South Yorkshire first of UK’s university-centred investment zones

Treasury announces first of 12 zones ‘based around a university and clusters of high-growth industries’

July 14, 2023

The government has announced South Yorkshire as the first of its revamped university-centred investment zones, just as the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre wins £30 million to create a new research facility focused on making aviation more sustainable.

The first of what will be 12 investment zones nationally, benefiting from £80 million of public funding each, was announced on 14 July for South Yorkshire, with partners including the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University and the South Yorkshire Combined Authority.

The Treasury said the zones would be “based around a university and clusters of high-growth industries” – including “advanced manufacturing, life sciences, green industries, digital and technology, and creative industries” – delivering “benefits directly to local communities”, with the South Yorkshire zone expected to “help leverage more than £1.2 billion of private funding and help support more than 8,000 jobs by 2030”.

The investment zones plan has been radically reoriented since Liz Truss’ short-lived spell as prime minister, when it was conceived as offering lower-tax, deregulated regimes for selected areas of the country.

Koen Lamberts, the Sheffield vice-chancellor, said: “It’s certainly a great opportunity for South Yorkshire. The idea behind the investment zone is that we will exploit the assets in the region to support economic growth and development.”

The £80 million funding for the investment zone, he continued, was “of course not sufficient in itself to support large-scale economic development – that requires others to come in as well – but it gives us tools that will hopefully allow us to create those partnerships and to attract those very significant private sector investments into the region”.

As the investment zone was announced for South Yorkshire, Sheffield announced that its AMRC would create a new R&D facility called Compass (Composites at Speed and Scale), to be home to “a raft of state-of-the-art equipment secured through a £29.5 million grant from the Aerospace Technology Institute”.

Compass aims to provide the technological advances needed to make passenger jets more lightweight, helping to reduce emissions and make air travel more sustainable – an example of the kind of work that could be further catalysed by the investment zone to create high-skill jobs locally.

The first R&D project at Compass will be with Boeing and “will initially create around 50 jobs in South Yorkshire, with the potential to create 3,000 jobs by the mid-2030s”, the university said.

Boeing has already built what is its first European manufacturing facility close to the AMRC site, on the Sheffield-Rotherham border.

Professor Lamberts said of the AMRC’s success in advanced manufacturing: “What we also want to do through the investment zone is expand into other sectors and use different vehicles for creating that local economic benefit. We will, for instance, seek to establish a facility that will make us a very attractive location for spin-out and start-up companies.”

On the detail of the South Yorkshire investment zone, the government said it would work with the local partners, including the universities, “to co-develop the plans for their Advanced Manufacturing Investment Zone, including agreeing priority development sites and specific interventions to drive cluster growth, over the summer, ahead of final confirmation of plans”.

The £80 million funding for each investment zone will support “a range of interventions, which could include skills, infrastructure and tax reliefs, depending on local circumstances”, it said.

The plans, though widely welcomed, might still be seen as lagging behind, in pace and scale, the US federal government’s moves to support the growth of innovation economies in regions, from which the UK government's plans appear to take inspiration.

Sir Chris Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam vice-chancellor, said the investment zone announcement “recognises the significant role Sheffield’s universities have to play in driving sustainable economic growth across our region.

“Sheffield Hallam looks forward to working with key partners to develop our clusters of excellence and expand opportunities for research and innovation.”

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, said: “Our first investment zone is a shining example of how we will drive growth across the country.”

Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, said: “We want to build on South Yorkshire’s proud heritage so that it can make an even greater contribution to the UK economy. This is what levelling up is all about – promoting growth and providing opportunities so people can thrive in the communities they are from.”

In a separate government announcement on 14 July, ministers said there would be a new degree apprenticeship in space engineering to train up talent needed for the UK sector to grow. It will be delivered by the University of Leicester.

“The new apprenticeship will offer infinite opportunities for people to work in the UK’s world-leading space industry, including for global aerospace companies, space agencies or institutions including universities and technology research and development laboratories,” the Department for Education said.

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