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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the government’s agenda?
From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Government’s Food Strategy: a fork in the road

In the build up to the Government Food Strategy, the Prime Minister promised bold action to address the problems in the UK’s food system. This week, health and sustainability campaigners have voiced their disappointment that not all of Henry Dimbleby’s recommendations are being adopted, including the proposed salt and sugar tax.

Seemingly ‘hollowed out’, the publication is seen by many in the agri-food sector as a holding response for a serious long-term strategy that has been conditioned by Conservative backbenchers who the Prime Minister considers key to his survival. In other words, a tactical short-term response to a set of political pressures. Published against a backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, the effects of the war in Ukraine, and recent party politics, the Food Strategy represents a notable departure from long-term priorities such as environmental sustainability and tackling obesity. Instead, the Strategy focuses on technology and innovation, job creation, productivity. In short, the government sees growth in the UK’s agri-food sector as the remedy.

The government says it is backing British farmers to boost domestic production, increase employment and grow the economy

At the heart of this shift is a concern about food insecurity. Not necessarily as a result of climate change and other environmental concerns (although those can’t be ignored for much longer), but from the impact of the war in Ukraine on food supplies and prices. As a result, the government has pivoted away from longer standing political priorities and is now focusing on plans to strengthen the resilience of supply chains and boost domestic production to help protect against future economic shocks and crises.

While wars don’t necessarily create trends, they do tend to accelerate them. In the case of the war in Ukraine, it has rapidly accelerated the desire of Western governments for freedom from supply chain dependence on Russia and China. It has also increased the trend for food nationalism globally which has lengthened the list of countries Western governments can no longer rely on for food imports as a result, and it has sped up trends towards market intervention. The last significant spike in food prices was in 2010/2011 following a heat wave in Ukraine which impacted crop harvests and can be seen as a catalyst for riots in middle income countries and the Arab Spring, the effects of which are still being felt. The impact of today’s crisis has the potential to be far greater and will be felt particularly acutely in the UK because we have relied so heavily on global markets for cheap food imports.

Agri-food: a growing sector

While new funding programmes to drive innovation will be welcomed by the sector, the government is playing catch up with investors who have recognised the potential of agrifoodtech in recent years.

As with most modern industries, technology plays a key role in the operation of the agri-food sector. However, the pace of innovation has not kept up with other industries and, according to research conducted by McKinsey, agriculture remains the least digitized of all major industries.

The industrial agri-food sector is also much less efficient than others and more susceptible to the demands and constraints being placed on it. A growing global population, climate change, environmental degradation, changing consumer demands, limited natural resources, food waste, consumer health issues and chronic diseases all mean the need for agrifoodtech innovation is greater today than it ever has been, and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to create new efficiencies in the value chain. Many of the agrifoodtech start-ups attracting investors are aiming to address some of these challenges, identifying innovative solutions to issues such as food waste, CO2 emissions, chemical residues and run-off, drought, labour shortages, sugar consumption, distribution inefficiencies, food safety and traceability, farm efficiency, and unsustainable meat production.

According to the 2022 Agrifoodtech Investor Report, $57.1 billion was invested in agrifoodtech companies in 2021, an increase of 85% on the previous year. 2021 also saw the UK’s highest ever deal flow with UK-based deals reaching £1.3 billion in value, the highest since data has been collected and up from £1.1 billion of investment in 2020. The UK sits 5th in the global ranking of deals by country, just behind Germany, India, China and the USA, though the UK government has set out its intention to be a world leader in this space. While investment in so-called ‘upstream’ technologies (such as on-farm tech, tools and services) remains high at around $20m, there is a shift beginning to emerge, with interest now moving towards farm management software, indoor farming, ag-biotech (such as gene editing), and e-grocery (which attracted a third of all global sector investment).

The new normal

The challenges with our food system such as supply, distribution and pricing have been propelled by the pandemic, complicated by Brexit, accelerated by the war in Ukraine, and intensified by the cost-of-living crisis. In many ways, this has created a completely different backdrop for the UK’s food system than when Henry Dimbleby published his recommendations to government almost twelve months ago. Many commentators will argue this is why the Government Food Strategy appears to have been watered down in comparison with its original intentions.

Nevertheless, many investors have already recognised the importance and opportunity the agrifoodtech sector presents in terms of investment potential, with many more likely to follow suit. The changes and challenges to the food system we are witnessing today are not temporary. Rising prices, food nationalism, and supply chain challenges are not a blip in the road, they are the new normal. This reality means the agrifoodtech sector is likely to provide an abundance of opportunity for private equity to back exciting, innovative, and high-impact ideas that deliver the ground-breaking change in our food system that campaigners are calling for.  Although this Food Strategy gives the agri-food sector ideas to work with and push the government on, it is also clear that we are now unlikely to see a properly considered long-term strategic response to food insecurity this side of the election.

 

To discuss the government’s Food Strategy in more detail, please email Thea Southwell Reeves on theasouthwellreeves@wacomms.co.uk.

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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

The Queen’s Speech on 10th May will be one of the Government’s last opportunities to set out its policy agenda ahead of the next general election.

With the Conservatives trailing in the polls and expected to lose seats in this week’s local elections, will Boris Johnson take the opportunity to reset and galvanise his premiership, or will rising inflation and the cost of living mean that the Government continues to lose ground as the general election approaches?

WA’s new report on the Queen’s Speech takes a close look at the Government’s latest legislative agenda, assessing where its priorities are likely to lie in the coming months and what that will mean for businesses.

You can download the full report here:

Queen’s Speech 2022: A look ahead (PDF)

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On the charge: government plans to stimulate the uptake of electric vehicles

Encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles (EV) has become a key part of the government’s plans for a “green industrial revolution” and for meeting its Net Zero targets. The sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans is due to end by 2030, by which time all new vehicles will be required to have “significant zero emission capability”. By 2035, the government plans that all new vehicles will be zero emission.

WA will shortly be launching consumer polling looking into the priorities of the public in relation to EVs, focusing on the barriers to greater uptake and on charging infrastructure in particular. The government has taken the view that expanding and improving the UK’s network of EV charging points will be key to achieving this transition. It is expected that many will regularly charge their vehicles at home or work, but sufficient provision of public charging points – including rapid charging stations on motorways and kerbside charging for those without a driveway – will be particularly important.

There is considerable regional variation in the availability of charging infrastructure. Only 1,000 of the roughly 6,000 on-street chargers, for example, are outside London, and the total number of chargepoints per head in Yorkshire and the Humber is a quarter of those in London. At motorway and A-road services, there are 145 public charging stations at motorways and A-road services, providing around 300 individual chargers across the UK.

Stimulating investment in charging infrastructure is seen as a priority for regulators and the government

In order to promote the development of charging infrastructure, regulators have been keen to encourage increased investment in the sector. In May 2021, for example, the UK energy regulator Ofcom approved a £300 million investment round for regional network companies across more than 200 low-carbon projects over the next two years. This is expected to include the installation of 1,800 new rapid charging points at motorway service stations and a further 1,750 charging points in towns and cities.

