Chancellor's Northern Powerhouse could do with some foreign money

Nations with problems at home often redouble efforts to diversify abroad

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The Independent Online

Stand by, Rotherham. Watch out, Walsall. By venturing as far afield as the north-west city of Urumqi on his trip to China this week, George Osborne hopes that Chinese dignitaries jetting into London next month will follow his lead and venture off the track normally beaten on state visits.

We will see if they take the hint. What is clear is that the Chancellor’s genuflecting will look cold and dismissive compared with the charm offensive when the Chinese President Xi Jinping and estimated retinue of 800 people come to town. As one adviser said to me, referring to the ringmaster behind the glittering performance that opened the London Olympics: “We’ve left it too late to call in Danny Boyle.”

Selling the delights of the UK to an overseas investor with its own problems might seem odd – especially if China’s slowing economic growth exposes a debt bubble not unlike the West’s own credit crisis. However, Mr Osborne is right to give the Middle Kingdom the benefit of the doubt if the alternative is for the renminbi riches to pour instead into Germany or France.

Nations with problems at home often redouble efforts to diversify abroad. Witness the global expansion of Middle-Eastern sovereign wealth funds such as Abu Dhabi, which want to spread their investments before the oil runs dry.

The UK’s need for cold, hard cash to fund infrastructure projects continues unabated. As in the tourism industry, London acts as a gateway for visitors to the rest of the country – and the trick is to get investors spending on more than just trophy assets in the capital. There are too few examples of foreign money venturing up the M1 and beyond.

Innovators need an injection of cash

Ask most people about Innovate UK and the answer is typically, “Who?”. That is only slightly unfair given that the government body once known as the Technology Strategy Board has had more than a year to bed down its rebranding. Broadly, it is there to take great ideas from universities and commercialise them, including through the Catapult centres that specialise in promising areas such as cell therapy and offshore renewable energy.

Anything that boosts Britain’s investment in research and development – public and private – must be a force for good, for it  has lagged most other major economies for years. The body can be assumed to be doing something right if the UK is again ranked second in the Global Innovation Index of nations, behind only Switzerland.

The low-profile Innovate UK has had taxpayer money poured into it, enjoying an annual budget of £616m – up by two-thirds since 2012. When he was still business secretary, Sir Vince Cable called for the organisation’s funding to be hiked to £1bn. Given that Innovate UK is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has to find significant savings as part of the comprehensive spending review, the direction of travel is likely to be down rather than up.

As it says in its last annual report, Innovate UK is “planning its future operations based on a number of scenarios dependent on the final budget outcome”. The clue is in point five of the five-point plan issued by Innovate UK’s new boss, Ruth McKernan, which says it is “exploring ways to help public funding go further and work harder, while continuing to deliver impact from innovation”.

The agency’s last four-year strategy succeeded in generating investment in innovation of £2.5bn, although only £1bn of this came from matched funding from industry. Ms McKernan must innovate further to get the private sector to put its hand deeper in its pocket.

Waitrose blends into its new surroundings

So many supermarkets are slated to close these days, it is no wonder that the opening of a new one has become worthy of a drinks party. Behind King’s Cross station on Wednesday night, Waitrose threw open the doors of its first new full-sized store in central London for six years.

Despite price wars and changing customer habits, the chain is still cautiously opening new sites nationwide to give it a presence beyond its southern England heartland. London, however, is a different matter. Convenience stores and home deliveries may have soared, but the problem of finding large enough sites inside the M25 remains.

King’s Cross is being transformed into  a “happening” district – smart enough to tempt Central St Martins fashion college, Jamie Oliver and Google to move in. There is space in abundance. And what Waitrose has done with that space is instructive.

That the store is based in the refurbished Midland Goods Shed, once a storage facility for Kilner jars, explains the oddly shaped glass light fittings. A cookery school and wine bar have also been incorporated. And subject to corkage, customers can sit outside slurping wine and admiring the landscaped view down to Regent’s Canal.

It has little in common with doing the weekly shop – but for Waitrose, that is precisely the point.

Twitter finds it’s out of the picture

The tectonic plates are shifting in the technology world. Instagram, home of the selfie, has amassed 400 million active users in five short years, eclipsing Twitter, which has a mere 316 million. Instagram, owned by Facebook, captures the imagination of a younger demographic, while Twitter, talked of as a takeover target for Google as its shares have sunk, has grown older. It all adds weight to the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. How could Twitter, stuck with 140 characters, ever hope to compete?

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