Why we need an Eastern Regional Powerhouse
In early 2020, Lexington opened a new office in Cambridge, making us the first strategic communications agency working across multiple sectors to set up in the city.
In this article, Senior Adviser Dr Steve Feast, former Managing Director of the Eastern Academic Health Science Network and Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglia, examines the growing need for an Eastern Powerhouse.
You only have to look at the recent standoff between Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson to recognise a growing trend towards regional bodies asserting their authority during hugely uncertain times and in the face of clunky central control.
In fact, calls for increasing devolution of powers go way beyond the pandemic. Local representatives, businesses and institutions know that the best ways to survive and thrive in a crisis are to collaborate, communicate and control their own destiny. The looming prospects of constrained government funding, rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and shifting geopolitical sands alongside Brexit mean only the best and most agile will do well. If the national isn’t working, is now the time for the eastern region to rapidly revisit its collective power and influence? To consider forming the political and executive structures that forms the eastern Regional Powerhouse?
I think this would be a wise move. Post a landslide election and faced with a pandemic, the UK Government initially met the challenge by centralising, making decisions behind closed doors and avoiding wider debate and challenge – as much from backbench MPs as from leaders across the country. Meanwhile, our cities lie empty and devoid of workers, and the intangible soft influencing and connecting links are harder to make. The eastern region needs to think about how to respond, and ensure this change does not become permanent.
Across the region it’s easy to envisage a very unstable future. Macroeconomic sectors and workforces must realise that what they are making today may no longer be what the world wants to buy. With a bleak future for aerospace and transport, what will companies like British Aerospace, Airbus, Johnson Matthey and Stansted Airport sell in the post-Covid world? What will pharma and life sciences sell if world governments and health services are broke and indebted? Health ministries and insurers will struggle to afford new precision medicines and gene and cell therapies. Whole sectors need to find ways to rapidly collaborate with the skilful around them and to pivot to new areas of operations, driven by community value, environmental and more frugal outcomes.
Society, more broadly, is at a turning point. Regions that don’t work out the next chapter in their story risk losing out. As well as moves to retrench back to national borders, shifts in how people communicate and work mean it is no longer necessary to live in a city. So the best talent needs to be attracted not just by place but by wider experience.
It’s also about the story regions are telling the outside world. Research hubs and academia already compete on an increasingly rocky international stage, and many science and innovation businesses are relocating or building in Asia, far from the UK’s uncertain Brexit shores. Faced with the potential for less European collaboration, how will pharmaceutical giants in the eastern area get new medicines tested and proven? Being part of a regional network, with different organisations speaking with the same voice, may well be critical. We must collectively ask how we fund and build the new regional model of research developed in partnership with citizens, supported by a data and analytics platform that rival anything else in the world. Unless we build it, why will industry stay?
An Eastern Regional Powerhouse is also about punching above our weight. Nature rates the world’s top three science cities as Beijing (pop 21.5m), New York (pop 20.3M) and Boston (pop 4.9m). The East of England has a population of 5.85m. Its largest city is Norwich. Buoyed by the low cost of borrowing and huge positive balance sheets of world tech and communication companies, governments and investors want to back big. What does our region offer to attract those big bets?
Our star is Cambridge, ranking world-class across many measures of impact but small on a worldwide scale; still a regional city looking out rather than one at the heart of a city region. We need to change that.
Imagine a regional ecosystem creating the science and innovation that builds upon the Norwich, Cambridge and wider regional agritech, cleantech and expertise in plants, people and planet – and delivers for the needs of the future. One that focuses on sustainably feeding and providing energy to a better-connected, thriving public health and environmentally sustainable community, instead of making catalytic converters and aeroplanes, applying science in ways that help whole populations consume less food, healthcare and wider resources, whilst producing less carbon and waste. Operating as one across our region to collaborate on new research and evidence, coproduced with our citizens that can then be sold and rapidly translated to wider markets.
How do we get there? There’s the obvious collective political and business leadership required to rapidly establish an environment and the permissions that foster collaboration. But it’s also about harnessing new ways to communicate and share, accelerating all we have learnt and built in a Covid world. And ultimately it’s about fostering collaborations that offer the advantages of the commercial village as well as meeting a growing desire to live healthily in a greener, more flexible world.
Tomorrow’s thriving businesses will be those that can flex, adapt and adjust in the face of rapidly evolving market places. Collaboration and coopertition have been the hallmark of much of the Covid-19 response, and will be key to recovery. We need people with courage to articulate the future, leaders who are able to influence locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We need infrastructure that brings the best together in a common purpose, in turn influencing and selling our region’s collective talent, product and opportunities for investment across the world. Is this the Eastern Regional Powerhouse? I believe it is and that we cannot wait much longer before we establish it as a meaningful and effective place to lead from.
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