The UK will never punch its weight on the world’s tech stage without proper investment in the country’s “lost towns”.
That’s the view of Michael Gibson, chair of Digital Lancashire and founder and managing director of Lancaster-based AI specialist Miralis Data.
The tech veteran says that fast-growing start-ups in the regions often have no choice but to relocate to a major city because of a lack of suitable office space.
Gibson said the result was the UK was producing a long line of “lost towns” which were in danger of not meeting their full potential.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the Northern Powerhouse and the region is blessed with big cities like Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
“If a property company opened a tech building in Manchester they would probably charge £26 sq ft but the same space would probably cost £10 sq ft in one of the smaller towns so there’s no incentive for developers to build there.
“What this means is that while there’s no shortage of tech talent in these towns there is a dire shortage of space so scale-ups often have to leave. If we don’t reverse that investment we’re in danger of producing a legacy of lost towns.”
Gibson said clustering made sense for like-minded tech businesses and highlighted the example of Auto Trader, TalkTalk and AO that all left smaller towns to move to Manchester.
“Smaller cities and towns are seeing high-skilled, high-wage companies leave and are doing very little to understand why and how to retain and grow a local tech cluster,” he said.
Gibson said Miralis Data, which employs 10 people and is approaching £1 million turnover, benefited from its close links to Lancaster University but admitted there was a long waiting list for suitable office space in the town.
“Companies are queuing to get into limited spaces but the existing companies in these spaces have nowhere else to go so you have a blockage,” he said.
Gibson said local councils, universities and local enterprise partnerships could borrow money “phenomenally cheaply” and if that was invested into improving buildings and infrastructure the result would be the creation of tech clusters.
Gibson sold digital marketing company Fat Media for an undisclosed seven figure sum in 2014 and admits its Lancashire location put some potential buyers off.
“We had an amazing portfolio of national clients but if we’d been based in Manchester the deal multiple would have been higher,” he said.
“However a lot of people don’t want to work in a big city and they lose sight of the fact that we’re only two-and-a-half hours away from London.”
His new company, Miralis Data, is now in the process of acquiring a software business in Wales and is working on six different projects.
“The thing with AI is if just one of those projects takes off it’s easier to scale quickly and if that happens we’re going to need some larger office space,” he said.