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BioYorkshire and the Bio-Economy

Volume 704: debated on Monday 22 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs Andrea Jenkyns.)

COP26 started a conversation that should have taken place decades previously. It did not end where our fragile planet demanded, but, with 1.5° now in critical care, it failed to grasp the scale of the crisis and it fell short of the demands required to safeguard against our planet burning, melting, flooding and people dying.

COP’s failure must be our call to revive the hope that our planet demands more acutely than ever before and that the global south depends on. It starts here.

COP26 said there is no time for delay, no time to prevaricate or put off, no time to postpone. When opportunity comes to accelerate our path to net zero, to cut carbon, to protect biodiversity, to end the plastic endemic, to enable a carbon negative future and to put investment in sustainability, it must be grasped. Delay has been our failure. To take action is our hope.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am so grateful to you for allowing this debate tonight, on the heels of COP26—at the start of this new conversation, to give hope to our planet and to give hope to generations to come. Delay and prevarication are behind us; that era is over. The talking is done. The action is needed.

Tonight, that action is to institute BioYorkshire. As the CBI has said today, this is the very kind of project that the Government must invest in. I am expecting commitment from the Minister, I am expecting Government to realise the opportunity, and I am expecting investment in BioYorkshire and the biosciences. BioYorkshire is Yorkshire’s green new deal. It has been developed over the past two years, was seeded from years of research and applied application, and is already demonstrating the power of its science. It is a green industrial revolution waiting to scale up and level up.

BioYorkshire will place not only York and Yorkshire at the heart of the UK biosciences economy, but the UK at the heart of the global bio-economy. Its ambition is for domestic transition, but its power is in global mitigation. It will demonstrate how investment in biotechnology is hugely beneficial for our own economy, and on a global scale will give us new tools through which to drive international markets and international development. While the climate crisis drives our world apart and accelerates inequality, a just transition draws us together and demands equality: a time when global north reaches out to global south with the solutions they need to build their futures as we transition ours; and when we quicken the move to clean energy as we leave fossil fuels to rest in their carbon seams.

Let me set out the deal. BioYorkshire is a partnership of public and private. It is led by the University of York and is already delivering outstanding bioscience research with real-world impact of nature-based solutions. It is joined by Askham Bryan College—York’s agricultural college—and Fera Science Ltd. Its partners are then drawn from the food sector, the agricultural sector, digital and science, and the fuel, chemical and material industries. It will drive productivity and sustainability together across these footprints, developing new technologies, and will be at the heart of many world-first breakthroughs in science across the agricultural and chemicals sectors: developing bio-packaging; mitigating methane; using insect and hemp-based technologies in agriculture and materials; upcycling and recycling. It will see the replacement of household waste, petrochemicals and fossil fuels with a new generation of bio-based products—cutting carbon, cutting waste and cutting climate challenges.

Yorkshire’s ambition to be net zero by 2038, as set out in the Yorkshire and Humber climate action plan, and for North Yorkshire to be the first carbon negative region, will rest on BioYorkshire being given the power to deliver. It will use world-class science and local expertise to turn lab technologies to fully scaled-up applications to deliver profitable, bio-based production of chemicals, materials and fuels, and enable productive, net zero food, feed, farming and wider land use practices.

As science and agricultural communities, and the food and tech sectors, look to BioYorkshire to inspire their futures, I say to the Government: if ever there was a project that could seed its levelling-up agenda in the region, BioYorkshire will deliver. This is where the power to the future economy sits. In its first phase, it will deliver 4,000 good-quality green collar jobs: engineers, biologists, agronomists, food technologists, chemists, natural capital economists, and robotic and digital experts—jobs so needed in the region. It will reskill and upskill 25,000 people, preparing them for a bright future in the green economy.

It does not end there. As the Minister will know, such well-prepared projects seed inward investment, attract global investment into centres of innovation, and therefore centre the bio-economy, bringing even greater green growth. From the Humber estuary to the farmlands of North Yorkshire, they are already committed to the project as it reaches out across Yorkshire, south and west. Such innovation will of course attract world-class scientists to our region who will further accelerate climate solutions under the British flag. It will be the place where future scientific leaders in the global south will want to study to bring adaptation to their troubled land.

