Sir Keith Burnett: The pace of change in Sheffield City Region is too slow

Sir Keith Burnett.Sir Keith Burnett.
Sir Keith Burnett.
Sir Keith Burnett, vice chancellor of Sheffield University, explains why he believes Sheffield should take the chance to work with China.

Take a walk around Sheffield city centre. In shops and cafes are signs in Chinese aimed at the students who bring crucial trade. The manager of the pen shop behind the Town Hall told me a customer had just bought three nice fountain pens to send to relatives back home in China. Near Bramall Lane, the Chinese-led New Era Development is taking shape. One in eight students in Sheffield is Chinese, helping find facilities used by our own kids. My university has over 12,000 Sheffield graduates in China.

Sheffield and its region is changing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves, the pace of that change is too slow.

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We have our wonderful success stories, not least of these the global investment being attracted by the University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. But there are problems too. Devolution has faltered over local politics. Infrastructure investment is inadequate. There are still arguments over HS2 and the achingly slow cross-Pennine train link.

It is all very different to the rapid pace of development in China. Places like the Beijing City Region - a city with a population twice the size of the whole of the UK which has changed beyond all recognition in the ten years I have been coming here.

China used to be called “the land of the bike”, and documentaries showed paddy fields full of rural workers. But that picture is no more typical of urban China today that the idea that England is just Downton Abbey and Sherlock.

So what is China actually like?

I’m writing this article on one of the many high-speed trains out of Beijing’s eighteen platform station, heading to a Conference five hours away. The digital display in the carriage says that we are travelling at 300 km an hour, but the journey is smooth and comfortable. When I think of the thousands of miles of track and vast transport hubs China has built while we have been arguing about where to put a single station, I shake my head.

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China isn’t perfect either of course. It is still a developing nation and its political system is not ours. Still you can’t help but admire what has happened here since the 50s. In 1949, the average life expectancy was 36 and only 1 person in 5 could read and write. Today the average life span is 76 and 95 per cent of the population are literate. Sanitation has been improved in even the rural areas. Digital connectivity is superb.

But it is the future that really interests me and which should matter most to Sheffield.

Like our own region, China is trying to change its economy, away from a dependence on polluting inefficient factories towards hi-tech innovation. Like us, it worries about cheap imports from lower wage economies. And it wants to make sure it can keep on making better lives for its people, with clean air, jobs for the kids and healthcare for all.

To do this, China is investing big-time in new technologies with the same determination with which it built all that train track. By 2020, China will spend more on Science that the USA.

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In Beijing, if you want to buy a petrol car, you will have to join a waiting list. But you can buy an electric car now, and the charging stations to make this possible are part of the street scene. China is also updating its internal flight network, commissioning the planes and airports to connect this vast land and its people.

Who will help China design and build these high-tech products? Could it be us?

It seems astonishing that a country as vast as China would need to work with us at all, but Sheffield has a tremendous advantage. Sheffield University and its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is well known in China at the most senior levels. China is looking for research partners to help develop and produce the high-tech future products for their own use and to sell to the world. They think we have something special to offer.

They are right. The University’s AMRC is already working on the Chinese space programme, developing the kind of light high-performance metals which attracted Boeing and McLaren to our region. Our scientists are working on semiconductors in Nanjing and our engineers in Shanghai.

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This week I have been asked to address the Vice-Premier of this nation of 1.4 billion people on how we can work and trade together in the interests of both our citizens. Guess what I will be talking about. I’ll also visit China’s industrial research centres for battery cars and aerospace. I’ll focus on the expertise which exists in our university, city and region, looking for ways to work together.

Working with China opens up other opportunities too. Once upon a time, the East looked to Washington. Now the whole of Asia pays attention to the Beijing. China is extending its railways into the ‘Belt and Road’ countries which were its historic trading route.

Back to those two city regions. On the one hand, a global mega city which at the centre of what many believe will be the world’s most powerful economy. The other, the Sheffield City Region - a historic place of craftsmanship and global trade, now trying to forge a new future for the sake of its children.

How will we do that? I’d say take a lesson from the Chinese. This country was once known for its Great Wall. Today it is building roads and rail, airports and digital infrastructure. It is looking outwards. It doesn’t just discuss the future, it gets building.

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What about us? Will we realise that our future prosperity means we have to raise our sights and join with others not only from Barnsley but Beijing? The world is changing. We have a chance to partner with one of the great forces of the world. We should seize it.