These new installations will go towards the government’s vision for the rapid chargepoint network in England, for which the Department for Transport has set the targets of having:

In pursuit of these targets, the government has allocated £950 million to the Rapid Charge Fund (RCF), designed to “future-proof electrical capacity at motorway and major A road service areas”. While the government has stated that it expects the private sector to deliver chargepoints where they are commercially viable, the RCF may provide a potential source of funds for businesses seeking to expand the charging network in areas where they can make the case for what the government calls “a clear market failure”.

Concerns over competition in the charging sector are likely to inform the government’s approach to regulation as the sector expands

Alongside efforts to stimulate further investment in the sector, the regulatory framework for chargepoints – particularly in relation to ensuring adequate competition – remains a subject of active debate, liable to evolve rapidly as more infrastructure is installed.

In July 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its report – Building a comprehensive and competitive electric vehicle charging sector that works for all drivers – outlining challenges to effective competition in the market in relation to rolling-out charging along motorways, in remote locations, and on-street. As a result, the CMA recommended a number of “targeted interventions” to “kickstart more investment and unlock competition”.

For chargepoints along motorways, where one chargepoint operator holds a market share of 80%, the CMA found that constraints on the capacity of the electricity grid and long-term exclusive contracts prevent entry by competitors at many sites. It recommended that the government use its commitment to fund upgrades to the grid as a means of opening up competition and facilitating market entry.

For on-street charging, the CMA highlighted that the roll-out is slow, and suggested that local monopolies could arise if the market is left unchecked. It recommended that local authorities play an active role in overseeing the market in their areas, and suggested that they could require fresh powers to ensure that they were adequately equipped to do so.

In response to these recommendations, the government has confirmed that it is considering regulatory changes with a view to enhancing competition in the sector. This includes considering requiring service area operators and large fuel retailers to tender charge point service contracts openly and have a minimum of two – and at some sites more than two – different charge point operators at any particular site. The Department for Transport has also suggested requiring existing providers of charge point services at motorway service areas to make their charge points open-access rather than available only to an exclusive network or group of networks or manufacturers. The Office for Zero Emission vehicles’ consultation on the Future of Transport regulatory review closed in November 2021, and its findings will feed into legislation which may feature in the next Queen’s Speech.

The regulatory environment for chargepoint providers is thus likely to evolve rapidly as the UK’s road charging network expands over the next few years. With changes likely to impact established players in the sector as well as providing potential means of market entry for challenger firms, investors will want to monitor these developments closely in evaluating opportunities for their target or portfolio companies.

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Decoding private equity’s video game spending spree

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More bang for our buck, please: the government wants more out of R&D tax credits

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Navigating the NSIA: which way for M&A?

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What we can expect from the Heat and Buildings Strategy

The imminent publication of the much delayed and highly anticipated Heat and Buildings Strategy is expected to have significant consequences for the fabric and the fuel source of our nation’s homes.  The scale of change – as the Government seeks slash into the 40% of CO2 emissions that heat, and buildings are currently responsible for – is set to be even bigger and more impactful on peoples’ lives than the nation’s move from coal to gas 50-years ago.

We’ve all read the headlines about gas boilers, so here we pull together a summary of what industry, investors, consumer groups and environmental campaigners are calling on the Government for if we are to smoothly accelerate progress towards net zero.

1.Plug the hole left by the Green Homes Grant.

The scheme, shelved less than a year after it was announced, was plagued by criticism for being too bureaucratic and laborious to access.   Despite condemnation of its complicated set-up, there remains a sense that uptake of energy efficient and insulating products will continue to be insufficient without market intervention to stimulate demand.  These products – used in our homes at scale – are critical to reducing emissions from existing housing stock, but the high upfront costs are often prohibitively expensive and off-putting.  The Government has committed to bringing forward a new scheme and will be hoping it is a case of ‘third time lucky’ (readers will remember the Green Deal debacle of the Cameron era and the eye-watering interest rates homeowners were expected to pay on loans).

2. Answer how we will have enough skilled tradespeople to carry out the scale of work required.

Fewer than 2 percent of UK homes are heated by a low-carbon source and estimates put the number of gas boilers that will need to be replaced, either by a heat pump or hydrogen-ready boiler, at around 20 million.  That’s not counting new homes yet to be built where Government plans to halve energy use by 2030, compared to today’s standards.  These figures are set alongside an exising shortage of approximately 100,000 gas engineers.  The Government is expected to set out detailed plans on how it will attract, train, retain and upskill the huge number of engineers we are going to need to install new heating systems across the country.

3. Detail how the remaining £6 billion committed to energy efficiency in the 2019 manifesto will be spent.

Less than a third of the £9.2 billion earmarked for energy efficiency has been allocated to projects and programmes to date.  While the fiscal situation has changed markedly since Covid, industry is looking to the Government for a steer on whether the scale of this commitment remains in-tact and, if so, where resource will go.

4. Support new supply chains.

Buying energy efficient products and using new sustainable infrastructure is brilliant but putting in place the building blocks to establish a deep-rooted supply chain for their design and manufacture in the UK is the cherry on the top that many will be looking for.  Making sure that the Heat and Buildings Strategy ties into the Government’s Levelling Up agenda will be particularly important for political audiences who have seen the offshore wind industry put down roots in the UK and who want to see that model successfully replicated in other parts of the country.

5. Explain how homes not connected to the grid will be heated.

Around 4 million homes are not connected to the mains gas supply, the majority of these being in rural communities that rely on oil or LPG for heating.  Electric heat pumps could well be the answer, but some suggest an increased role for biofuels to cut emissions from these households sooner rather than later.  Guidance from Government on how rural homes will lock into the transition is keenly anticipated and will likely receive significant scrutiny.

6. Clarity on taxation.

A very contentious area that the Government will have to wrestle with, eventually.  There is growing pressure on ministers to re-orientate the tax system to encourage more clean heat as well as demand for green products. Whether the Government decides to entirely remove levies currently applied on electricity generation and place them on gas bills or even general taxation is a big question, or to scrap VAT on things like insulation and heat pumps.  The answer is likely to result in a lot of debate and for that reason, we may not see receive a complete one in this strategy. That being said, industry will be looking for some indication of where Government thinking is going.  A signal that it may be minded to change tax treatment could be a huge boon for the UK’s embryonic heat pump industry, but could have repercussions for the gas sector’s transition hydrogen – a nascent endeavour that the Government won’t want to knock off course at this stage.

All of this goes to show the careful balancing act that the Government must perform in what it sets out in its strategy.  The complexity potentially being part of the reason for the delay in its publication.  One thing unites all the different lobby groups in this debate – a desire that the strategy sets out meaningful detail, promotes action, provides confidence, and unlocks investment.  A repetition of ambition and targets won’t be enough.