Springing from this first phase of BioYorkshire is the ambition to grow a network of specialised business incubators, training and skills, and entrepreneurial support to create and grow companies to commercially produce industrial and consumer products. BioYorkshire comprises three linked elements that combine to support innovation from concept to research to commercial reality. First, BioYorkshire’s innovation central will comprise world-leading science infrastructure and training for bio-economy entrepreneurs and innovators, including globally recognised research institutes. It will scale up opportunity and embed demonstrator facilities, including bio-economy skills and training centres, bringing researchers and businesses together to maximise opportunities for interaction and co-production. Secondly, BioYorkshire’s district incubator hubs located in urban, coastal and rural areas of York and North Yorkshire will link local bio-economy start-ups and business scale-ups with innovation and skills central, further seeding innovation. Thirdly, the BioYorkshire accelerator will provide advice, expertise, networks and promotional opportunities for businesses across the region, accelerating innovations from development to commercialisation.

From the investment the Government make—and I know the Minister will want to work with me and the partners to accelerate this—his colleagues in the Treasury will see around £1.4 billion gross value added within the Yorkshire region alone. As for our planet, in the UK, 2.8 million tonnes of carbon will disappear in emissions annually and landfill waste will be cut by 1.2 million tonnes, growing as technology is scaled. But York is not holding on to this opportunity; already reaching across Yorkshire, it is now extending to the industrial clusters of Humberside, Teesside and the north. It is truly a Northern powerhouse, but that power rests in the transition of our technology to not harm our planet as it once did, but to heal it.

The Minister will know that York is the gateway to the north, located equidistantly between the heart of Scotland’s scientific hub in Edinburgh and the power of the City of London, with just about the best-connected rail links the UK can boast. Adjacent, to the back of York station, lies Europe’s largest brownfield site, York Central. I know that the Government have much interest in the potential of this site. At this power point, BioYorkshire’s heart will beat, but its connectivity means that it will fast reach out to the region and nation. BioYorkshire is the bridge between the green new deal and levelling up. It has the reach, the connection—physical and digital; local and global—and the ambition.

Universities and colleges in partnerships with industry, science and research are at the very centre of shifting the dial for our future economy and sustaining our planet. The UK’s economic and skills future depends on the opportunities that research and development generate, drawing on the talents of workforces of today and tomorrow. It will be these skills that will innovate and accelerate economic renewal. This energised generation of young people will take on the old economic model of want and will supplant it with one of restoration of our planet. The demand for these jobs will be high, the opportunities over the next decade essential, if we are going to sustain a habitable planet and mitigate our past failings. BioYorkshire will accelerate this crucial transition and economic renewal through engaging businesses large and small to collaborate in research and development, to start and scale up new enterprises, and to work with schools, colleges and employers to nurture the talent the labour force needs across all skill levels.

This is why I am so committed to delivering BioYorkshire. While everyone will say that York is a lovely place, and it is, if they look beyond the walls, they will see a generation whose industrial past has been stripped away, pride in place taken and skills supplanted by the insecure job market. I see my constituents struggle day by day. The de-industrialisation of York has been bitter and cruel. Its consequences: abject poverty, inadequate housing and inequality. This is why BioYorkshire means so much. It will inject skills, jobs and hope. It lights the dark recesses of York’s past and enables my constituents to renew their pride as they renew our planet. It is why I am on my feet today and why I am here in this place at all. Green-collar jobs really matter to my city of York. Our history, through the Rowntree revolution, laid the foundations for high ethical standards in work. Today, BioYorkshire marks the start of high ethical regeneration in our generation.

The Minister will be very alert to the innovation that Fera Science has driven from precision farming to cut the use of fertilisers to crop-resistant technologies. Domestically and globally, it has vastly advanced productivity and accelerated opportunity. As the climate heats, it will be the research from Fera Science’s partnership that will enable communities in the global south to be fed, to defeat infestations and crop disease and to resist scorching temperatures and flooded land. Askham Bryan College is at the cutting edge of digital farm technology, training young farmers to sustain their futures and sustain our planet.

The race for our planet is ultimately a moral pursuit. The industrial past which exploited this Earth’s assets, minerals and humans to generate wealth has now handed us the task of reparation. The consequences of failure are devastating; the responsibility weighs heavy. We cannot delay, Minister. We have to heal those scars, save those lives and repair this planet. I know the Minister understands; I know he will do all in his power to act.

A year ago, in response to my question at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister showed his support for BioYorkshire, recognising how it should benefit from his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. He said:

“I hope very much that BioYorkshire will be among the beneficiaries, and I cannot see any reason why it should not be.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 823.]

With the Prime Minister’s backing, the Government are already recognising the acceleration for BioYorkshire to be achieved through the North Yorkshire devolution deal, and I know that Departments such as the Minister’s, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Education are already showing significant interest. We need action. The pain of COP tells us that we are still in this race against time; there can be no delay.

