Investment zones are the key to taking our potential towards prosperity

Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, discusses how the new South Yorkshire Investment Zone can turn Yorkshire's potential into prosperity.

An aerial view of the University of Sheffield Innovation District featuring the Factory 2050 building.
The University of Sheffield Innovation District - home to world leading R&D facilities and part of the new South Yorkshire Investment Zone

By Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. Originally published in the Yorkshire Post.

We hear a lot about potential — how we maximise the UK’s productivity potential, our innovation potential, the potential of our talent. But, whether through policies not yet fully realised, like levelling up, or a constant string of challenges in trade, health, energy, and security, that potential has manifested in uncertainty.

That is why the announcement that South Yorkshire will be home to England’s first investment zone is so important. Our economic and innovation potential may finally be on a path to prosperity.

Investment zones are a critical part of the Government’s plans for levelling up and, without a doubt, one of the most exciting, positive, and real of them thus far. This is not about a competitive funding process, but a collaboration between government, regions and universities to truly catalyse our high-potential clusters towards better productivity and growth.

The policy faced a rocky start, caught up in the maelstrom of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget last year. But the potential of the policy was seen by the current Prime Minister and Chancellor, leading to a refined version of the proposals in the latest Spring Budget. Eight regions were identified as holding the right characteristics to support the core objectives of driving productivity and spearheading sustainable growth, with South Yorkshire now set to lead the way.

The South Yorkshire Investment Zone, led by the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, will build on the success of our region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, the first of its kind in the world – expanding it to include city and town centres in Sheffield and Rotherham to reflect the growing presence of urban start-ups and scale-ups. It will also further our strengths in areas including aerospace, power and energy, life sciences, digital and creative and engineering across all sectors. 

The first major announcement as part of the new investment zone is a research and development facility at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Compass – Composites at Speed and Scale – will place the UK in a world-leading position to make the global aviation industry more sustainable, and its first R&D project is with our long-standing partner, Boeing.

Representatives from the University of Sheffield and its AMRC speaking to UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt outside of Factory 2050 at the announcement of the South Yorkshire Investment Zone
Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, speaking to UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt at the announcement of the new South Yorkshire Investment Zone.

This partnership, also including Spirit Aerosystems and Loop Technology, has won ATI funding for a four-year advanced aerostructures research project which will provide technological advances for light weighting aerospace components including wings, stabilisers and fuselages. This innovation will drive new investment into the UK's aerospace sector, create high-skilled jobs and could lead to Boeing reshoring production in this country. 

At the University of Sheffield’s AMRC, we have seen the impact of innovation-led growth and what it can achieve. Over the last 20 years, a site of industrial scar on the Sheffield/Rotherham border has been transformed into a global hub for advanced manufacturing. A recent economic impact report found that some of the biggest private sector investments into UK advanced manufacturing over the last 15 years would not have happened without the AMRC, and it has brought more than £260 million of private investment and more than 600 jobs to South Yorkshire.

Regions working collaboratively with universities to focus on innovation-led growth is absolutely the right strategy to drive forward opportunities. What the Investment Zone allows us to do is go further and create a more holistic approach, rooted in partnership between central and local government, in addition to research institutions and the private sector.

It also means a significant funding boost of £80 million over five years, which can be used flexibly between spending or on tax incentives, as well as business rates relief, amongst other fiscal levers.

At a time when the public purse has been tightened, critics will say now is not the time for lower taxes on businesses. But with some companies having rushed to the exit door in recent years against the backdrop of Brexit, we have seen our confidence and our economy take a hit.

It means we need companies to bet on Britain more than ever. And the long-term benefits for our productivity, growth and innovation that Investment Zones can achieve will far outweigh any concerns.

As we look forward to an election year, with so much up for grabs in terms of policy, I hope that the long-term potential of Investment Zones is seen by all parties. That they do not become a political football either kicked out of play by the Labour party or indeed, misplaced by the current Government.  

There are significant opportunities for growth and to attract further investment in our region, and for our research and innovation facilities to help businesses navigate the technology challenges on the path to net zero. This is a moment for both sides to show the same ambition and unity, as we seek to realise our potential once again.

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