We hope this short overview provides a useful reference point against which the strategy can be judged once published for consultation.  To discuss any of the issues raised or how the Heat and Building Strategy could impact your business, please email me at naomiharris@wacomms.co.uk.

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FinTech needs to find its legs

The UK’s FinTech sector is having its time in the sun.

Major players in the sector are growing into serious outfits. Revolut is now the most valuable private tech company of all time, Wise is setting course on its next decade of business, and a suite of smaller firms being eyed up by investors.

Added to this, political figures are keener than ever to discuss the sector’s role in Britain’s economic future. In the wake of Brexit, ministers have set out on a charm offensive to align themselves with FinTech success stories as part of government’s narrative of the UK at the heart of financial and technical innovation. Whether large or small, government has positioned itself as an ally of these businesses and Britain as the place to be to start, grow and succeed.

This trend is set to continue with announcements planned at attracting talent through ‘new tech visas’ and a new fund aimed at investing in tech start-ups by taking a stake in them. A new consultation will also aim to create a more level playing field for new businesses by curtailing the market dominance of the largest foreign tech companies like Google and Apple.

Despite this overall positive picture there are still considerable challenges for the sector.

Many FinTech businesses are disrupting existing markets and making meaningful improvements for consumers. Whilst a set of engaged customers will reap the benefits of this approach, many do not, due to a lack of awareness, or fears of new brands. Though government will not drive uptake, it has yet to engage coherently in the meaningful action it can take, such as greater transparency or setting new consumers standards. This means that businesses are left communicating with often disengaged consumers on technical issues that they have little experience of, where strategic government intervention would drive consumer benefit.

Government is now also giving greater attention to other (more traditional) financial services to deliver its agenda for ‘left behind’ consumers, such as protecting physical cash infrastructure for those who still use it, or relying on banks to deliver home ownership through the 5% deposit scheme. Whilst this could reflect the strong contacts of existing financial services within government, it also shows that many within departments default to engaging traditional financial services instead of looking to new and innovative approaches.

As scrutiny of online economic harms grow and other issues emerge, FinTech needs to be on the front foot if it is to make its current good standing connect with the priorities of the government and result in meaningful change.

FinTech businesses have a clear and compelling story to tell on their success, benefit for consumers, and role in the future of Britain. As they look to expand beyond their current customer base, and take the UK by storm, businesses will need to work with government more closely. Not as a photo opportunity, but a constructive partner to resolve the challenges of the day.

This can be achieved, but it will need clear messaging, strong alliances, and a proposition that government can get behind.

 

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What can we learn from the proposed NHS Standard Contract for 2021/22?

What can we learn from the proposed NHS Standard Contract for 2021/22?

NHS England has published a consultation on its proposed changes to the NHS Standard Contract for the financial year ahead. The final document will be used by Clinical Commissioning Groups and NHS England to contract for all healthcare services bar primary care. The focus of any changes often provides important insight into system priorities for the coming year and the strength of conviction behind them.

With 2021/22 set to be another uniquely testing year for the NHS, one might expect measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 to dominate the contract. Instead, there is a sense of defiant ambition, with clear signals for providers to push on with other key NHS and government priorities.

With this year’s consultation now live, here are four key takeaways for the year ahead:

 

1. Don’t get left behind as the NHS pushes on with system transformation

The Contract for 2021/22 shows that NHS England is not letting up in its push for system transformation. It includes several steps to establish more collaborative relationships between commissioners and providers, the most symbolic of which is the removal of financial sanctions for providers that fail to achieve national standards.

This is a significant step towards reversing the transactional, almost adversarial relationship that has proliferated between commissioners and providers over recent years, instead encouraging more collaborative system-level action to identify and address the causes of poor provider performance.

The cogs of system transformation are well and truly turning again so engagement with NHS leaders will need to focus on how to support the achievement of their newly framed outcomes in the most direct way. Additionally, the prospect of major health legislation is looming large for the first time in almost a decade, providing an important opportunity to think bigger picture.

 

2. Get serious about delivering ‘Net Zero’

In October, NHS England published its report on Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service, which set out the interventions required to achieve just that, ‘Net Zero’. Yet, the report itself had no legal standing on which to enforce its recommendations or incentivise action.

The inclusion of stronger targets on the reduction of harmful greenhouses gases and air pollution in the proposed Standard Contract for 2021/22, and a requirement for providers to identify board-level officers accountable for delivering ‘Net Zero’ commitments, is a clear indication that NHS England is serious about driving this agenda forwards.

The NHS will increasingly expect everyone who works alongside it to demonstrate that they are also serious about reducing their environmental impact. Medicines, medical devices, services and care pathways can all be made more sustainable. Clearly communicating what you are doing in this space could start to deliver a commercial advantage as pressure builds on providers and health systems to make rapid progress.

 

3. Offer a helping hand on health inequalities

Commitments to reducing health inequalities have been somewhat of a stalwart in NHS policy over recent years. The delivery of coordinated programmes at a local level that actually move the needle have not been so common. This was brought into stark relief by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

To create greater accountability at a local level, it is proposed that the Contract include a requirement for each provider to identify a board-level executive responsible for overseeing their actions to address and reduce health inequalities. With broader government and public focus on health inequalities brought on by COVID-19, the pressure on these individuals to demonstrate progress will be palpable.

Those working alongside the NHS should place increasing focus on how they support providers and health systems to address health inequalities. At a time when resources are stretched, we may find that some are actually more open to industry support in delivering staff training programmes, new capacity or improvements to patient pathways, but they’ll have to be able to justify the time investment. Demonstrating how you can contribute to reducing health inequalities could help to secure support for your joint working projects.

 

4. Communicate the benefits of remote consultations and management

Following the rapid up take of video and telephone outpatient appointments during COVID-19, the NHS is now trying to cement their use into everyday clinical practice by requiring all providers to offer patients (where appropriate) a choice between remote and face-to-face consultations. The hope is that this choice will be maintained in primary care too, where uptake of remote consultations has also rocketed.

However, to truly support clinicians and patients to select remote consultations in the long-term, the NHS will need to place additional value on health technologies that support effective remote monitoring and management.

Before some slip back into old habits, the wider health sector can play a role in crystallising broad clinical support for this new way of working. Arming your field force and spokespeople with clear, real-world evidence of how your technology is reducing the need for labour intensive, face-to-face clinical interventions could provide clinicians with the confidence to continue their transformation.

 

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Sustainable returns? Trends to look out for in ESG in 2021

Introduction

Evaluating investments on the basis of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) principles has been one of the most visible trends in the investment industry over the last few years. A far cry from the familiar, straightforward screening of traditional “sin stocks”, investors are increasingly demanding a much deeper read of a company’s ESG procedures – from staff welfare and internal governance to supply-chain risk and climate action – in order to assess the sustainability of their returns.

