Oxfordshire must have greater confidence in its assets and achievements, director of strategy and programmes for the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership Ahmed Goga told an audience of business people, community leaders and academics at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford.
“We seem to be a bit shy about what we’re about, what we can achieve and what we’re doing for the country,” he said at the launch of the Oxfordshire Local Industrial Strategy (LIS) https://www.oxfordshirelep.com/lis.
Developed with government and 300 organisations, the report responds to the UK Industrial Strategy launched by central Government in November 2017 – a programme aimed at boosting growth and productivity across the UK.
One of LIS’s main aims is to catapult Oxfordshire into the top three innovation eco-systems of the world by 2040 –up from its current fifth- or sixth-place ranking. Another is to double the Oxfordshire economy to reach £46bn and deliver growth of two per cent a year in productivity.
“There’s no other place in the country that has the breadth, depth and brilliance of knowledge, skills and capabilities that Oxfordshire possesses,” Goga pointed out. He stressed the importance of establishing Oxford as a “playground for innovators and the location of choice for entrepreneurs to translate big ideas into fantastic world-beating successful products and services”.
Challenges could put future growth at risk
The report also highlights significant challenges faced by the county, which it warns could put future growth at risk. One of the biggest issues is expensive housing and the high cost of living, which puts a strain on local businesses’ ability to recruit talent, especially junior staff.
“Housing continues to be an absolutely big issue for us. The Oxfordshire housing market is the least affordable in the whole of the country,” Goga said, pointing to average property prices in Oxford that have reached 17-to-one in price-to-earnings ratio and 12-to-one for the county as a whole. “That is simply not sustainable,” he added and emphasised the role business must play in helping solve the issue.
The Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal, agreed with government in 2017, is seen as part of the solution to the chronic shortage of housing and described as ‘potentially transformative change’ in the LIS report. This committed up to £215m of national government investment into the county for infrastructure and affordable homes, with the aim of helping to plan and deliver up to 100,000 new homes in Oxfordshire by 2031.
However, the report cautions simply building more homes won’t be enough – ‘they need to be in the right areas, and with advanced transport links’.
‘Digital spine needs updating’
It also reveals the county’s digital technology is still under-developed. Although seven per cent of all premises in Oxfordshire have full-fibre connectivity, placing it among the best in the UK, this pales against other global regions such as Scandinavia, with 80 per cent full-fibre connection, or parts of the Far East that almost hit the 90 per cent mark. “We are dreadful, if we are competing at an international level,” Goga pointed out. “Our digital spine needs updating and it’s a key priority we need to work on with partners and government.”
Other hurdles addressed in the Local Industrial Strategy include Oxfordshire’s ageing workplace, the number of over-85’s in the population is forecast to leap 55 per cent by 2031. “Our ability to lead and compete is wholly dependent on our ability to have a highly developed and highly talented workforce,” Goga said. “Without that, we cannot continue to flourish – it’s absolutely fundamental to our ability to compete.”
The report also acknowledges the shortage of quality workspace across the county, from high-grade office through to laboratory, clean rooms and flexible science working space. Recent analysis by commercial property agents Bidwells noted Oxfordshire’s hubs are struggling to respond to demand for new premises, which is resulting in record rental costs. Highlighted is Oxford-based biotech company Evox Therapeutics, which was founded in 2016. It grew its team from one to 30 in just 18 months but sees the lack of readily available lab space as a key barrier to future growth. Although Evox has been able to lease space in Oxford Science Park, it is concerned about finding the right options for expansion.
To put the lack of workspace into sharper context, OxLEP chief executive Nigel Tipple pointed out how Oxfordshire has 15,000 sq ft of wet laboratory incubator space available to meet demand -compared to over 10m sq ft in the Boston metropolitan area in Massachusetts.
Young people being left behind
The report also recognises the wide gap between young people and what is being achieved in the county. Pulling no punches, Goga told the Blavatnik audience the Oxfordshire education system was “underperforming” at almost every stage and is below average for the UK. “This simply should not be happening in this location,” he said. “What we need to do is think again and re-imagine the role business can play in connecting with young people.”
Business, academic and civic leaders are also seeking to reverse the fall in the number of apprenticeships in Oxfordshire and boost the number of local businesses offering work experience. The number of new apprenticeships is growing by just three per cent in Oxfordshire – in comparison to 12.5 per cent achieved nationally. And the report also identifies a shortage of Oxfordshire school-leavers with STEM skills.
“We are woefully underperforming on these numbers,” Goga pointed out. “Too many young people don’t know what’s going on at Harwell, what’s happening inside the Science Park and not enough know about the science and technology opportunities we’re creating the length and breadth of Oxfordshire. “That is fundamentally wrong and the contract is going to look to re-inspire and re-engage businesses into that leadership role.”
He added: “We know there is a disconnect between the brilliance we are talking about and how local people perceive it, mainly because they don’t know about it. That’s one of the fundamental barriers. We have to redouble our efforts to communicate what we do, what’s going on and the jobs being created here in Oxfordshire that are relevant and available for them.”
The report suggests the county’s technology and R&D expertise can be harnessed to deliver solutions for local communities – across housing, transport and other public service issues.
Goga concluded: “We have the tools and the technology to do that, what we should be aspiring to connect this back to local people to show them that there is a wonderful benefit and upside to all of the brilliance that sits around them so they are part of it and own it and so they can feel valued by it.”
Recession-proof region keeps growing
Like so many networking groups STEM advisers began with a group of like-minded people with shared interests meeting up regularly over a few drinks. STEM Advisers Hub now draws in practitioners and service providers from a wide geographical area who are working in the science, tech, engineering, maths, medical and manufacturing sectors consultants.