Greater Manchester Chamber has hosted the first in a national series of roundtable events on the digital economy organised by British Chambers of Commerce and Yorkshire Bank.
Opening the discussion, Chris Fletcher, Marketing & Campaigns Director at the Chamber, stressed the importance of the sector which employs 80,000 people.
Richard Gregory, Honorary Chair of Yorkshire Bank, which supported the event, then highlighted the way technology is transforming the world of banking.
“The digital winds of change are revolutionising the banking sector and changing the way things are done. I find it invigorating. There are challenges but also great opportunities,” he said.
He explained how Yorkshire Bank was leading the way in the applying new technology and was the first bank to use cheque imaging.
He also stressed the bank’s commitment to the region, saying it “wanted to be seen as the SME bank for the North of England”.
There then followed a lively and wide-ranging discussion about key economic issues. Attendees were first asked how the Northern Powerhouse could be used to unlock potential growth and productivity across the North.
Most delegates felt people were not sure what the Northern Powerhouse meant or what it had achieved since it was first launched four years ago by former Chancellor George Osborne. Some said they identified more with Manchester than the Northern Powerhouse and thought the term was a political soundbite. To make the Northern Powerhouse a reality would, they said, require action on transport, skills and poverty.
Richard Gregory added: “The Northern Powerhouse has to be about more than Manchester and Leeds. It has to be for the whole of the North.”
When asked how easy it was to expand businesses and recruit staff, attendees said transport was a major issue as congestion made it hard to bring staff in from outside Greater Manchester. There was consensus that more needed to be done to tackle congestion and improve public transport. Finding suitable premises was also an issue for smaller companies, particularly in the city centre, and the complexity of the immigration system made it difficult to bring in skilled staff from other countries
Some said that getting finance to set up new ventures was difficult as investors were conservative about where they would put their money and had unrealistic expectations of the return they would get on their investment.
Asked about the impact of devolution and having an elected mayor, many supported what Andy Burnham had achieved so far but said more needed to be done, particularly around transport. There was also a call for the mayor to follow the example of France by offering business incentives to move to Manchester.
Many felt that while technology had transformed the way businesses communicate, face to face meetings were still crucial. Most said they were more likely to do businesses with other companies based in the North West. Many also did business with London companies because of the good train link with Manchester, but said fares were too high.
More roundtable events will be held across the country in the coming months.