Across the world, the proportion of investors applying ESG principles to at least a quarter of their portfolios has risen sharply from 48% in 2017 to 75% in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought questions of sustainability to the fore, and looks set to reinforce the trend towards greater awareness and uptake of ESG principles. An estimated 200 new funds in the United States with an ESG investment mandate are expected to launch over the next three years, more than doubling the activity from the previous three years. ESG-mandated assets could grow almost three times as fast as their non-ESG counterparts in the coming years, so that they make up half of all professionally-managed investments by 2025.

This growing trend represents a clear opportunity for investors, yet the consensus of a number of studies and surveys is that the significant variety of approaches to ESG incorporation by investment management firms, regulators, and investors means that its full potential is not being realised. Below, we assess some of the key issues which investors will want to bear in mind when formulating their strategies.

Changing regulatory environments

Over 170 ESG-related regulatory measures have been proposed globally since 2018. This marked increase (it is more than the number of proposals from 2012 to 2018 combined) is a measure of the pace of change in this area and the level of regulatory focus upon it.

The traditional approach in the US, for instance, has been the SEC’s principles-based approach to company disclosure, which applies equally to ESG-disclosures as non-ESG. There, are, however, increasing calls for a more prescriptive approach for ESG, along more “European” lines.

In the EU, sustainability risk has been integrated into MiFID II, AIFMD and the UCITS framework. The changes will dictate how market participants and financial advisors must integrate ESG risks and opportunities in their processes as part of their duty to act in the best interest of clients. It is small wonder, therefore, that 97% of European institutional investors now say that they interested in ESG investments.

The UK is expected to retain an approach similar to that of the EU after Brexit. In December 2020, for instance, the FCA set out proposals to promote better disclosures on climate risk from premium-listed companies and will publish a consultation paper in early 2021 with a view to widening the scope of these measures. The Government is due to consult on measures in the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures framework, which would oblige large listed and private companies to disclose the risks to their businesses from climate change. Influential investors have also urged the Government to consult on the idea of introducing mandatory “say on climate” votes for shareholders at AGMs, somewhat akin to “say on pay” votes.

Whilst different regulators have taken different approaches, the overall trend is for more stringent ESG disclosure requirements, with ESG more firmly integrated into the investment advisory and decision-making process. International frameworks, including that drawn up by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) are gaining influence in developing consistency in ESG reporting across companies. Indeed, many companies have already identified the value placed on ESG transparency by investors, and are using these frameworks for reporting and disclosure which goes beyond the requirements set by regulators.

The role of technology

As the amount of ESG data available to investors has increased, so too has demand for analysing it. Spending on ESG content and indices rose by almost 50% between 2018 and 2020, indicating the scale of growth in the field.

The trend has been for investment management firms increasingly to develop their own capacity for gathering and processing data, but emerging technologies including Artificial Intelligence are likely to hold the key to extracting material ESG insights as the volume of data increases. AI engines can, for instance, be used to sift through unstructured data – which may not have formed part of a company’s formal disclosure – with a view to uncovering further material information. Such tools are potentially very powerful, but investors and investment managers would do well to keep an eye on the potential for regulation in this area, given the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in the UK and the EU’s forthcoming legislative proposals on AI.

Emerging technologies also have a large role to play in addressing environmental questions – and are thus a significant contributor to the “E” in “ESG”. Here, again, AI is an important field – with promising applications from energy monitoring and control systems to automation in agricultural production. Alongside it sit emerging technologies in energy generation, including carbon capture, small modular reactors and nuclear fusion.

The impact of Covid-19 on ESG trends

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect across the economy, with Governments playing much more interventionist roles in economic affairs than they might have envisaged pre-pandemic. The UK Government has spent almost £300bn on coronavirus measures, and the EU has agreed its €750bn Recovery Fund. Recovery plans unveiled to date – whether the UK’s Ten Point Plan or the EU’s Green Deal – have set clear ESG priorities and could, therefore, represent significant opportunities in sectors including clean energy, building technology and electric vehicles. In addition, an increase in demand for hygiene and diagnostic technologies may be a boost to the life sciences sector.

The logistical challenges which the pandemic has presented to many firms may bring about a renewed focus on supply-chain risk. Faced with a sudden shock, the vulnerabilities of many widely-dispersed supply chains were exposed, and this may galvanise efforts by companies to “reshore” some elements of production. To achieve this will likely require greater spending on advanced technologies including AI and robotics if moving production necessitates a move away from low-cost manufacturing elsewhere.

Perhaps the most obvious post-pandemic trend is the move towards remote working and digital commerce. For many, these have become embedded into daily life and will doubtless have long-standing social implications well into the future.

The opportunity for investors

The trend towards ESG investing is here to stay. It is an area of intense regulatory focus and the pandemic has heightened interest further still.

This growth represents a substantial opportunity for investors who can fully integrate ESG principles into their investment process. Such integration is likely to go beyond a mechanical exercise in completing an ESG “checklist”. Rather, it is likely to be a robust, thorough due-diligence process, illuminating past sustainability risks and providing a real picture of how target companies conduct their operations. Using the ever-increasing amounts of available data, and the evermore sophisticated technologies available to harness them, investors can gain deeper insights into their target and portfolio companies than ever before, and have the opportunity to generate genuinely sustainable returns.

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The Future of UK Digital Policy

“Covid-19 has impacted all areas of digital policy, but it has mostly accelerated a lot of trends that were well established”, according to former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Damian Collins MP. Speaking at WA’s recent event “The Future Of Digital Policy: In Conversation with Damian Collins MP”, Collins set out his take on the challenges, opportunities and ideas that lay ahead as part of the UK’s digital policy landscape.

A short overview of the most interesting points arising from the discussion is captured below, but if you would like to watch the event in full you can register for the link below, or to speak with us about any of the points raised, please do get in touch.

 

Priorities for the Prime Minister and DCMS

The Prime Minister made connectivity a key feature of his leadership campaign and since then, this has of course become a much bigger issue. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a number of trends in digital policy that were well underway; the pre-existing drive for gigabit connectivity has been accelerated by the increased demand and use of streaming services, video conferencing and online communication. As such we should be prepared for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to become much more of a delivery driven department, compared to how it functioned in the past.

In addition to its necessary focus on digital infrastructure, DCMS has a number of live debates on its hands which will all need addressing in the coming months and years and it will have to consider the disruption of all new service models. These include;

 

  1. The future of Public Service Broadcasting and the role of the BBC,
  2. The impact of Covid-19 on print media and the role of online advertising,
  3. Regulation of social media platforms and online harms,
  4. The future and funding of the arts and creative industries,
  5. The fusion of the digital and traditional tax economy.

 

Digital Infrastructure

While the increased demand on digital connectivity has doubled down the government’s determination to deliver gigabit capable broadband by 2025, the last few months have also shown that the parliamentary party and Conservative backbench are more concerned about “doing it right, rather than doing it quickly.”

