Tech North, the government-backed agency created to build and accelerate the tech economy in the north of England, is facing uncertainty following the resignation this week of its first head, Clare Braithwaite, after less than a year in post. Julian Blake reports.
Claire Braithwaite – appointed as the chief of Tech North less than a year ago – has quit. She confirmed her resignation to TechCityinsider, but declined to comment further other than through an official statement (below).
Braithwaite’s resignation came on Wednesday, just after this week’s Tech North ‘Northern Stars’ startup showcase event at Bloomberg in London – with Braithwaite surprisingly absent. The organisation was represented instead by its executive chair, Herb Kim.
Tech North was created in 2014 by the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, as a key part of the government’s ‘northern powerhouse’ agenda to boost economic growth in the English north. It is a part of Tech City UK, with a substantial £2m budget and a team of 12.
Tech North’s remit has been to promote new technology business in the big seven northern cities of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sunderland and Hull.
No official reason has been given for Braithwaite’s departure, though Tech North has faced criticism, including from Labour’s ex-shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, for a lack of early output. Despite being unveiled in October 2014, and a planned launch of April 2015, it did not launch until last September.
Supporters have refuted the suggestion that Tech North suffered from a lack of output. They point out that Braithwaite herself did not start in post until spring 2015, and question Umunna’s political motives in criticising the new body.
Inside sources suggest that tensions have existed between Tech North and Tech City UK and that these may have come to a head. Braithwaite’s supporters in the north of England believe that she fought the north’s corner hard in the face of pressure from Tech City UK in London.
Alex Depledge, the founder of Hassle.com, sat on the advisory board of Tech North but resigned her own position two weeks ago after just four months in protest at a new strategy being set out for the organisation. She told TechCityinsider: “I don’t feel it’s my place to comment on why Claire has resigned given that I myself resigned from the Tech North advisory board just before her.
“It was a tough call for me as I believe passionately in the North, but I do not support the new strategy for it being imposed by Tech City.”
Another senior northern tech industry figure, who did not want to be named, told TechCityinsider: “It’s very sad and surprising that Claire has stepped down. It’s not about a lack of output. I think it’s more that Tech North was more successful in terms of profile than had been expected.
“They went out and made a really big splash nationally and internationally. That was something of a bone of contention because Tech City felt that international marketing of the tech industry was their game. Sadly this is a bit of a power play. Tech North were hoping that they could have a bit more independence from the parent organisation and it sounds like that hasn’t come off.”
Critics elsewhere have pointed to the wider weakness of the George Osborne-backed northern powerhouse agenda, which they say has backed easy PR wins over defending big economic decisions such as the closure of major steelworks and the lower investment in key areas such as transport.
In an official statement, Braithwaite said she was “very proud” to have been at the forefront of the launch of Tech North.
“I will continue to support both Tech North and the technology sector in the North of England in my new role that I will announce details of in the near future,” she said.
Tech City UK chief Gerard Grech, Braithwaite’s boss, said she had done “fantastic work”.
He added: “Tech City UK’s support for Tech North remains completely unchanged and we look forward to continue supporting its core mission to boost the North’s digital economy. In the meantime, the Tech North team will continue to be supported in their excellent work”.
Tech City UK chair Eileen Burbidge said: “As evidenced by the Tech Nation visa, which included a route for digital businesses in the Northern Powerhouse and other initiatives including the Northern Stars programme, Tech North is a crucial priority within our ambition to accelerate and support the digital ecosystem across the whole of the UK.”
It is understood that Grech will soon announce wider changes to the government-backed organisation from April, through the new strategy, though no further detail is available at this stage.
Braithwaite is a former chief financial officer at social investment intermediary ClearlySo. Her resignation from Tech North was confirmed in a blog post from executive chair Herb Kim and TCUK chief Gerard Grech.