The North East’s attractiveness as an investment destination has proved resilient amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with two locations listed in the 20 best performing UK cities or towns for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) projects in 2020, according to EY’s latest UK Attractiveness Survey.

Newcastle ranked as the UK’s 11th most popular location for FDI projects in 2020, with 11, while Sunderland ranked joint 18th with six. The total number of FDI projects recorded in the North East increased by two projects – or 6.7% – to 32, propelling the region’s share of UK projects from 2.7% to 3.3%.

The figures demonstrate a change in fortunes against a longer-term trend: projects and market share in the North East had been in year-on-year decline since a high point recorded in 2016 and represent a strong performance in the context of the wider pandemic. The North East managed to increase its project numbers while European projects fell 13% and UK projects fell by 12%.

US investment accounted for 28% of projects recorded in the North East (nine in total), followed by China (four projects) and Japan (four). In the UK as a whole, Germany and France are ranked second and third but in the North East, while France was ranked fourth (three projects), this was equal with Norway – continuing the trend of Scandinavian investment favouring the North East. Meanwhile Germany only provided one project in the region.

The two leading sectors in the North East were digital (eight projects) and business services (four), with the region also benefiting from projects in machinery and equipment, pharmaceuticals and transportation equipment (three projects each). Projects were most likely to involve sales and service activities (12 projects, up from nine), manufacturing (nine projects, holding steady from 2019) and research and development (five projects, up from three).

Six per cent of investors surveyed by EY as part of the research said that the North East is the most attractive UK region in which to invest, up from 4% in 2019.

Digital transformation a key driver for the North East
Mike Scoular, EY’s Senior Partner for the North East, said: “Digital is the leading sector for FDI into the North East for the second year running – perhaps showing the beginnings of a shift in our local economy into a sector that offers the significant opportunities for future growth.

“Our survey offers some guidance on how the UK can best support its transformation to a digital economy, with the investors we surveyed prioritising digital infrastructure, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, and protecting intellectual property and data. Targeted policies here could continue to differentiate the UK in the competition to attract digital FDI.

“It’s great that Newcastle’s inward investment figures put it in the UK’s top 10 cities outside London. That said, the fact that it was the only North East location to have project numbers pass double digits is something that needs to change, and it would be good to see more of an equitable distribution of investment throughout the region.

“Our research suggests the UK’s ‘levelling up’ message has landed effectively with investors, with almost two-thirds aware of the policy. There is scope to build on these foundations, with almost half of investors planning to change their supply chains in future and a fifth considering reshoring to the UK. With the manufacturing and logistics opportunities this will create likely to fall outside of London and major cities, this may be a one-off opportunity to reshape the UK’s economic geography.

“According to our survey, the key criteria investors will consider when looking outside London are the availability of the skills of the local workforce, the strength of local business networks, and access to regional grants and incentives for investment and R&D. There are signs of a shift in attention beyond London with the share of investors who say it is the UK’s most attractive destination falling from 46% in 2019 to 25% in 2020.”

UK-wide picture is positive overall too

The UK as a whole ranked second in Europe for FDI projects in 2020, expanding its share of the European FDI market. While the UK again missed out on Europe’s top spot for FDI – for only the second year in the survey’s two-decade history – the gap was closed on 2019’s first-time leader France.

In 2020, the UK secured 975 projects (down 12% from 2019’s 1,109 projects); France hosted 985 projects (down 18% from 2019’s 1,197 projects). Germany ranked third with 930 projects (down 4% from 2019’s 971). Spain remained a distant fourth with 354 projects (down 27% from 2019’s 486).

Overall, Europe saw a 13% fall in projects – from 6,412 in 2019 to 5,578 in 2020 – which helped the UK expand its market share of FDI for the second successive year, from 16.6% in 2018 and 17.3% in 2019, to 17.5% in 2020. Meanwhile, London reclaimed its status as Europe’s most attractive city for investment, overtaking Paris.

The UK performance was, once again, partly based on its success in attracting investment in digital technology projects, which have accounted for the largest share of inbound FDI projects in the UK every year since 2013. There were 322 digital technology FDI projects in the UK in 2020 – 33% of all UK projects – while the country remained Europe’s leading destination for digital technology investment, albeit with a smaller share of the European market and with fewer projects than 2019.

English regions close the gap on London

With 383 projects in 2020, London remained the UK’s main location for inbound FDI projects. But with UK digital projects – a key London sector – falling, this figure was 29% down on the 538 projects secured in 2019. This performance saw London’s share of the overall UK market slip from 48.5% in 2019 to 39.2% in 2020; London’s share of the UK digital market fell to 58%.
Scotland retained its position as the leading UK FDI location outside London, securing 107 projects, up 6% from 101 projects in 2019.

Notably, the North West – 85 projects, up 16% from 73 in 2019 – overtook the South East as the UK’s third largest FDI location. The North West benefited from a growth in transport and logistics and life sciences projects, while the South East – 72 projects, down 13% from 2019’s 83 projects – lost out with the UK’s decline in digital investment.

Most English regions held steady with only the North West and East of England (35%) registering double-digit improvements, and only London and the South East registering double-digit declines.

In total, four English regions – the North West, East of England, North East and South West – increased their project numbers, while five – London, the South East, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the East Midlands – saw a decline.

EY’s UK Attractiveness Survey includes analysis of 570 international investors’ perceptions of the UK as a destination for FDI. Despite London’s challenging 2020 experience, 43% of those surveyed said it is the most attractive European city for investment – up from 28% last year, when it trailed the 31% achieved by Paris. This year, just 18% of survey respondents said they favoured Paris.

Digital technology, health and wellbeing are growth areas for the UK

Alison Kay, Managing Partner for Client Services at EY UK & Ireland, said: “Given the impact of the pandemic, a shrinking FDI market, and the then-uncertain future trading relationship with the EU, the UK delivered a positive FDI performance in 2020. A relatively small decline in project numbers meant the UK far-outpaced downbeat investor forecasts too. In our autumn 2020 survey of investment attitudes, investors forecast a 30% to 45% decline in UK projects compared to 2019.

“The UK has demonstrated resilience and adaptability in attracting investment. Key sectors have changed over time, and the UK attracted the most ‘new’ projects in Europe in 2020 rather than relying on reinvestments. However, its former dominance of the FDI market has been replaced by a competitive three-way tussle with Germany and France. To regain its place as the market leader, the UK will need to build on its strengths. The investors we spoke to for this year’s survey identified digital technology and health and wellbeing as being key growth areas for the UK, and these are areas where the country already excels.”

Investors say the UK has the best COVID-19 recovery plan in Europe

A previous EY survey, carried out in autumn 2020, found the UK ranked third in Europe for post-pandemic attractiveness – behind Germany and France – and just 25% of those surveyed said they planned to invest in the UK in the following 12 months.
This latest survey implies a significant reversal in fortunes. The UK is now perceived to be Europe’s most attractive destination for investment, while 41% of survey respondents plan to invest in the UK in the next 12 months – the UK’s highest ever score on this question, up from 31% in spring 2020 and 23% in 2019.

Alison Kay said: “The UK has a very bright outlook for investment and a strong recovery, especially compared to last year. Allowing for the fact that the investment market is still uncertain and volatile, these are encouraging findings. The UK’s vaccine programme appears to have played a key role in the change in sentiment: the survey revealed that investors now view the UK as having the best COVID-19 recovery plan in Europe.”