is oxfordshire set for take-off aboard boris' economic rocket ship?

New Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, used his first speech outside No 10 to deliver an energetic new narrative around the UK economy. Those listening with an interest in Oxfordshire and science and technology will have sat up a number of times, writes Head of Oxford, Richard Todd.

With a political avalanche about to hit this Autumn, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must have savoured his moment of victory in front of the world’s most famous front door.

He may never be this powerful again.

First speeches on the steps of Number 10 are critical in setting out an incoming Prime Minister’s new political agenda. Every word and inference is hung on by watching commentators, investors, politicians and campaigners looking for clues on future policy direction.

And then a limbo period begins while we wait to see how many new initiatives are embarked on and how many of the old leaders’ ideas and polices remain in place.

Vitally, Boris used his speech to set up an energetic new narrative around his plans for the Post-Brexit UK economy.

Those with an interest in Oxfordshire and science and technology will have sat up a number of times.

“Let’s get going now on our own positioning, navigation and timing satellites, and Earth observation systems – UK assets, orbiting space with all the long-term strategic and commercial benefits for this country”, Boris cheered.

He stopped short of naming Oxfordshire’s Harwell Campus and Westcott Venture Park, where the UK Space Agency recently invested another £4million to develop the National Space Propulsion Test Facility.

Boris added gene therapy, genetically modified (GM) food, electric battery technology and blight resistant crop technology to his roster of “world leading” industries, primed to reboot the UK economy in readiness for fresh negotiations with the EU.

Milton Keynes and Cambridge, the other two economic centres in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, are home to businesses developing these pioneering technologies. These sectors just shot up the economic and political agenda but they’re not news to our region.

Internationalisation of the Arc

One of his last acts of outgoing Business Innovation and Skills Minister (BEIS) and prominent Remainer, Greg Clark, was to publish four Local Industrial Strategies (LIS) for Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and the South East Midlands, each with an Arc-wide chapter.

The tone of the documents is outward looking and in the grain of Boris’s vision of confident outward-looking Britain. Oxfordshire’s LIS commits to making the region a “UK magnet for international talent, R&D, Foreign Direct Investment and research collaborations”.

Practical measures include an Arc presence at MIPIM, Cannes in March 2020 and an updated capital investment led Oxford-Cambridge Arc brochure and Investment Prospectus – led by the Department of International Trade - which will identify investable opportunities.

The commercial property sector might be interested in a plan to work with central government to “develop a shared understanding of market failures in creating new commercial
premises within the Arc.”  The LIS resolves to bring together “a range of analysis already being undertaken locally, regionally, and national” to “ensure the right premises are planned for, prioritised locally within any bids for future government funding, and built.”

Bidwells’ recent analysis of Oxford’s Offices and Labs market again found supply levels falling to their lowest point in a decade, with just 516,800 sq ft of new space coming forward in H1 2019.

‘Market failure’ in Oxfordshire can be addressed by planning and Boris promised a review of the system last weekend. Measures to support the speedy transition of the next generation of science parks through the planning system - of the type planned by L&G and the University of Oxford at Begbroke - should be a Boris priority.

Securing the future of research

Boris’s chief special adviser, Dominic Cummings, the man famous for winning the Brexit Referendum that set Boris on the path to power, was likely to have had a hand in the speech given his strong interest in scientific research. Boris mentioned tax reform to increase incentives for companies to invest in research but if Oxfordshire is to win the global competition for talent, then the right visa environment must be secured for the best researchers to consider careers in Oxfordshire.

The Welcome Trust responded favourably to Boris’s science-heavy speech but took the uncharacteristic step of warning the new PM In the national media that his plans to support the S&T sector will come to nothing should a no-deal Brexit make it considerably harder to recruit scientists to come and work in the UK.

Boris has already visited Manchester to show support for the Northern Powerhouse and ‘leveling up the regions’ so it can’t be long before he is in Oxfordshire to jump aboard at a time when the local economy, epitomised by the space sector successes at Harwell and Westcott Park, is set to take off internationally.

Theresa May resolved to fight the country’s “burning injustices” in her first speech as incoming PM but after a promising start, she never regained control of the political narrative after a series of calamities and errors of political judgement.

Boris is enjoying his political honeymoon but to avoid crashing and burning in more spectacular fashion, Johnson and Cummings would be wise to launch their economic rocket from foundations built in Oxfordshire.

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