This is good news for the competitive market, as regardless of a company’s (like Huawei) ability to deliver the infrastructure at pace, the Conservative backbench do not want to be in a position where the UK is vulnerable and dependent on a single infrastructure delivery company. In the eyes of the government, competition therefore remains necessary for both the delivery of digital infrastructure and a competitive market for retail network access afterwards.

There are options the government may consider, including adopting a similar model to that of Spain, where the networks have been opened up to competition and built by a number of different firms. Or the possibility of creating a tech version of Airbus, where there is a consortium of trusted companies across the UK and USA and other countries working together to deliver the infrastructure at scale and pace.  Ultimately however, the government is aware that protecting the competitive market with “use it or lose it rights” for shovel ready firms, has delivered results internationally and the government needs a solution quickly.

 

Public Service Broadcasting  and Online Advertising

The issue of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is one at the top of DCMS’s list of urgent priorities to address.

No longer does the premium of being a PSB cover the cost of funding needed, and questions are being asked in government about what PSB’s should look like and whether or not there is a space for them in the future.

The real funding gap faced by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and others poses an existential threat to the traditional form of media and news media. The live debate around the funding of the BBC, and their decision to reduce budgets for their local news service is being challenged by Ofcom, as it brings into question what purpose the BBC and PSB’s truly serve in a modern Britain. These are major considerations being made by the government, and greater scrutiny of ring fenced funding is to be expected from both government and regulators.

The founding of PSBs is a bellwether for a whole host of issues as the UK shifts towards a more digital economy, and one thing the pandemic has brought into question is the need for greater alignment of the tax system. Considerations are being made in government about how best to raise revenue without introducing hefty tax increases, and we can expect the Treasury to look to tech firms and online platforms as a source of such income.

 

Online Harms 

The UK had the opportunity to be a world leader in online content regulation, however, over the last couple of years the government has stalled.

Alongside the long overdue outcome of the online harms white paper, the regulation of  online content has been drawn to the forefront of government’s attention by the increased public awareness of misinformation, particularly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are areas of responsibility the government will be looking at over the coming months, particularly in the role of social media firms in combating online harms and promoting misinformation. Social media platforms can expect to face scrutiny of the tools and algorithms they use to promote certain content. Where public pressure begins to mount on the government, such as has happened in Australia, the government may consider the need for an “online audit”, from an independent source, where a firm’s algorithms and internal mechanism are reviewed, ensuring it is operating responsibly, fairly and cooperatively.

 

The Role of Ofcom

Ofcom’s remit, just as that of DCMS, has consistently come under criticism for the scope of areas it is intended to regulate. As we see a reconfiguration of the Public Service Broadcasting service model, the increased prominence in online audio-visual content and the ever growing demand for greater digital connectivity, the role of Ofcom will become increasingly important. As such there are legitimate concerns and questions to be had around the regulators remit. Do they actually have the expertise and bandwidth to regulate this uncharted policy territory?

Possible options for the regulator may include dividing it in two, so that there is a regulator for infrastructure and a regulator for content. Solutions like this may be devised as part of a much broader review of the role and work of DCMS and its related regulators.

 

Conclusion 

The future of the UK Digital Policy remains an ambitious landscape with incredible opportunities and challenges ahead. Our conversation with Damian Collins MP highlighted one thing in particular, which is that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports has a whole myriad of complex and convoluted challenges on its hands. These challenges alongside this government’s affinity for data and technology, means that we should watch this space for the creation of a new Digital Department claiming overall responsibility for driving digital policy across Whitehall.

 

 

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Webinar: In Conversation with Damian Collins MP – The Future of UK Digital Policy

On Wednesday 2nd September 2020, WA were delighted to welcome Damian Collins MP for a discussion examining the future of UK digital policy.

Damian Collins, former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee is the Conservative MP for Folkstone and Hythe. Collins has long been a champion of tackling “fake news” and previously led on the committee’s investigation into online harms and misinformation. During his four years as Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, Collins scrutinised government and regulators as they developed plans for the UK’s full-fibre future and the rapid accelerations of these plans in 2019.

Chaired by Marc Woolfson, WA’s Director, the conversation explores some of the regulatory challenges and key events that lay ahead of the industry, on issues ranging from the UK’s digital infrastructure, our online economy and the emerging policy trends after Covid-19.

WA’s Peter Jones, Associate Director and Head of Infrastructure also joined the discussion to provide insights on how the industry can support the government to deliver on its commitments on digital connectivity, online harms and digital innovation.

 

Watch a recording of the webinar:

 

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Just turn it off and on again? The digital economy blow back

As the digital economy continues to balloon, influencing markets, people and society, policy makers are wrestling with its impact and how it can be managed better. While these questions began to take shape in 2018, thanks to exposés on the sheer quantity of data storing and poor practices of social media giants leading to inquiries and calls for action, concerns have continued to gather pace in 2019.

Consumers have reaped the benefits of digital advancement for years, such that negative aspects either seemed unimportant or possibly did not impact them. Faster internet, easier shopping, greater convenience, and access to the latest tv shows; all were noticeable and popular benefits. Yet, while advances have continued, consumers and the media have become more discerning or simply unwilling to accept the negative consequences of the unfettered digital economy.

One of the most obvious instances is the impact on high streets and business who have lost out to the convenience of internet shopping. Unable to sustain themselves, with chains like HMV citing rising costs and business rates pressures, businesses are leaving the high street behind. One in 12 shops have closed in town centres since 2013, with some communities losing over a fifth of high street shops. Traditional financial services like bank branches are also leaving communities behind as more consumers use digital payments and bank online. According to Which?, 60 bank branches are closing a month with some areas such as Scotland being disproportionately impacted.

The decline of physical retail stores and financial services puts some consumers at a disadvantage. Not every community has the broadband or connectivity to live a digital life, and some consumers simply prefer not to. Rural communities, older consumers and the financially vulnerable are acutely impacted by these changes, and forced to become adopters or travel sometimes excessive distances to continue their way of life. This is not the convenience the digital economy promised.

Moreover, the digital economy is now more clearly and negatively impacting the lives of others in our society. Safeguarding has become a key concern, with greater scrutiny on the content children can access on social media and the freedom allowed to post malicious and hurtful content. Government has at least in part sought to address this, if slowly, with the industry still awaiting the results of the Internet Safety Green Paper consultation. Internet safety and the responsibilities of companies such as Facebook have come under intense scrutiny and every additional story contributes to the push for action.

Yet it also extends more widely into mediums that, until now, were niche interests. Video games and interactive entertainment used to be the focus of a select few consumers and policy makers. Now, with an expanding market and interest from a wider audience, policy makers too are looking more closely. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has openly sought views on expanding duties of care to video game developers to prevent exploitative behaviour, and the Labour Party wants to crack down on loot boxes and micro-transactions, fearing that they are similar to gambling.

Not only are parts of the digital economy leaving consumers behind, in the minds of some in media and political circles it is now actively harming and exploiting them. This is a far cry from the days when digital innovators were admired as entrepreneurs and champions of consumers.