Will the Minister first make it his priority to come to York to meet the partners? I know that he will be keen to do so. Secondly, will he agree to make BioYorkshire one of his Government’s flagship projects and bring forward the full funding now, so that scaling can commence without delay? To have such a well-developed project could help accelerate the success of the Government’s 10-point plan and bring a crucial offering to COP27.

Commitment to funding is crucial. Partners are committed to multiplying its return. The price of this phase is just £171 million. The Prime Minister has said that BioYorkshire should be a beneficiary. The central economic forecast is that BioYorkshire will deliver a return on Government investment of 8.3 to 1. That far outstrips most of the Government’s infrastructure investments, as the Minister will know.

With COP26 done, the world is watching. Science, economy and ethics are yearning. The Prime Minister talks about a green industrial revolution; BioYorkshire is ready to lead that revolution. The Prime Minister talks about levelling up; BioYorkshire could deliver sustainable jobs and investment to the north right now. The Prime Minister said he would fund BioYorkshire. Will he keep that promise? The Government must see the opportunity, hear the need and feel the urgency to invest in Yorkshire’s green new deal. We cannot afford to delay.

It is genuinely a great pleasure, on this late Monday night, to respond to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), to pay tribute to her advocacy of the project and the wider cause that it embodies, and to take the opportunity to set out my personal support for the project’s aims. She would not expect me to say tonight that the cheque is in the post or to commit agencies that I cannot and should not commit.

In paying tribute to the hon. Lady’s advocacy, I will set out what the Government are trying to do overall in the area that she has highlighted. I will highlight some of the powerful elements of the bid and where they may fit into the emerging Government landscape. I would be delighted to visit as part of a programme of visits that I am doing around the country.

In the time available, I will try to set the scene. It is a great pleasure to be here as the newly appointed Minister for Science, Research and Innovation with a mission to implement the Prime Minister’s vision of a science superpower and an innovation nation. That means that the UK, in an increasingly competitive global world, has to continue to punch above its weight in science with world-class science and science for the global good that helps to prevent climate change, feed 9 billion hungry mouths and solve global challenges, as the hon. Lady has been talking about.

The innovation nation piece is about not just being good at science but building an ecosystem in the UK and making the UK a testbed or cluster globally for developing the new technologies that will help us to harness the renewable power of the sun and waves and the extraordinary power of bioscience, which is an area of particular interest and expertise of mine. Importantly, on the hon. Lady’s point, it is about ensuring that, as a nation, not only do we have world-class science in the golden triangle, but that we use our procurement and regulatory power to create clusters of new technologies around the country to create jobs and opportunities and a more resilient and fair economy, which is what the Government’s levelling-up mission is ultimately all about.

I suggest that the project speaks to all those challenges in a positive and helpful way. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s advocacy. She raised the issue with the Prime Minister last Monday, she spoke in the bio-economy debate, she spoke in the north of England: economic support debate, and she has spoken to me personally, so nobody could be doing more to promote it.

At the recent comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor set out a historic package of support for science and innovation. The country has spent more on science in the last 10 years than it has for decades. We have decided to increase that again in the next three years by 30%, from £15 billion to £20 billion a year, and we have recommitted to move to £22 billion a year by ’27 on the journey to spending 2.4% of GDP. The Government are making important strategic long-term commitments.

Within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, post CSR, the Secretary of State and I are looking at where best to deploy those funds for maximum impact in terms of being a science superpower and an innovation nation. Fundamental to the innovation nation piece, we will be looking to support clusters around the country. That will not be about trying to move world-class laboratories in Cambridge or Oxford to the north, which would not be sensible; the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology is one of our top laboratories partly because of where it is. It means ensuring that we support the clusters that are taking shape around the country, including the Yorkshire cluster that the hon. Lady talked about.

The hon. Lady knows my personal commitment to the bio-economy. Six years ago, when I was Minister for Life Sciences, I pushed the argument that life sciences should be a broader package of science of life, including the bio-economy and the appliance of bioscience across food, medicine and energy, and should look at how our understanding of biological systems can help to tackle global challenges. We have to feed 9 billion mouths and double world food production with the same land area and half as much water and energy, which is a big challenge. Which country in the world is best equipped to deal with that? This country, because of our agricultural science tradition. If we put together our digital expertise, our agri-tech and our bioscience, and start to invest in those multidisciplinary sciences, I would suggest that we have a huge opportunity to make a big global impact around the world.

