The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.
Sheffield, as we’ve often noted in these pages, is, economically speaking, a bit of a mystery. It’s one of England’s major provincial cities, at the heart of an urban region of nearly 2 million people. Yet it underperforms on most economic measures, even compared to other big post-industrial cities.
We’ve been through all this before, more than once. So today I’m going to ask a different question: can advanced manufacturing fix it?
This is not a theoretical question. The city is home to the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP), which in turn contains the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, or AMRC. (If anyone has any synonyms for the phrase “advanced manufacturing” going spare, this is the time to tell me.) These places link academics directly with major multinational firms like Boeing and McLaren, enabling the latter to access expertise and the former to commercialise their work.
It also uses, in the words of a recent Centre for Cities report on the AMP, an “open-source research model, that shares discoveries across the AMRC’s network without patents”: the park is focused almost entirely on research, rather than production, and is a place where firms from separate industries are encouraged to work together. Today it’s home to several hundred high paying manufacturing jobs of the sort that economists swoon over whenever they’re comparing Britain’s economy with that of Germany; fully half of these have arrived since 2012.
It has, in other words, been rather successful, even compared to similar manufacturing parks such as i54 in Wolverhampton or the Cody Technology Park in Aldershot. Look at the share of well-paying advanced manufacturing jobs, in dark green:
All of which raises two questions. Can this revive Sheffield’s economy? And could it do the same elsewhere?
The answer to the former seems to be a resounding “maybe”. Anthony Breach, the CfC researcher who authored the report, notes that firms from “different parts of the country and all over the world are now trading with Sheffield, because of the knowledge coming from the AMP”. It is at least putting the city on the radar, and the idea a Boeing, say, may one day want to create more jobs in the city so as to maximise access to the research park is not a crazy one.
On the flipside, though, the number of jobs in the park is 499 – the fact it’s not a round number gives it extra pathos, somehow – which is not to be sniffed at by any means, but is a drop in the ocean in a city of this size: it’s only 3 per cent of the region’s advanced manufacturing sector jobs. Even by the standards of similar parks, it’s small:
If it’s to have a hope of catching up with Leeds or Manchester, Sheffield needs to attract more high-skilled jobs. In practice that probably means attracting service businesses in sectors such as finance, law or publishing. That in turn means both attracting more graduates and improving the skills of the existing population: all the difficult, boring stuff we tend to go on about on this bit of CityMetric.
If the benefits of the AMP to Sheffield are limited, the case for replicating it elsewhere is decidedly thin. One of the reasons AMP has worked is because it’s the advanced manufacturing park – a single place where different industries and academies can cluster together and share ideas. (What’s different about those other larger industrial parks is that they tend to have production lines, rather than merely R&D.) There’s a danger that trying to set up copies would simply dilute the benefits, which come from having all those different firms, people and industries in one place. “If you had dozens of advanced manufacturing parks across the country,” argues Breach, “it’d defeat the purpose.”
None of this is to say it isn’t valuable – quite the opposite. “A lot of the research that goes on in the AMP improves productivity in Sunderland or North Wales,” notes Breach. “It’s a national asset, and the government should support it because of its national economic benefits.” That seems fair – if the nation gets the benefit, the nation should bear the costs. But it won’t magically sort out Sheffield.
Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.
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You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report on the AMP here.
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