As greater numbers of companies and sectors are pulled into scrutiny of the impact of the digital economy, it is tempting to see the case for clear intervention. Policy makers openly consider the benefit of new regulations, levies, taxes and restrictions to overcome these issues. In the last 12 months we have seen proposals for a digital services tax, a social media regulator and levy plan, an expert panel on digital competition, and wider proposals for a digital super-regulator to take the place of self-regulation. Andrew Tyrie’s plans to bulk up the powers of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also open up the prospect of more investigations into this space as well.

For some of the companies that make up this sector, particularly those outside the giants of the industry, these could have a significant impact on their business’ outlook and ability to grow and compete.

Companies caught in the cross-hairs must accept there is no easy ride and that the cultural and societal impact of the digital economy will now always leave them open to scrutiny. The digital economy has helped to empower consumers and address some imbalances old markets did not or would not address. While this should not be lost, companies must be ready to address the wider ecosystem they are a part of and have in part helped create. This means digital platforms will have to not only be able to address their direct impact, but also be prepared to answer questions on how their platforms have facilitated undesirable outcomes and what mitigating steps they are taking. Policy makers are now far less likely to accept deflection or give companies the benefit of the doubt.

Telling the story of a company and its work, communicating the beneficial role it plays and managing criticism is now essential corporate messaging and not the nice extra it once may have been. Without it, digital and technology businesses may be at the mercy of quick political fixes, or find themselves left isolated as others take the lead on safety and responsibility in the digital environment.

 

 

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The future is female: how women’s health got technical

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have created (and been a direct response to) some of the biggest headlines of 2018. They have created a renewed focus on many of the lingering inequalities women continue to face in the workplace, as members of society (both in the UK and elsewhere) and in the eyes of the law –  a study by the Fawcett Society in January 2018 found that the UK system continues to fail women, and called for fundamental reform to increase access to justice and offer additional protections against harassment.

Despite ongoing challenges, ever greater numbers of women from all walks of life are continuing to step into formal and informal political arenas, with a record number of women elected in the US Midterms, sparking comparisons with ‘the year of the woman’ in 1992.

Against this political and societal backdrop, $400 million has been funnelled into femtech startups.

The term “femtech” was coined in late 2016, when Ida Tin, the founder of menstrual tracking app Clue, came up with the word to describe a sector that had started to quietly gather momentum. The femtech industry, made up of largely female led start-ups focusing on women’s health and wellbeing, has developed as a result of the desire among women to seek out alternatives to hormone-derived contraceptives and has expanded to include tech specifically catering to all aspect of women’s health, including post-natal care and female specific medical conditions. Consumers are increasingly demanding a major point of difference between medical options available to them, for example in contraceptives, where all conventional options are hormone derived, rather than offering non-hormone-based options. Start-ups are increasingly filling the gap that conventional pharma companies have yet to fill, creating apps and devices for women that range from daily monitoring of reproductive cycles to new treatments for chronic long term medical conditions based on technology, rather than pharmaceuticals.

The negative impact a lack of diversity (not only gender-based) in boardrooms has on business success is well-documented. A report by Grant Thornton found that a lack of diversity means companies fail to challenge their own assumptions and bring new ideas to the table. This is having a particular effect on the ability of the femtech industry to expand. There remains a disparity between the amount male-oriented health companies can raise, and the amount female-oriented companies can expect to raise. Ro and Hims, both specialists in male specific conditions, raised over $170 million between them this year, nearly half the amount raised by an entire industry of femtech leaders. This has been partially attributed to the makeup of the boardrooms femtech leadership pitch to, with femtech leaders stating that the disproportionately high concentration of men in the investment community make their products ‘unrelatable’, leading to ‘uncomfortable’ pitches that hamper sector growth.

Market analysts Frost & Sullivan have forecast femtech will be worth $50 billion by 2025 – a rapid expansion for an industry currently made up of 200 start-ups scattered around the globe. They found that women are 75 per cent more likely to use digital tools for health than men and that working age women spend 29 per cent more per capita on health than men of the same age. Given these figures, the opportunities are clear, however, currently just 10 per cent of global investment goes to female-led start-ups.

From a political perspective, much of the drive for women to take charge of their own health has been helped along by the re-politicisation of reproductive health and women’s rights. The election of President Trump in America is frequently cited as a galvanising moment for women globally, who have become concerned by his tendency to insult women he disagrees with and brag about sexual assault prior to his election. Additionally, while in office, Trump has become known for his promotion of anti-choice judges and politicians.

Battles to normalise women’s issues have taken place in Parliament too. In 2015, Stella Creasy MP made headlines for forcing Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash to say the word “tampon” in a parliamentary debate. The image of a young, female MP persuading a middle aged male Conservative to talk directly about the ‘taboo’ subject of women’s health and menstruation was something of a milestone in a parliamentary system not known for moving with the times. Creasy made headlines again in October 2018 when, following a referendum in the Republic of Ireland in favour of ending the ban on abortion, she and fellow MP Conor McGinn successfully passed a series of symbolic amendments to the Northern Ireland Bill in Parliament forcing the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, “to issue guidance” to explain how officials can continue to enforce the ban. Given the issue is a devolved one, the real-world ramifications are likely to be limited, but as a symbolic gesture it was a powerful one –  it became an embarrassing subject for the UK government, given their confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, who are stridently anti-abortion. The DUP is unlikely to change its opposition to ending the ban on abortion, but they are increasingly isolated on the issue, with their view seen as increasingly unacceptable across all mainstream parties.

As more femtech products show that new ways of approaching female health are not only possible, but popular, investors will become aware of their growth potential and transformative effect on the health market. Elvie, a femtech start up that manufactures pelvic trainers, has just entered into a contract with the NHS that has the potential to save the NHS over £400 per female patient annually.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for femtech companies, particularly those dealing with female contraception. In August 2018 an advert for Natural Cycles, one of the most high profile contraceptive apps, was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority after it found that their claim to be “highly accurate” at preventing unwanted pregnancies was misleading. Such headlines have caused some reputational damage for the fledgling industry, raising doubts about the viability of non-hormonal contraceptives, which remain a significant focus for femtech businesses. However, wider enthusiasm for alternatives to conventional contraception and medical treatments remains high, proving the continuing consumer enthusiasm for femtech.

Against this backdrop, femtech has the potential to make it far easier for women to take control of their own health. The consumer market is ready and willing to pay for innovative new options, as opposed to just dealing with the pain and side effects that are often dismissed as being ‘part and parcel’ of being a woman. As investors who benefitted from the consumer interest in men’s health over the last decade can attest, the personalisation of female healthcare holds benefits for both consumers and investors.

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Nurture or regulate? How government is supporting investment in AI

Investment in the UK’s tech sector is booming despite the cloud of Brexit uncertainty, with Britain leading the way among European countries. UK tech firms attracted £3 billion in 2018, more than double that invested in 2017. Boosting the trend further, the government has announced a series of funding strategies for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and future tech. The government certainly feels that it has the policy ideas to help boost the sector further, but will these policies help or hinder private equity investment in tech?

