Burnley shows how small Northern towns can embrace the 21st century

4 Jan, 2017

The small Northern towns that nestle between our big cities haven’t had the greatest of profiles in recent years. Many of them rarely make the national news, except for stories about crime or decline, but that’s not a fair situation. Take Burnley for example.

I’d never thought of Burnley as a ‘tech town.’ My look last year at bot-building startup Flow XO made much of the fact they came from a place rarely associated with technology. It turns out that my perception of the place was completely wrong.

Recently, trade body Digital Lancashire invited me to Burnley to see for myself some of what’s going on there. We began the day at a meet-up of digital businesses from across the region. It was held in the office of software development firm JP74, in a room decked out with retro games consoles.

Digital Lancashire's Stewart Townsend introduces a meet-up in Burnley.
Digital Lancashire’s Stewart Townsend introduces a meet-up in Burnley.

JP74 co-founder Pete Walker told me how the 16-year-old company largely focused on client work had now developed its own product aimed at sales teams, Prept. However, finding funding for a software product in Burnley is as hard as you might imagine.

At a Lancashire level there is a great deal of work to be done to put in place the support levels that are in places such as Manchester,” says Walker.Support in Lancashire has traditionally been for manufacturing and engineering, supporting companies with tangible assets or purchasing items such as machinery. Digital companies have no tangible assets and require high-skilled people to fuel their growth, not high-cost machines.

“Burnley has moved very fast and has nearly completed a change to its own fund so it can be open to support digital companies. For us, Burnley Council are partnering with Rosebud Micro (a Lancashire County Council fund) to support one of our companies, in the future they will be able to support without partners, helping companies grow and stay in Burnley.”

Away from the hustle

Flow XO Product Manager Steven Booth says he’s a big fan of Burnley and its advantages over cities. He says less competition for staff and being away from the “hustle of the city” are appealing.

That said, the hustle of the city has its benefits too. “Whilst there are several companies here that we can say are in ‘tech’, there’s no true ecosystem. It’s impossible to source from the complete supply chain without going further afield – there are no full service agencies, for example,”, says Booth.In my experience, it’s very hard to recruit certain higher-level skills and talent when based in the office.” 

Flow XO has recruited staff from elsewhere in the UK, and South America to deal with this problem. It’s also opened a Manchester presence for better access to customers and partners.

Flow XO makes it easy to build bots that integrate with third-party services.
Flow XO makes it easy to build bots that integrate with third-party services.

Bonded to Burnley

A funding environment designed for traditional manufacturing was a roadblock I heard mentioned repeatedly when talking to people in Burnley. However, an unusual approach to business support may well give it an edge over similarly-sized towns in the UK.

Burnley Bondholders is a scheme that sees local businesses pay into a pot of money to promote the town. Speaking on the phone, Burnley’s Brand Manager, Amber Corns told me how half a decade ago the town sought to reposition itself in the public eye, after having appeared in far too many lists of deprived areas.

“People had an impression of a dying mill town, but that wasn’t the modern Burnley.” The town invested in schools and its hospital, and successfully lobbied for the first direct train service from Manchester to the town in 40 years. But it was the inward investment fund it set up that has had other towns looking to Burnley for inspiration.

To build a warchest to encourage businesses to invest in the town, Burnley set up the Bondholders scheme. 182 businesses are currently members. Smaller companies benefit from networking opportunities, while for larger firms, involvement counts towards their corporate social responsibility targets.

Money from membership fees funds marketing efforts that attract companies to move to, or expand within, the town. “We open industrial parks and fill them right away,” says Corns. The Bondholders scheme helped Burnley to win Most Enterprising Area 2013. The model has since been replicated in other areas, such as Hull.

Burnley Bondholders is a great example of how businesses can come together to work with other stakeholders to effect change rather than just sitting around complaining about what the government isn’t doing,” says Pete Walker. “It works as it’s a partnership built around improving Burnley, not just a talking shop.”

From Burnley to Hollywood

One particularly enthusiastic member of Burnley Bondholders is its chairman, Mark Crabtree. His company makes a global impact on the entertainment industry from an industrial estate on the edge of the town.

AMS Neve is a legendary name in the world of sound recording. Crabtree explained to me how he cofounded AMS back in the 1970s after tinkering around with electronics he had access to through his job at Lucas Aerospace.

AMS developed a digital flanger audio effect, initially for Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Thinking “why not?,” they contacted the legendary Abbey Road studios in London, and before long Crabtree was giving a demonstration to Paul McCartney.

One of AMS Neve's high-end mixing desks.
One of AMS Neve’s high-end mixing desks. This one integrates with computer-based digital audio workstations.

After bringing more studio gear to market, AMS floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1985. And in 1990 it was acquired by Siemens. Two years later, the electronics giant merged AMS with British studio tech firm Neve Electronics, a globally respected name with musicians. Eventually, Crabtree bought AMS Neve out and led the company into a new age of innovation, building on its two established brands.

The company’s HQ is a jarring mix of celebrity glamour (photos of musicians, producers and Hollywood movie productions adorn the walls of its exhibition area) and good old Northern graft. Down in the workshop, skilled workers assemble equipment for some of the world’s best studios. Machines print circuit boards alongside people carefully slotting mixing desks together. “Snoop Dogg recently bought one of those,” Crabtree says as we pass one of the company’s newest products.

Manufacturing the future

If AMS Neve is an example of longstanding tech success out of Burnley, FDM Digital Solutions represents the future. It produces 3D-printed parts on tight turnarounds for industries like aerospace and Formula One racing. Meanwhile, a collaboration with the NHS sees the company develop prosthetics aimed at minimising foot amputations among diabetes patients. It maps sufferers’ feet to produce insoles for their shoes in days rather than weeks.

The three-year-old company has gradually built itself up to the point where it now runs nine additive layer manufacturing machines. Sales Manager Andy Higgins says the market is starting to catch on to the benefits of its approach to manufacturing. This sets FDM up for a promising 2017. ‘Industry 4.0‘ is currently a hot topic, and the company is well placed to take advantage of interest in this blend of machines, computing, the internet and decentralisation.

Four of FDM's machines
Four of FDM’s additive layer manufacturing machines.

A new hope

Burnley is adapting well to the post-industrial world through a blend of grit, determination and positivity about its strengths.

Stewart Townsend, who heads up Digital Lancashire, says “Burnley has been at the forefront of driving collaboration between businesses in order to share knowledge and best practices. Digital is key to enabling them to compete globally.” He points to companies like Checkedsafe, which helps trucking companies run efficient daily safety checks on their vehicles as further evidence of the town’s software smarts.

As technology gradually transforms almost every element of every industry, the world will need more than just a few hub cities shaping the future. Burnley is proof that small Northern towns can offer a lot in the 21st century. They just need a clear picture of both where they’ve come from and where they want to go.

Read next: Digital Lancashire launches to boost tech in the red rose county

Featured image credit: The Singing Ringing Tree, a sculpture overlooking Burnley, photographed by Tom Blackwell [Flickr]

This article was edited on 4th January to clarify that Neve Electronics was a British, not American, firm and that Mark Crabtree is the chairman of Burnley Bondholders.

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