Regional development, levelling up and the case for a second UK supercluster in Life Sciences

NHSA Chief Executive, Dr Séamus O’Neill, writes about the northern vision for a second UK life sciences Supercluster

15th October 2021

A recent New Statesman event in Manchester looked at the role of Regional Development in the Age of Levelling Up, where I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute to a discussion with Lord Jim Bethell on innovation in the life sciences sector.

We discussed with New Statesman Britain Editor Anoosh Chakelian the importance of the sector to UK ambitions in the global economy and in reference to the levelling up component, how the regions – and the North in particular – could provide a second life sciences supercluster to augment the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Our principal conclusion was that it was essential for both the UK’s global positioning and for levelling up the economy, that the country’s R&D base be expanded both in terms of volume and geographic scope. Lord Bethell used examples from the Life Sciences Vision to illustrate areas in which the North already excels such as genomics in Manchester, infectious diseases in Liverpool and medtech in Yorkshire. These are good examples and, together with the North’s research and innovation base in advanced therapies, data science, mental health and ageing, there is a strong foundation for investment and new ways of working that would be transformative.

But the event wasn’t just about life sciences, we heard from experts on transport, housing, education and skills, place-making, health and other sectors. The key messages were the same. Whether it was articulated in terms of regional development, levelling up, building back or any other policy lens, the common threads were clear. Regions need:

  • A fair share of public sector investment
  • Time and authority to make the necessary changes

The biggest area for improvement across all the sectors cited above was the need for systems to be integrated. Within and across transport, housing, health, the interconnectedness within and between regions is key to generating improvements. This has been clear for a long time but the very highly centralised approach of successive governments and the fragmentation of funding for interventions mitigate against the joined-up approaches and long-termism that are needed to address the issues effectively.

Part of the transformation required is greater efficiency and scale through partnership working. As an alliance of universities, NHS trusts and Academic Health Science Networks, the Northern Health Science Alliance is tasked with bringing together activity across these member organisations and industry to create a critical mass of excellence. We also act as an advocate, nationally and internationally, on behalf of the sector in the North to make sure that the collective potential is realised.

Together with the NP11 (which represents the 11 northern Local Enterprise Partnerships) the NHSA is setting out the vision for a second UK life sciences Supercluster, complimentary to the one in the South East. In our report “A Northern Life Sciences Supercluster: The economic potential of a systemwide approach”, we detail the economic opportunity arising from the world class assets in life sciences in the region. It articulates the opportunity for greater connectivity and system integration to provide scale and critical mass for an innovation and industry-led transformation. It estimates that with a fair share of public sector investment in the North we can, by 2040, generate £11bn in additional productivity and create over 60,000 more jobs compared to the current trajectory. The potential is there but as noted earlier it will take a fair share of the national investment and time to realise the benefits.

Crucially, for the UK ambition, all the activity proposed is in areas of the life sciences in which the North is nationally and internationally competitive and that are important to strengthen the UK’s global offering, build resilience in the UK’s health system, and drive innovation-led growth. So this in not levelling-up for sentimental reasons, it makes hard-nosed economic sense and is consistent with the wider ambitions and strategy set out by government.

The opportunity to build back better from the current crisis must include ensuring that regions such as the North have the investment and decision-making authority to fulfil their potential. In the report and the Spending Review proposal that it underpins we have set out a clear plan to, as Sir Roger Marsh, Chair of the NP11 recently put it, “unlocking the North’s potential is critical to delivering on the Government’s levelling up ambitions and giving the 15 million people who live in the North hope for the future”.

Sir Roger also pointed out: “It’s crucially important that moving forward, investment is done in a collaborative way. Collaboration between public and private sector to maximise impact in the real economy. Collaboration between places, to ensure the levelling up “prize” is greater than the sum of its parts”.

It is this collaborative working across complex challenges in the life sciences and many other sectors that will be the key to building back better. The quality of the partnership working between the NP11, the NHSA as well as stakeholders from the NHS, academia, industry, government, investors and multiple other stakeholders is the essence of cluster development and we are committed to making this work for our sector, our economy and our region.

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