North East entrepreneurs can drive the future, post-Brexit

In my last column (for The Journal), I wrote that one of the biggest barriers to economic success in the North East was a lack of positive media coverage outside our region.

Unfortunately, I fear this has become an even bigger problem as a result of the EU Referendum when the majority of people in the North East voted to ‘Leave’, with subsequent media coverage portraying us as racist, uneducated, closed-minded and economically deprived.

Although I voted to ‘Remain’ and was initially disappointed by the result, I can understand why so many people wanted to leave the EU.

Some clear divisions have emerged between the UK’s major cities which have benefited the most from EU funding and our smaller towns and cities.

Despite the North East receiving more EU Development Funds than any other English region between 2007-2013 (almost £500 million, the equivalent of £189 per head), much of this money has been spent on projects and initiatives set up to tackle high levels of unemployment, boost skills and encourage entrepreneurship which aren’t highly visible to most people.

Even when money has been used to pay for amazing new buildings, these are not always seen as open to everyone with some evidence to suggest that only the more affluent and highly-skilled people benefit from their existence.

There’s no doubt that many jobs have been created, great work has been done and our overall quality of life in the region has improved over the years as a result of this funding.

Unfortunately, it’s also helped create a dependency culture where many businesses and organisations rely heavily on this funding, either directly or as part of a supply chain.

Reports are also coming through that some of our academic institutions are being frozen out of European research projects because we will have left the EU before the work has been completed.

We also have a very high level of public sector employment in our region which tends to dampen entrepreneurial spirit with data showing we only have 633 businesses per 10,000 people in the North East versus 1,266 businesses (exactly double) per 10,000 people in London.

All of these things combined mean our regional economy is now massively exposed in many different sectors and we need to respond fast!

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to take stock of where we are and then accept the new world we are now living in.

As our new PM Theresa May has said, “Brexit means Brexit”.

Secondly, we need to dust ourselves off and start ramp up the selling of our products, skills and expertise around the world in new markets that we previously didn’t consider because it was easier, cheaper and more convenient to sell to Europe.

This may seem daunting if you’ve not done it before, but we do have some truly fantastic entrepreneurs with first-hand experience of building global businesses who can provide the leadership we need to put our region on the world stage.

Excellent traditional organisations like the North East England Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Businesses, Institute of Directors and UKTI whose purpose is to support and promote the interests of their members will play an increasingly important role in selling our region to the rest of the world over the coming weeks and months.

We also have a thriving tech and digital creative sector, with startups, scale ups and big IT businesses represented by the likes of Campus North, Digital Union, Software City, Digital City, Dynamo North East and Tech North (part of Tech City UK), plus world-class facilities like The Core and National Institute of Smart Data Innovation (NISDI) at Newcastle Science Central, plus a talented and loyal workforce making us a highly appealing place to start and grow a business, retain and attract talent.

However, collaboration between all these different groups is more important than ever before and so it’s imperative that we all come together to present a united front that will portray the North East of England in the best possible light - both to Central Government and to potential global partners.

I believe this should be entrepreneur-driven, with our home-grown business leaders (from big and small enterprises) taking the lead and our local authorities, MPs and membership organisations listed above providing them with all the support they can give by removing barriers to getting things done and helping to shine a light on all their collective achievements.

We must embrace bold and innovative new ways of thinking and doing things, using big and smart data to identify patterns and emerging trends in education and healthcare, manufacturing and transportation.

We must become more experimental, take greater risks and rediscover our entrepreneurial mojo of the past to create more new businesses and grow existing ones that will create a much wider range of local jobs that aren’t just for the highly educated and will benefit a greater proportion of our population.

The North East of England has been #InventingTheFuture for centuries and so it’s now down to us to decide exactly what future we want!

(This article first appeared in The Journal online and in print on 21st July 2016).

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