 

£3 billion investment in 2018

 

2018 has been a big year for government policy on AI in particular, with a new Office for AI set up, a new “Sector Deal” between government and AI stakeholders, and the launch of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. These measures have committed the government to working with the tech and business sectors to help AI develop, meaning portfolio assets will have the opportunity to influence the direction of AI policy. Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has previously said that government wants to “help our world-leading businesses exploit the potential of AI, encourage companies to engage and grasp the opportunities ahead.” This all shows a willingness from the government to put the UK at the forefront of AI development and to invest in its growth. The issue with this policy is not one of enthusiasm from the government but ensuring that the tricky balance between the commercial opportunities for business – that it wants to help deliver – and the ethical questions about the use of AI are addressed.

 

Regulation that enables innovation

 

Currently, the Office for AI is run jointly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Tellingly, when the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Select Committee published a report on AI in April 2018, the government response came only from BEIS. On this basis, BEIS is likely to be the department in the driving seat on AI policymaking, meaning funding and policy priorities could be influenced by business, and aligned with their commercial priorities.

 

The recent cabinet reshuffles are also likely to have an effect. While all the government’s new policies on AI were being established, Matt Hancock MP, a man infamous for his love of tech and innovation, was Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In July he was replaced by Jeremy Wright MP, who has demonstrated decidedly less enthusiasm for the subject. Across his parliamentary career, Wright has largely sought to steer clear of all things technology related, only intervening as Attorney General to remind social media companies they were not above the law and to say that international law must keep up with the rapid rate of technological development or risk cyberspace becoming “lawless.” While this is unlikely to alter the direction of government policy, it may temper ambitions within DCMS, leaving BEIS with the bulk of the de facto responsibility for AI. This gives rise to the potential for the governments’ AI policy to become focused on its business potential, rather than technical innovation, alienating developers. The respective remits of DCMS and BEIS theoretically mean that DCMS will focus on supporting innovation during the current development stage of AI, while BEIS focuses on future business applications. In the absence of attention from DCMS, the government risks becoming too focused on the future without doing enough to help the industry grow in the present. Measures like the Sector Deal will help businesses maintain lines of communication that may alleviate this issue, but leadership within DCMS is unlikely to have been as enthusiastic as they once were.  

 

“Sensationalist” or “clear and present danger”

 

Underneath all the investment announcements and sector deals, there is a concern that there will be a backlash from some on AI. Greg Clark MP has spoken before about the ‘sensationalist’ way AI is portrayed in the media and has suggested that the government needs to take the lead in marketing AI to the public. They are likely to have a difficult job on their hands, with a 2017 report from PwC estimating that up to 30 per cent of the UK’s jobs could be under threat from AI, a figure which won’t go down well with workers in the diverse array of sectors likely to be affected. The government must perform a balancing act – supporting AI growth without adding to the perception that workers will be left without a job as a result.

 

There have been accusations from Labour and the academic community that the government has failed to tackle the ethical consequences of AI. Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson has argued that the government must do more to protect those in jobs that could be replaced by AI, while a group of 26 academic and research institutions described AI as causing a “clear and present danger” to society if unregulated.  It is highly unlikely that the government will seek to introduce heavy-handed regulations while AI is still in the development phase, and high funding levels will likely continue in the short term. However, investors should be conscious that regulation of the sector is largely inevitable once AI reaches the consumer market, whether that is self-driving vehicles or new advertising algorithms. In an era of cyber-attacks, fake news and Big Data, the government will have to be prepared to mitigate the risks if it wants to reap the benefits of AI.

 

Investors will have to be conscious of the mood in government going forward as this will remain an evolving and politically sensitive issue. The government has indicated that it would seek to introduce regulations for AI on a sector by sector basis while regulators have been encouraged to adopt an approach that both protects the public and “enables innovation.” How they approach this balance, and whether it is possible, will be crucial for the development of AI and investment in the sector.

 

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Looking beyond subsidy: does the Agriculture Bill miss the opportunity to innovate?

Working in the bubble of a city, it can be easy to forget that just under 70 per cent of the country is farmland. But the sector’s economic and political significance is large. While the industry is not one of the UK’s top employers, it still provides around 475,000 jobs directly, as well as supporting a further 30,000 indirectly. Last year it contributed £10.3 billion to the national economy in Gross Value Added terms (a rise of 20 per cent from 2016). It also plays a vital supporting role, providing 61 per cent of the raw materials for the wider UK agri-food industry, which is worth around £108 billion of GVA to the national economy and provides over 3.7 million jobs.

But the sector is facing significant challenges. Changes to industry methods from disruptive and emerging technologies promise to revolutionise how food is produced in the UK. Furthermore, the sector is facing a fundamental change in how it is regulated and funded post-Brexit.

For investors, the economics of the sector have been dictated by EU policy for decades. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was described last year by MEP for South West England Molly Scott Cato, who is a substitute on the European Parliament Agriculture Committee as “unfit for purpose.” Its Direct Payments System, which pays income support based on the amount of land farmed, is unpopular among many in the farming community. Small farmers see it as rewarding land ownership rather than innovation and good farming, as it pays the most money to the largest landowners. In the UK, ten recipients receive 50 per cent of the total farming subsidies.

As the first example of major agricultural legislation introduced since 1947, and one of the first practical departmental bills to map policy for a post-Brexit UK, the Agriculture Bill is an attempt to address the way farming in the UK is subsidised and to take advantage of the demise of CAP. It seeks to shift the emphasis of subsidies away from land ownership, in favour of paying farmers for sustainable land management such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding.

While the Bill provides an opportunity for the government to set out its vision for the future of agriculture in the UK, it also has the potential to put in place a regime as controversial as the CAP that is being replaced. Investors and potential investors in farming, agricultural land and associated assets will have to understand the implications it will have, as well as the details of a newly forged and unexplored system where payments are linked to outcomes.

Under current proposals, cuts to Direct Payments will begin in 2021 and continue until payments cease after 2027. These cuts will be introduced progressively, with annual payments of up to £30,000 cut by five per cent in the first year of the transition, while payments of £150,000 or more will fall by 25 per cent.

Payments will be delinked from farms themselves, allowing farmers to use payments to boost their pension pots rather than having to reinvest all the income. Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Secretary Michael Gove MP has said this is a deliberate tactic to encourage older farmers to retire. The average age of a farmer has now risen to 59, and the shortage of viable farmland coming to market is driving up prices, creating barriers for new market entrants. Commentators have predicted the uncoupling of the payments from farms will eventually lead to a reduction in the price of land, with an increase in retirees leading more land to come to market.

Publication of the Bill provoked a concerned reaction from the industry, with many disappointed about its lack of vision and the neglect of wider related topics like food production, food market price volatility, free trade and access to labour.

