Many strategies have been attempted to regenerate England’s post-industrial towns, from museums to indoor ski slopes and railway stations.
Rochdale is a part Greater Manchester and has a radical idea: a worldwide centre of excellence for machine-tool design. The former engineering and cotton spinning centre believes it can revive its heritage and create the jobs of the future.
“We are going to answer the question, ‘can innovation level up a town?’” said Neil Eccles, from the Rochdale Development Agency, the north-west local authority’s economic arm.
The 20th most deprived town in England, Rochdale has received £23.6m from the government’s “Towns Fund”, a £3.6bn pot of money aimed at improving “left-behind” areas as part of Westminster’s attempts to level up prosperity across the country.
Some £15m of this funding will go towards building the Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute in Rochdale. This is the type of institution that is built in cities that have the necessary expertise and companies to exploit it.
The AMP Institute will collaborate with universities and companies to develop new machines and technologies for the manufacturing industry.
This approach is different from that used by other Towns Fund beneficiaries, who prioritize cosmetic improvements, building restorations, or adding cycle tracks.
Rochdale, a borough with 224,000 residents, is also notable because it is Labour-voting. However, it does include parts of Heywood, Middleton and Middleton which switched to the Conservatives during the last election. The Towns Fund was used by the Conservative government to target marginal seats in 2019’s general election. This has been criticized.
Eccles said: “Does a vibrant high street create a vibrant business environment or does a vibrant business environment sustain a vibrant high street? We believe it is the latter. If you have good, well-paid jobs, people will have money to spend in the town.”
Rochdale’s manufacturing heart was almost eviscerated as the cotton mills and factories lost out to cheaper competition from Asia starting in the 1970s. However, the companies that survived are the most competitive around the globe.
“We think we are the only town that will have a development like this,” said Paul Simkiss, a local businessman who chairs the board that made the bid for the Towns Fund money. “It is great that the place has embraced it as well as the industry.”
The National Physical Laboratory, a government body, has provided £50,000 in seed funding. It is now backing Rochdale’s bid for £22.6m from government research arm Innovate UK to provide staff and deliver innovation programmes at the institute.
The Greater Manchester combined authority is expected to provide another £15m as part of its plans to rejuvenate satellite towns, where job creation in recent years has been much more lacklustre than in the city itself.
The AMP Institute will be home to seven staff members and will create approximately 20 jobs at the nearby universities of Salford, Huddersfield and Huddersfield. It expects to create 660 direct jobs in the region and 530 indirect jobs. The technology it develops is primarily by sharing equipment and software many small and medium-sized businesses cannot afford. They will also benefit from patent protection and know-how.
The institute is supported by more than 40 companies. Tony Bannan, chief executive at Precision Technologies Group, a local machinery maker, stated that the cluster should grow as it attracts more companies. He was the one who suggested the idea for a centre in 2017.
The 150-year-old company was bought by a Chinese firm in 2010 to take advantage of its world-leading technology. It makes grinding and milling machines that are used to produce specialised compressor parts for air conditioning, pipelines, and other applications. It also makes high-precision gears and invests 15 per cent of its £30m annual turnover in research and development.
“The key thing is that this is business-led. In the UK, we are good at the research but we don’t commercialise it,” Bannan said.
He stated that UK manufacturers must have the ability to compete internationally with new machines and robots. “We need to get some momentum in this industry, otherwise it is going to die out.”
Metro Dynamics, an economics consultancy, has said the AMP Institute should add £144m to Rochdale’s economy over five years. It could quadruple UK’s advanced machinery sector, creating 20,000 new jobs, and match the size of the Swiss industry. It could also boost annual exports from £600m to £2bn and increase industrial robotics manufacturing output to £1bn per year, creating 5,000 jobs.
“It is a unique opportunity,” said Mike Emmerich, co-founder of Metro Dynamics.
Manufacturing still accounts for about 20 per cent of Rochdale’s economy, double the national average. This sector is one of the most lucrative in many towns.
The AMP Institute is also a test case for whether Greater Manchester can close its own north-south divide as part of a proposed £7bn programme, Innovation Greater Manchester.
Manchester and its richer suburbs are now popular places to live and find businesses. However, the surrounding mill towns have struggled.
Between October 2019 and September 2020, the unemployment rate in Rochdale was 5.6%. This is almost a third higher than the national average. With warehouse work being the fastest-growing sector, full-time wages in the borough are £509 a week, compared with a national average of £587.
Chris Oglesby, interim chair of the Innovation Greater Manchester partnership, an economic development body, said: “Innovation-led industries have traditionally clustered around the city centre and south Manchester and with them the creation of high-value jobs. While we want to ensure these areas can continue to thrive, a central role for Innovation Greater Manchester is stimulating the same growth in skilled jobs and new business opportunities across all areas of the city-region.”