Sheffield City Region ‘Vision’ Report Launch

During 2016 several local ‘anchor institutions’ worked together to articulate a vision for the region’s future, and how to get there...

You may recall, (if you are a *really* avid reader of our blog!), that roughly a year ago we reported on an initiative that was being led by the two Sheffield universities, the Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust together with the region’s LEP and local authorities to “generate a refreshed and compelling long-term vision for our City Region”.

Well, this is the culmination of that effort, and  I was at the launch event last Friday of what they have called “A Better Future Together: A Prospectus for Sheffield City Region”, and it presents a pretty interesting read.

Here follows an overview, along with some commentary.

A couple of things to mention at the outset:

Firstly, it’s good to have an articulation of a longer term view. The report’s intention is to look at the next 25 years and get a sense of how the region’s assets could be built upon for the future. We’ve had the Sheffield 2035 report a couple of years ago that took a similar look ahead, but this one is region-wide and a bit more focused in its scope. The two reports complement each other pretty well though, and if “A Better Future Together”, and it’s proposed programme of follow-on activity, does nothing more than regularly focus collective attention on the next generation’s future it will probably have rewarded the effort.

Secondly, the report is mercifully short. Just 27 pages of concise and well structured exposition. The conclusions are perhaps not very surprising, at least for those who’ve been around local policy-making for a while, but the clarity and parsimony the report achieves is effective and well appreciated.

Vision

The report itself begins with an articulation of the consortium’s vision, here it is in full:

“An outward-looking city region, known above all for its skilled and creative people; a region underpinned by innovation-led business and industry, and a culture of creativity; a region known for its quality of life, with outstanding health care provision and environmental stewardship which integrates the best of the urban and the rural; a highly connected city region, physically and virtually, open to ideas, people and influences from around the world; an inclusive city region where investment and growth produces prosperity and benefits which are shared by all.”

Ambition

The report next describes two key ambitions, and a number of targets to focus on in achieving those ambitions.

The ambitions are:

  • To grow the region’s economy annually by one percentage point above the national average, closing the ‘performance gap’ incrementally; and
  • To reduce deprivation by closing inequality gaps.

The nine recommended targets, for which specific measures are to be determined, are:

  • To grow the number of local start-ups (growth target possibly as much as 50%).
  • To grow local investment in research and development (growth target possibly as much as 50% in real terms).
  • To grow the sector of our workforce classed as ‘highly skilled’ (growth target possibly as much as 30%).
  • To improve public health, to bring life expectancy to above the national average.
  • To improve the quality of our schools with a greater proportion classed as
    good or outstanding.
  • To grow our housing stock, not just in terms of numbers (with possibly at
    least 150,000 new homes) but also the condition of existing homes and the choice of size and tenure available to local residents.
  • To continue to develop our environmental and sporting assets by extending and linking the green areas of the region into a ‘green network’.
  • The renewal and improvement of our urban areas, particularly town and city centres, so as to make them more attractive destinations for residents and visitors alike.
  • To improve the connectivity and capacity of our travel and digital connections both within and beyond the region.

Transformation

In order to bring about transformational change in these target areas, the prospectus recommends focusing on six specific areas – six programmes for change, which are described in some detail in the report, each with a set of associated proposals for action, but are summarised here:

  1. Building an ambitious economy: Innovation and Enterprise – Creating an Ecosystem
    “While we should seek to continue to ‘scale up’ our capacity in advanced manufacturing, and extend it throughout the region so that it grows and supports itself as an ecosystem, we must also look to add new sectors, capability and the necessary supporting technology, infrastructure and supply chains.”
  2. Global excellence – local impact
    “The region must be outward-looking, but in so doing we must seek to maximise the local impact of investment through encouraging, where possible, the development of local supply chains.”
  3. Joining-up Health and Well-being
    “Within our region there is much to build on in terms of expertise and leadership in the delivery of healthcare. But we must do even more to tackle health inequalities across the region, which result from deprivation, and lifestyle and behavioural challenges.”
  4. Transformation in Education and Skills
    “Not all young people within the region have access to the same educational opportunities, and the capabilities and skills required by employers within the region need to be more varied and of higher quality. This calls for an integrated approach
    across all sectors and communities.”
  5. Promoting the Regional Green Network
    “The region offers the high quality living and working environments that are increasingly demanded by households and businesses. One of the great qualities is the co-existence of major urban centres alongside green spaces and natural environments, within a dispersed settlement structure. The ‘outdoors’ is therefore a key asset of the region, and needs to be fully promoted and utilised to enhance social, environmental and economic well-being.”
  6. Better Internal and External Connectivity
    “The region has the potential to become a hinge-point for the movement and
    distribution of goods and people for Britain. Its location is ideal for connections both east-west and north-south between the northern cities, the rest of the UK and internationally. Equally important is the progress of digital connectivity and the transport networks within the region.”

These are very brief excerpts, and I very much recommend reading the propositions associated with each programme.

Delivery

Finally, the prospectus discusses how progress should be made against each of these priorities. It counsels against leaving things to the public sector, but equally warns that relying on existing organisations risks the initiatives “retreat[ing] into institutional silos, ‘owned’ by organisations that inevitably have their own interests and to protect and pursue”.

Instead, the report proposes that there should be a “network of action-oriented Alliances to support each of the six key programme areas…”, and that these Alliances “would comprise individuals who are passionate about driving change in each of the programme areas.”

These alliances would not be new bureaucratic entities, but “structures of minimum formality”, predicated on performing the following tasks:

  • Sharing ideas, expertise and information.
  • Spotting opportunities for working together.
  • Promoting the opportunities in the region.
  • Identifying and approaching potential investors in the region with investible propositions.
  • Benchmarking performance.
  • Advising local government and other agencies on needs and priorities.
  • Celebrating our successes.

In addition, the prospectus proposes the establishment of an independent advisory group – the SCR Guiding Coalition Group, along with a ‘dedicated resource  to lead, support and facilitate the various programmes proposed and the work of the suggested Guiding Coalition Group’. And then pledges the support of the sponsoring organisations and invites other regional stakeholders to support the effort in whatever way is most appropriate to them.

Some thoughts…

Some of my thoughts about this are personal, and some reflect the mission and interests of Sheffield Digital, so I will attempt to separate these out.

Personally speaking, my immediate thoughts relate to the difficulty (some would say folly) of trying to prioritise things that will prove to be of importance several decades hence. Are these six themes really the most important to the next generation’s prosperity? Or might we, for instance, wish that we had more overtly championed social cohesion, not just the reduction of inequality? Or climate change mitigation, not just a ‘regional green network’? Or will all the work to digitise our industry and connect the region together just make us easier pickings for cybercriminals or state actors? The propensity of technological and social change to throw unforeseen surprises has a long history (in fact to a large degree it *is* history). So, while it’s no doubt useful to focus attention and activity on a small number of readily understandable areas in order to get traction, there is little indication of how the initiative will change over time to embrace new threats and opportunities, or identify and evaluate them. This is therefore not a radical proposition, it’s a consensual one.

And then speaking with my Sheffield Digital director’s hat on, the main questions it poses are whether we should get involved in any of the Programme Alliances, and if so then which ones? What resources do we have to offer? How can we involve our membership and the wider community? And whether, beyond that, we should seek to become involved in the SCR Guiding Coalition Group. These determinations warrant much closer evaluation than I’m going to indulge in here, and will be discussed in detail by our board, of course. However there is one thing that I think is worth noting, and that is that digital technology, and therefore the local digital industries, have a role to play in all six of the programme areas presented. Teasing these connections out and applying them to the specific propositions in each area may be fodder for a future post.

In the meantime, please let us know what you think of the report, and what support or involvement the local digital tech sector could offer. Either in the comments, by email, on Twitter or in the #-policy channel on Slack.

You can find the report itself at the SCR Vision website.

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