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Unlocking the North of England’s true potential as a global leader in life sciences

Written by: Richard Stubbs - 27th February 2023

Richard Stubbs in a plectrum shape infront of a stone wallThe life sciences sector is one of the fastest growing and most innovative sectors globally, with the North of England at the forefront of this growth. The region’s rich history of scientific and medical advancements continues to grow thanks to a well-established network of 1,440 life sciences businesses1, universities, research institutions, and healthcare providers that are driving the development of cutting-edge technologies and therapies.  Consequently, the economic contribution of the region’s life science sector is significant – already employing 58,757 people1 – whilst having potential to create further high-value jobs, drive technological progress, and enhance the quality of life for people in the region and beyond.

Alone, this suggests the North of England is already a health and life sciences powerhouse.  However, we know there are still key challenges and barriers the region must overcome to unlock its true potential and offer even more to the region and cross national and international boundaries.

Twinned with this untapped potential are long-standing regional health inequalities.  For example, life expectancy across the North of England can vary by as much as 3 years in comparison to the South2. There’s always been an intrinsic and unbreakable relationship between the economy and societal health: a strong economy is paramount to supporting people to be healthy, whilst a healthy population is a critical part of a productive economy.  This is all too clear to see through the region’s productivity, which is on average 39% lower than London and the South West3.  However, this productivity gap alone doesn’t explain why the North is yet to reach its true potential.  So, the question remains “what is needed for the sector to reach its true economic potential and better contribute to improving health outcomes internationally?”.

I was pleased to lead a debate on this topic at the recent Convention of the North, which brought together senior leaders to discuss potential solutions.  I led a panel discussion entitled ‘How can the North be a global leader in life sciences nationally and tackle health inequalities in our communities?’. The group co-developed three propositions for the region to focus upon independently and in partnership with government over the next year:

  • Become a Northern ‘supercluster’ in health and life sciences, maximising high-quality Northern collaboration within sectors targeting inclusive growth through good jobs for communities who need them most.
  • Retain a focus on manufacturing, building on our existing skills base but pivoting our industries to the future – recognising that local life science manufacturing leads to local clinical trials, leading to innovation that is targeted to the health needs of our populations.
  • Create locally tailored approaches to supporting employment through health and developing health and employment integration plans around this.

These propositions echo the policy recommendations within the ‘Life Sciences’ and ‘Health’ policy papers drafted by local government, businesses and think tanks from across the North in advance of the convention. They also firmly echo the YHealth for Growth work I have been leading in partnership with Yorkshire Universities and NHS Confederation since 2019.  Through promoting the intrinsic link between health and economic prosperity we seek to unlock the region’s inclusive economic potential and tackle long-standing societal challenges. For example, one of our recommendations aimed at local leaders suggests “Development bodies and anchor institutions should align strategies to deliver inclusive growth”. This further reinforces the propositions developed during the panel discussion at the Convention of the North and will be a key step in furthering the ‘supercluster’ ambition.

It is now more important than ever that our Northern towns and cities work together for improved societal impact. The Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) and NP11 estimate that a Northern health and life sciences ‘supercluster’ would bring £16.52bn a year to the UK’s economy4. To create such a ‘supercluster’, crucially we need to strengthen collaboration between Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and combined authorities, universities, NHS trusts, Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), and other stakeholders. However, it’s even larger than this, the region’s 15.6m5 citizens and their collective economic output also plays a key part in this growth.  Crucially, if we get this right, the region not only has potential to leverage societal impact across its own geographical bounds, it also has potential to improve health outcomes by driving levelling up and tackling inequalities across the whole country.

To achieve this ambition, we also need to invest in the region’s skills, building upon our industrial and manufacturing heritage, but ensuring we equip ourselves with the skills and capabilities to support the growing industries of the future. We also need to recognise that by growing the supercluster and creating jobs in the health sector we are not only directly contributing to the region’s health and economic output, every new job also positively contributes to the health of the population.

During the workshop we agreed that working together is vital if we are to achieve inclusive economic growth for all, but we can’t do this alone. We know there are significant opportunities for innovation-led growth across the North, but there are numerous ways in which central government can help unlock this potential.  Therefore, we need greater support and investment to equip the region with the powers and funding it needs to implement these large-scale changes.

Much of our work at Yorkshire & Humber AHSN is exactly focused in this space: whether that be through our work which seeks to celebrate and grow the reputation of the region and its assets, developing strong collaborations with key regional and national stakeholders, improving health outcomes and tackling health inequalities, or through our work building international linkages.

We have a genuinely exciting opportunity to boost the North’s life sciences ‘supercluster’ and grow its offer locally, nationally, and internationally. If we can address some of the region’s structural and societal challenges, we will maximise the North’s contribution as a vital component to the UK becoming a global research and development superpower.

If you’d like to discuss how we can work together on this agenda, then please get in touch.

This blog was first published as a comment piece in the Yorkshire Post on Thursday 23 February.