Given a background in agriculture and agri-tech, having worked in the seeds industry and having the Norwich research park on my doorstep, I look at Fera, the leadership the hon. Lady has outlined powerfully in precision farming and in agri-tech, the University of York and the agriculture college. This is genuinely a cluster of excellence in its field. The bid it has put together around fuel, chemicals, materials, net zero, food and feed, and land use is a powerful one, and there is very little in it not to be supportive of.

This fits with what we set out in our innovation strategy earlier this summer. The hon. Lady will know that we have identified seven technologies of tomorrow that we want to support strategically. Two of them go right to the heart of this cluster: one in bio-engineering and synthetic biology, and one in genomics, including agricultural genomics for drought-resistant crops, disease-resistant crops and low-carbon farming. I also highlight that we are investing in the HEMP-30 project already through Innovate UK.

In the first half of this year, before returning to Government, I led a big piece of work for the Prime Minister looking at how we could use our regulatory freedoms on departure from the EU to support innovation. This was the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform report—or, Madam Deputy Speaker, the TIGRR report, if that trips off the tongue more easily—in which we identified 10 sectors where with very little regulatory leadership, and no need of primary legislation, we could unlock billions of investment.

Three of those sectors go to the heart of this bid. There is the agri-environment sector, and the importance of better science and the UK leading in the science of sustainability—the metrics of sustainable farming—so we can begin to label food so that consumers can see that this apple, potato or pint of milk has a low- carbon footprint, or a low-plastic, low-water footprint. It is that labelling that will drive empowered and enlightened consumers.

We also set out a series of recommendations about cannabinoid medicines, CBD and industrial hemp as a net-zero crop with huge potential, and the broader application of agri-genetics for both net zero agriculture and nutriceuticals, functional foods and the interaction of food and agricultural medicines.

There is very good landscape precedent, if I can put it that way, for the space in which this bid is being developed. It is for that reason as well that I am delighted to confirm that I would genuinely want to come up. I am organising a series of regional visits to support clusters, and I would hugely value coming up for a whole day and doing a series of visits around that cluster to help to support its development.

The hon. Lady will understand that we have a process internally now for allocating the CSR funds. There is a huge amount of work going on in my Department and others to set out a framework for that and make sure that it is criteria-led. She will understand that having an Adjournment debate is not a sufficient criterion as and of itself for making that decision, but she has made the case very powerfully.

I am pleased to see that the overall sum has come down from what was a very big number, which makes it harder to approve. I think that these things typically start small and grow and finding a good entry level is key to this project. I would also encourage her, as we discussed earlier, to make sure that the BBSRC supports this. I am sure it would. I cannot commit it, but I cannot think why it would not fit well in its overall structure—and, similarly, Innovate UK and UKRI. On that basis, I think this would stand a very good chance, which is actually—just to correct the record—what the Prime Minister said. I do not think that he actually committed to fund this. What he said was, as I have done, that it is a very strong case and one that it is quite difficult not to see a lot of merit in.

I would close by saying that, if we are going to create an innovation nation, yes, that is about strategic investment by Government in technologies, in institutes and in buildings, but in the end it is about creating clusters. I suggest to the House, which I regret to say is not packed, that the best definition of a cluster is perhaps something that the hon. Lady, I and the representative on the Government Benches tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), can take away and share. For all the academic work on clusters, I suggest that the best definition of a cluster is a low-risk place to move one’s family to pursue a career in a high-risk sector. The conversation is, “Let’s move to Cambridge, Oxford, London, or Yorkshire because, darling, if this business does not work, there are plenty of others. The schools are good, the landscape is good and the quality of life is good—there is a cluster there.” In the end, the cluster normally comes to a mixture of public and private institutions, with entrepreneurship, innovation, support, and a shared vision, and that is what the bid sets out.

If we are to change the life chances of people around the country, it will be done through creating a different identity and a different sense of what this place is about. When we consider the institutions in that area, North Yorkshire is traditionally associated with the most beautiful countryside, wonderful tourism, great heritage and wonderful produce—who wouldn’t want to go on holiday to Yorkshire? However, not everyone can make a living in tourism, and the bid speaks to a bigger, bolder, more global, international higher-value economy for that part of the world, which I for one would be keen to support.

I am sorry that I cannot announce anything tonight—that is not my place at this point—but I am delighted to share with the hon. Lady that I would be delighted to come to visit and to continue to work with her and the partners on what looks like a very exciting bid for that part of the world.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.