling.

This is not an uncommon story. Have a look at the people who are sat next to you (should you be based in the capital); how many of them were brought up and educated in London? The regions are struggling to hold onto talent.

It is a bit of a tricky situation as many of the opportunities for start-ups are based in London. Whether this would be access to partners, customers or even funding, the capital certainly does have its advantages, but for Vodafone, connectivity is perhaps one of the building blocks where this recovery can begin.

“Full fibre connectivity in the Teesside Valley is negligible,” said Ben Houchen, Mayor of the Tees Valley Combined Authority.

While a telco preaching about the importance of itself for the future of the UK economy is hardly surprising, it is very true. The businesses of tomorrow are digital, and for a digital business to thrive connectivity needs to be a premium. Why would an ambitious entrepreneur set up shop in one of the regions when the conditions for success are much more attractive in London? This is a reality which needs to be changed.

Connectivity and access to funding is one way in which this can be changed, but another way is to create centres of excellence around the country. Again, this is a topic which has been discussed in the past but little seems to have been done.

Street highlighted that the West Midlands has been selected by the government as the centre of the battery industry, with an eye on the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, and does already have a reputation for its successful automotive industry. What is important is that the regions are encouraged to develop their own specialism before being supported and accelerated by central government. Street noted that imposing a specialist industry on the regions would never work.

Devolution has been a much talked about trend over the last couple of years, but considering we are on the verge of realising the full-potential of the digital dream, something actually needs to be done. The ages of the service industry in the UK left the regions out in the cold, will they still be shivering through the connected economy?

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