Our once in a lifetime opportunity

Our once in a lifetime opportunity

Jillian Thomas, only the second female president of Sheffield Chamber, tells BQ about her first few months in the role.

It has been a great honour and a great privilege to become president of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I know I have taken on this role at a very exciting and critical time. The economy is changing, new industries are emerging and new challenges, with the foremost requirement of creating and educating the future workforce. The changes are essential to ensure that the Sheffield City Region continues to compete and excel on the national and international stage.

Industry in our region is moving from historical heavy industry to specialist production. No longer is Sheffield the blast furnace of the country; we still make steel, only now it is specialist steel. We still manufacture. These days it is advanced manufacturing and advanced engineering and healthcare technologies and creative and digital industries – and we need the infrastructure and skilled people to make sure those industries grow.

This is a once in lifetime opportunity, we can redesign the fortunes of not just Sheffield, but the whole region. Yes, we need an informed debate to ensure that we reach the right conclusions; taking the region in the right direction, not for political gain, but for the long term benefit for all.

Top of the immediate agenda is HS2. And top of our decision making is; where should the Sheffield station be? As a Chamber we have come to the conclusion that it must be for the best economic gain for the whole region. Most opinions are based on reports created before HS3 and the Northern Powerhouse debate became centre stage.

The conclusion needs basing not on whim and or emotion, but one founded on cold, hard economic evidence. The economic argument currently suggests the Sheffield city centre option being not just better for the city, but for the region as a whole.

The question of where the station should be located is bigger than party politics. It’s not about Labour versus Tory, or people sitting in silos making decisions for their town or their bit of the region. This is not about Sheffield versus Doncaster, Rotherham or Barnsley; we need collaboration across the City Region for the good of the region and for the area to be seen on the international stage, not just the national stage. The correct decision may in the short term cost more, but it will create quality well paid jobs, enhance local GDP, bring jobs for our children and security for us in our retired, golden years.

Independent research shows that a city centre station at Victoria could help create up to 13,000 new jobs; twice the amount of jobs compared to Meadowhall. Victoria could create up to £7bn for the local economy – more than if the station is at Meadowhall.

But this isn’t about Sheffield trying to get ahead of the rest of the region; far from it. What we know is that only a city centre can provide comprehensive city region and national strategic connectivity. Sheffield itself is the economic driver for the city region. Its success leads to success for the whole of the Sheffield City Region, and indeed for Yorkshire and Humberside.

As I said, in Sheffield we have growth industries like advanced engineering, healthcare technologies and creative and digital industries. These really are the industries of the future and they are growing in Sheffield. They are emerging onto the international stage too. In 12 months Sheffield exports went up 18%, compared with a 2% drop nationally. Sheffield itself is a powerhouse.

Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield together add up to roughly 80% of the population of London, but produce just 40% of the economic output. We need to unlock the potential and create a Northern Triangle, which will become the economic core of the Northern Powerhouse. At the start of this century we saw manufacturing move east, but when the quality failed to materialise, the reversal back to the UK commenced. We need to accelerate this reversal and play to our strengths.

But for a city region to be successful we need first class infrastructure. If I ran a corporation and was considering moving to the Sheffield City Region what are my requirements? I need robust infrastructure, a well-connected transport system that works nationally and internationally, and adequate power.

And what do we have in Sheffield? We have the opportunity of a lifetime to get the rail transport right with HS2 and HS3, with effective interactions with the M1 and M18 motorway links. We have an airport at Doncaster Sheffield that is adding flights and passengers and the new link road to the M18 can only accelerate that growth. And it is not just the 1.3 million holidaymakers and business passengers that the airport is key for, it is a cargo hub too, moving our exports out to an international market and bringing investment in. The airport is our global gateway to the city region.

And when businesses come here, what else do they need? Workers to do the jobs. And, again, that is, area that Sheffield is thriving in. We have UTC Sheffield, one of the first university technical colleges in the country. Students at UTC Sheffield study an academic curriculum, GCSEs and A Levels, alongside their technical learning. The difference is that all academic study relates to employer-led projects and students gain the skills and qualifications to open up opportunities for jobs.

The college offers specialist courses, designed with employers in mind, in the two exciting industry areas I mentioned before, creative and digital media, and advanced engineering and manufacturing. These areas are growth areas for our city, our region, the country and the world. The college courses mean the companies have the staff they need and the students have strong career opportunities in the future.

There are other exciting developments in the City Region too, such as the world leading Factory 2050, a new type of factory, which is being built on the new Advanced Manufacturing Campus. It will be the UK’s first totally reconfigurable, digital factory, which is designed so that equipment can easily be moved around the shop floor.

It’s backed by the University of Sheffield and is yet another example of how agencies collaborate, to mould the future development of the whole region. It’s a great example of how coming out of the silos and cooperating will strengthen the region and lead to a real Northern Powerhouse, a real Sheffield Powerhouse.

We don’t want lip service from politicians, we want them to reflect what is happening in the North, in Sheffield. Business will assist, play its part in this difficult period, as long as we are listened to, and the eventual decisions creating effective futures for all.

But the most important factor for the development and success of this region costs us nothing, it is for all of us to create a ‘can do’ culture. It is for all of us to speak positively, to create a culture that wants to make companies to come to the region, create jobs and create our future prosperity.

So we are laying the foundations for our city and our region to thrive in the future shifting economy. We need to keep ahead of the curve by creating a new and exciting economy. What a great time to be president of the Chamber!