Revolutionary Measures

Will the Eastern Powerhouse be a damp squib?

Devolution is all the rage in Whitehall at the moment, with areas outside London encouraged to band together, elect a mayor and take more control over their finances and future. The aim is to counterbalance the economic power of London – or if you want to be cynical to woo wavering Labour/LibDem voters over to the Tory party.

Flag of East Anglia. Made with parts from: 30p...

The first of these projects, the Northern Powerhouse, was trumpeted by George Osborne two years ago, and has seen powers over health spending devolved, plans for elected mayors take shape, and funding announced for transport improvements, although many remain sceptical until things actually happen.

In his last budget, the Chancellor spread devolution even wider, announcing plans for an Eastern Powerhouse, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Except it isn’t all of Cambridgeshire since Cambridge City Council has said from the outset that it doesn’t want to be part of the agreement. And it turns out that it may not be any of the county at all as Cambridgeshire County Council rejected the deal offered by the Government at a meeting on 25th March, calling for the terms to be renegotiated.

In fact, Cambridgeshire was never part of the original plans, which were for an authority to cover Norfolk and Suffolk. But the Government deemed this not large enough, so pushed to add Cambridgeshire to the mix. The fraught negotiations, which involve 22 separate county and borough councils, demonstrate the difficulty of getting any agreement across such a wide area.

As someone who lives in Suffolk and spends a lot of time working in Cambridge I can see the Chancellor’s original idea behind the Eastern Powerhouse – use the energy and buzzing economies of Cambridge and Norwich to revitalise the rest of the East. But as a PR person I’m deeply sceptical of initiatives that are strong on bluster but short on details. I remember the Cambridge 2 Ipswich High Tech Corridor of 2000 which signally failed to generate much entrepreneurship between the two places. For the Eastern Powerhouse to work it has to be more than a paper tiger and, I believe, have the following attributes:

1. Proper investment in communications
The Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for slow progress on improving transport links, but at least there are motorways linking Leeds and Manchester. Roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are simply not up to scratch, and there is no spare capacity – if the A14 is blocked then forget trying to get from East to West in a hurry. Trains are lackadaisical when it comes to speed – you can get from York to London in about the same time as London to Norwich, despite it being almost twice as far away.

The other thing that the region lacks is 21st century (or even 20th century) telecommunications. Cities in the region may have 3G, or occasionally 4G, but in rural areas you are lucky to get any coverage at all. What brought this home to me was when I was in the middle of the Yorkshire moors, miles from anywhere – and I had a 4G signal. At home 2G is the norm. And you can forget Fibre to the Home connections – many villages in Suffolk have yet to receive any fibre connectivity at all. This is all despite BT’s main research labs being located in the county.

So, if an Eastern Powerhouse is to flourish it needs serious investment in transport and communications – potentially billions of pounds. And this isn’t just moving existing spending commitments to a new pot. This is going to have to come from central government and intoday’s straitened times I simply can’t see this happening.

2. Investment in skills
Both Suffolk and Norfolk languish near the bottom of league tables for school achievement, with inspections by Ofsted heavily criticising both county councils. Again, this comes down to investment – government policies have focused money on underachieving inner city schools but have neglected rural and coastal areas. Suffolk only got a university within the last decade, while Peterborough has been promised one as part of the Powerhouse proposals.

3. Change in leadership
Since I moved to Suffolk the County Council has shut my son’s school, tried to build a waste incinerator in an area that failed to meet its own environmental criteria and had to cope with a chief executive who received a six figure payoff after being accused (and cleared of) bullying that led to the suicide of another official. I’ve seen the damage cuts have done to its own education department and the slow speed at which vital decisions are made. Suffice to say I have an incredibly low view of its utility or the calibre of its elected officers. Yet, when there is talk of an elected mayor, it is widely believed it will come from one of the county councils. I therefore heartily agree with entrepreneur Peter Dawe, who says he will stand for the post of elected mayor of the region, criticising local councillors for “their myopic, parochial interests based on the past, and on keeping what powers they have, whilst carping about lack of money.” However I can see party machines mobilising to shut out an independent that threatens their candidates.

4. Change in attitudes
This is probably the hardest thing to change, but people need to be encouraged to realise their potential – and high achievers need to be encouraged to return to the county. More young people need to go to university or college, and more should be done to support innovative new businesses that deliver jobs to the region. This doesn’t just require investment, but a cultural change that opens up opportunities to everyone – however it does rely on the communications, skills and leadership change mentioned above if it is going to happen.

If the Eastern Powerhouse is to achieve anything it needs to address these four areas – otherwise it risks being a solely cosmetic extra and costly layer of government that will fail to improve the aspirations, careers, and lives of those within the region.

April 20, 2016 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A spoonful of sugar

Obesity is an enormous problem in the UK, especially amongst the young. One in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. It has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of the obese themselves, and treating it costs services such as the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion every year.

Softdrinks in supermarket

So the Chancellor’s unexpected announcement of a sugar tax on soft drinks from 2018 in the recent budget makes financial and social success. If you can reduce the consumption of sugar in soft drinks, it will help reduce the impact (and cost) of obesity by lowering sales. A 10% tax levied in Mexico worked, bringing down the amount of soft drinks drunk by 6%. In the UK proceeds from the tax are ringfenced, and will be spent on primary school sports, meaning the government can’t be accused of simply making this a revenue generating exercise. Campaigners, such as Jamie Oliver, are delighted – while soft drink makers such as Coke are threatening to sue the government.

No-one would deny that we are facing an obesity epidemic – simply look around at the number of people (adults and children) you see that are overweight. And few would argue that it is a good thing for either their own health or the country as a whole. Where the arguments start is the relative roles of government and individual in dealing with the problem. How do you balance free choice for people to do something that is perfectly legal (buy fizzy, sugary drinks), against the harm it is doing to themselves and the cost to the NHS? Most people accept that in some cases, such as tobacco, high taxes are justified by the damage that cigarette smoking does, and the addictive qualities of nicotine. Other examples, such as tax on alcohol and petrol are less clear cut. Living in the countryside, with a skeleton bus service, I need to drive to most places, so does that make fuel taxes unfair in my case?

Where you draw the line is the issue. The government would argue that in the case of obesity, particularly among children, the damage is too great and that previous attempts to educate the public about the dangers of sugar have not worked. Critics see the tax as interference in their lives, even if what they are doing is harming them in the long term.

As a parent, I think there is another dimension to this – it may sound old-fashioned, but we’ve got a duty to educate our children about the dangers of over-consumption of anything (whether sugar, chocolate, alcohol or food generally), the need for exercise and to set a good example. By that I don’t mean turning into marathon running vegans who exist on a lettuce leaf a day, but showing that you need to balance what you eat and drink, while getting out and taking exercise when you can.

I expect the PR battle around the sugar tax to rage for a long time, with both sides advancing their arguments to the electorate. It promises to be a fascinating contest – on one side you have Jamie Oliver and those that believe people, especially children, need to be saved from themselves, while on the other the massed ranks of the soft drinks lobby will try and paint the tax as something that won’t have an impact and will limit people’s freedom to consume what they want. The fight has already started – whether Coke or the Naked Chef wins is going to be central to where the line between free choice and government intervention is redrawn.

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Year of Code – switch it off and on again

I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.

English: Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum computer (19...

And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.

When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.

Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.

Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.

And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.

Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.

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February 19, 2014 Posted by | PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments