Jack Straker

Published: 2020-03-24

23 June is a date that will forever fill me with great happiness and faith in our country. Of course, I refer to the glorious day, in 2014, when the former Member of Parliament for Tatton, the first Chancellor from a northern seat since Dennis Healey in the late 1970s, delivered his vision of the “Northern Powerhouse” from Manchester. Finally, I thought, a government that is going to look to break the north out of its post-industrial revolution(s) chrysalis and help it spread its wings into the wold of technology and industry 4.0.  

In the last century, the growing behemoth of London – particularly its financial sector – has increasingly lured people with an education south: the ‘brain drain’ that has robbed the north of many of its best and brightest; in 2018, in terms of patents granted per head, none of the UK’s top ten places were from the north. I should get off my soapbox; I have abandoned the north myself – studying literature in the south – and now I am just another cog in the London machine.

In this cog-role, I have recently started work to commercialise the technology of a client from the north east. They have a highly accurate water flow controller which, by a bit of mechanical genius, reacts instantaneously to changes in upstream pressure to maintain a consistent output of water. In addition to ancillary benefits (such as eliminating temperature fluctuation in showers, preventing troughs in water pressure during peak demand, and a reduction in capital cost of new build), by regulating pressure within a water network it can cut water waste in a property by 40%.

As part of the market validation piece of this work, I have been looking into the drivers of sustainability in the built environment. There are two insights that are relevant here.

The first is that I was (pleasantly) surprised to find that some companies I encountered are considering sustainability in both an environmental and a social light. Along with looking to minimise energy and water use, they are looking to create jobs and build social programmes around new build projects. I had not considered this, but it makes sense that social initiatives are the ying to the yang of environmentally friendly measures. After all, very often the most economical ways of doing things are the most damaging to the environment – to curtail these practices would negatively impact the most vulnerable in society disproportionately, so countermeasures must be considered.

The second is that the very existence of a ‘green premium’ around property (i.e. energy and water efficiency being ‘nice-to-have’ frills and not ‘necessary’ functions) is being questioned: saving operational costs increases profitability; this is not merely a matter of non-market strategy such as green credentials, CSR or brand value. Sustainability is graduating from ‘nice-to-have’ into a corporate standard in the same way as “an e-business” is now referred to as “a business”.

Now, how to tie three points together (the north in suspended animation; the inextricability of social and environmental impact; the financial value of sustainability – both environmental and social) and link them to RIG?

I would like to see the government putting its money where its mouth is, triggering investment in the north of England, the northern economy booming, and quality of life improving. I partly want to see this due to moral imperative: Brassed Off and Billy Elliott provide typically stoic references to the difficulties faced by communities by the collapse of the coal industry – the poorest in society have footed the bill for our environmental gain. However, this is mostly due to the economic opportunity of investing in the north – both locally and nationally. The north represents a significant part of RIG’s current sustainable technologies client base: two are based in the north-east and one in Manchester. We also have clients in Birmingham and Glasgow – honourable mentions.

To be clear, the north is no charity case. It would seem the north’s time is coming – there are some interesting spinouts coming out of universities in Newcastle and Manchester, for example. In the excitement of the last general election, I spied Mercia acquiring NVM’s three northern-focussed venture capital trusts. Now that Britain has decided to cut itself off from the EU, it needs to make the most of its own national resources – perhaps starting with areas outside the “golden triangle” of UK innovation (London, Oxford and Cambridge). This is not a ‘nice-to-have’ – Britain is too reliant on its London revenue stream, and needs to sweat its assets north of the Watford Gap.

I look forward to RIG expanding its northern portfolio; I hope to see us open a northern practice before long.