At a Liberal Democrat Party Conference fringe event entitled “What should the UK’s future food policy look like?”, Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, Elise Wach of the Institute of Development Studies and Stuart Roberts of the NFU all agreed the bill is a “missed opportunity for the whole food supply chain.”

Wright commented that the government significantly underestimated the role of food and farming for the UK economy and that it was “really important to see food and food policy as an arm of economic policy.” More vocally, Glyn Roberts of the Farmers Union of Wales has described the phasing out of the Direct Payments System before the economic consequences of Brexit are known as having “potentially catastrophic consequences for food production.”

Meetings between Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the industry since the initial unveiling of the legislation, have reportedly allayed some fears about the bill and the perceived lack of government vision, with Richard Griffiths, CEO of the British Poultry Council commenting that the bill was a “good first step.” However, the lack of wider vision or connection to broader economic issues in the bill may still prove an issue for some in the industry and limit what it is able to accomplish.

One area not included in the bill, but part of a newly prioritised workstream by DEFRA and a new £90 million fund from BEIS, is Smart Farming. The money provided by BEIS will help farmers and agricultural supply chain businesses to utilise robotics, AI and data science, and will help to develop solutions to issues within farming, such as land availability, unpredictable weather conditions, and poor supply chain management. New “challenge platforms” will bring together businesses and academics to tackle specific issues, and “innovation accelerators” will explore the commercial viability of new technologies.

There is much to interest investors keen on innovation in the UK’s urban agriculture industry, with new farming and food projects developing in the UK’s cities, particularly in London, around the use of hydroponic systems. These systems allow the growth of food products without soil or natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LEDs. Such systems overcome cities’ lack of space and allow growers to simulate any set of environmental conditions for food production they need. The new market in medicinal cannabis, which could potentially open up once regulations are changed to allow forms of the drug to be prescribed by doctors, could also see these types of spaces used to develop optimised marijuana farms in the UK’s cities.  The advances in this field of technology are abundant, with many companies looking for funding to scale new products or enter new areas.

Other examples of innovation include drone use to better assess crops’ performance across large farms, and enhancements so fertiliser and pesticides can be applied precisely to each plant to reduce over-use and wastage, improving the environment and saving on costs. Better monitoring of climate conditions can inform farmers’ sowing and harvesting plans. The benefits of automated and autonomous vehicles are also a potential game-changer for the industry, with combine harvesters, tractors and other farm machinery being able to operate independently.

The potential opportunities for businesses and investors in the industry are significant and potentially far greater than might be suggested by the Agriculture Bill as it stands. While subsidy and what will replace the Direct Payments System will be of obvious interest, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, will be added to the bill as it makes its way through Parliament that presents more niche opportunities, particularly if the bill is supplemented by further government publications to make up for what is perceived as lacking.

Speaking to the Grocer Magazine, NFU Director of Brexit Nick von Wesneholz neatly summarised the key problem with the Bill: “the key issue is not what the bill does, but what the current and future government does with it.”

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What does Hancock’s ‘tech revolution’ mean for health-tech and AI?

Given his well-publicised love of all things tech and digital, it comes as no surprise that Matt Hancock’s main priority as Health Secretary will be to overhaul technology in the NHS. Steeped in his family’s software company before entering politics, and driver of a much-praised digital government and economic strategies he seems, on paper, the ideal candidate for ushering in the ‘tech revolution’.

But Hancock will be equally aware of the challenge ahead, and that the dreaded fax machine has outlived many a Health Secretary. So, will his ambitious plans lead to a tech revolution in the NHS, or will the fax machine outlive him?

Last week Hancock unveiled “The future of healthcare: our vision for digital, data and technology in health and care” introducing minimum technical standards to ensure interoperability and upgradability in the NHS. Any system that fails to meet these new standards will be ‘phased out’, and any providers who do not adhere to the new principles will see their contracts terminated. No deadline for this phasing out has yet been given.

The DHSC also reaffirmed its commitment to delivering upon the AI and Data Grand Challenge set out in the Industrial Strategy to ‘use data, AI and innovation to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of diseases’. Just last month, health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy announced a ten point ‘code of conduct’ for AI intelligence and other data-driven technologies that encourages companies to protect patient data and seeks to ensure that only the best technologies are used by the NHS.

Under the changes, the use of ‘off-the-shelf’ technologies is encouraged, and CCGs and trusts will be free to buy whatever technology they need – so long as it is compliant with the principles. The DHSC said that “this should encourage competition on user experience and better tools for everyone”.

So far, so positive for healthtech and AI companies – especially for those who can meet the new standards. For new and emerging companies, that is unlikely to be a problem – it is older, more dated and less interoperable companies that are likely to suffer under the changes.

This is, of course, not the first time that a Health Minister has sought to upgrade NHS IT and tech. The doomed NHS National Programme for IT cost the tax payer nearly £10 billion before it was scrapped in 2013, one of a string of failed tech reforms.

Hancock is well aware of these failures and of the pressure to make his reforms succeed where the others did not. A key difference between the new changes and the previous attempts is the cost – so far, funding has been limited. Investment in the plans is unlikely to come out of the £20 billion announced earlier this year, and it is improbable that there will be any tech funding announced in next week’s Autumn Budget. In August, Hancock unveiled just £450 million of funding for new technology across the NHS. Alan Woodward, visiting Professor of Cyber Security at Surrey University pointed out that the funding would likely not go far in reality, saying: “Think about it per head, and what it could actually do”. The NHS spent £157 million on simply upgrading its systems to Windows 10.

This time around, reforms are less of a top-down, funded programme and more about making the market more accessible for new providers. Companies will need to show their worth and make a case for how their technology can make a substantial difference to the individual trusts. With the NHS endlessly battling its debts, a company that can highlight how its software can help to save money in the long-term will be an attractive prospect.

NHS trusts can also provide immense non-monetary value to tech companies. The NHS trove of patient data is often cited as one of its most valuable assets, and healthtech and AI companies are keen to access it to further develop technological solutions and diagnostic programmes. Partnerships like that of Google’s DeepMind and Moorfields Eye Hospital have enabled the development of software proven to be as accurate as world-leading eye experts in detecting over 50 different eye diseases.  The DHSC highlights DeepMind in its policy paper and describes it as technology that has “the potential to transform the way professionals carry out eye tests.”.

Moorfields is not paying DeepMind anything, but DeepMind is benefitting enormously from the partnership – through harvesting the patient data, it is designing and building diagnostic AI programmes that have the future potential to be adopted around the world.

With the DHSC increasingly cognisant of the importance of safe-guarding patient data, it is important for companies like DeepMind to provide reassurance they are adhering to the new guidelines. Whilst the lack of funding might initially seem discouraging for the healthtech and AI industry, there remain significant benefits and opportunities to working with the NHS and an ever more accessible environment to doing so. If companies create a compelling case for their value, efficiency and safety and if commissioners are receptive to change, the long-held dream of a technologically advanced NHS may just be realised.

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