Time to unleash Norfolk as a science and innovation county

Scientist researcher using microscope in laboratory

Norfolk needs to step up and be a science and innovation county, says MP George Freeman - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman issues a challenge for Norfolk to step up

Covid has been an economic disaster as well as a public health crisis. On top of the tragedy of more than 100,000 lives lost, the wider societal and economic costs of Covid will be with us for years.

To revive our local economy, we will need a bold Recovery Plan.

That’s why I’ve been working this last year through The Norfolk Way and the Big Tent Foundation and the LEP’s Restart project to help support innovative local approaches to post-Covid regeneration. It’s also why I’m delighted to support this paper's Fightback campaign.

Imagine what “build back better” here in Norfolk could mean. We could have total digital coverage so more people can be closer to home. Our town centres could be regenerated with more cycle lanes and footpaths. Our children could grow up in environments with cleaner, healthier air.

There could be a wave of high-growth technology companies creating exciting new local jobs.

This is a unique opportunity for our area. Before giving up my career in technology start-ups to stand for Parliament, I worked for 15 years financing new businesses in the Eastern region.

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I know from first-hand experience that Norfolk boasts world-leading science and technology expertise like the Norwich Research Park (NRP) with huge opportunities to create the companies and jobs of tomorrow and export our services to the world’s fastest developing markets.

The NRP with the world famous John Ines centre is one of the world’s most important clusters in the science of food, nutrition, medicine and energy systems. Indeed, it was instrumental in the Covid genome sequencing effort.

We have the chance to make Norfolk a genuine innovation county creating companies spinning out from the NRP, just as Cambridge has done (but without the two-hour traffic jams which now gridlocks Cambridge each workday morning).

Read More: Norfolk must be ready for post-Covid recovery

But to do that means changing the way we - and Whitehall - think about our county. For too long we’ve allowed ourselves to be treated as a rural backwater and lacked a clear vision of Norfolk as an innovation county developing the smarter cleaner greener healthier model of growth the world urgently needs.

In medicine, we could invest in telemedicine and smaller local testing to help earlier diagnosis and community health. In energy, instead of having thousands of miles of cabling and pylons, why don’t we bring the energy ashore in one place and build a hydrogen fuel hub? Instead of building energy inefficient homes we could embrace energy efficient construction.

In agriculture, a new generation of Norfolk farmers and scientists at the NRP are pioneering the way in clean energy, modern Low Input High Output farming, and in medicinal “nutraceuticals”: specialist crops for health like cancer-reducing broccoli.

George Freeman Mid Norfolk MP has tweeted his perspective on the Shamima Begum case. Picture: Victor

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman voiced his support for a UK-wide lockdown on Twitter. - Credit: Victoria Pertusa

These are huge global markets. Here in Norfolk we need to plan and invest in sustainable growth and the NRP infrastructure.

But Government has a key role to help us unlock the potential of the NRP and our innovative new industries.

That means getting the regulatory framework right. This isn’t abort a bonfire of red tape - it’s about regulation FOR innovation. New sectors need clear regulations to build investor confidence - and if the UK can lead in setting the global standards in new sectors like nutriceuticals, hydrogen fuel and carbon pricing we are more likely to become a global innovation cluster too.

Sensible regulation is a vital condition of investor confidence. While the EU has been a big supporter of science and research, it has often been very slow and restrictive in regulation. For example the blight resistant potato pioneered at the NRP, with massive benefits for the environment and farmers by eliminating the need for every potato field to be spayed with fungicides. But banned by the EU.

As we regain our regulatory sovereignty we have a chance to move more quickly to set sensible regulations which protect consumers, workers and the environment in a way which doesn’t prevent investment and innovation.

That’s why I am so pleased to have been asked by the prime minister to help lead his new regulation for innovation taskforce specifically designed to help remove barriers to the new businesses and sectors by embracing a new framework of regulation for innovation outside the EU.

Get this right and the UK - and Norfolk - could lead the next bioscience green revolution, just as we did 200 years ago with 'Turnip' Townsend and Norfolk leading the agricultural revolution.

 It’s a big prize. Let’s seize it.