Place of Light Live Debate

This is Durham: Place of Light Live Debate

The issue: “How can the This is Durham: Place of Light initiative help bring stakeholders together to showcase County Durham as a great place to live, work and invest and what can the business community do to help?”

County Durham has launched a new, integrated initiative to showcase itself to the world as the Place of Light. Whether it be a physical manifestation through events like Lumiere, or the brilliance of innovation in industries such as space, world class heritage and its university – all underpinned by a stunning natural landscape, Durham has so much to offer. But how does it bring all this together and showcase the county more effectively?

It is a question the County Durham partnership has posed to itself and has come up with the initiative Durham Place of Light to promote the region as a place to live, work and visit. It aims to put Durham in the local, national and international spotlight as an inspiring place where light connects the county on so many levels. The initiative motto states: “Whilst shining on and shaping our heritage, light inspires our here and now and illuminates our future.”

In one of a series of events to get stakeholders engaged in Durham Place of Light and provide input, Business Durham – the economic development company for County Durham - held a BQ Live debate with guests from the public and private sector. It provoked passion, prompted questions and came up with ideas as to how best to ensure the initiative brings everyone together to promote the county.

Durham County Council leader Simon Henig launched the debate by outlining exactly how Durham is a Place of Light. “It is a very appropriate theme, not just because of the things we know about – our heritage, our culture, world leading research and our companies but it is also appropriate because perhaps we are a little bit guilty in Durham of hiding our light and not telling our stories loud enough or often enough,” he said. “Sometimes we feel we are a little bit in the shade of other areas. We have a great story to tell – just to give a few examples, we have outstanding innovation from companies such as Thorn; a university in the world’s top 100; we are consistently ranked very highly for a number of areas including space science. Durham is a centre for growing and highly regarded space-related activity such as the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence; the North East space incubation programme – one of a number of similar centres of excellence at NETPark. We have an outstanding police force recently rated the best in England; we’re in an Area Of Natural Beauty there’s our history, our proud industrial heritage and proud cultural heritage – arguably one of the richest in England. In recent years we have developed a programme of events and festivals which is now the equal of anywhere in the country. It is time to shine a light on some of these successes for Durham and the wider North East.”

A quick introduction around the table and initial thoughts on Durham Place of Light followed. Representing around 800 businesses in Durham Simon Hanson of the Federation of Small Businesses agreed. “It is about time that Durham started shouting about the fantastic resources and industry and all the great things we know about County Durham that many people outside the region still don’t know about. The initiative has come at the right time.”

Richard Welsby of Bowes Museum said the museum has changed a lot over the last 10 to 15 years and its development has been “amazing to behold.” He is looking at how Place of Light can help it engage with the wider community.

Durham Police was recently voted as the best in England. Chief Superintendent Kerrin Smith said: “Durham is really innovative and is part of a great partnership team which has helped develop the force - this initiative helps us shine a light on our work.”

One of the architects of the initiative Ian Thompson, director responsible for regeneration at Durham County Council, said: “The initiative creates excitement and interest – a rallying call, to get people’s attention and let them see what is happening here and ‘wows’ them to want to be part of it.”

John Bone of Telespazio Vega and chair of North East Satellite Application Centre of Excellence commented: “What I see is a fantastic amount of innovation up here and we need to spread the word.”

Durham University’s Professor Ray Sharples said they work with a lot of national and international companies but need better engagement with local companies to get the impact from the initiative.

Business Durham’s Catherine Johns, Innovation and Business Growth Director at Business Durham, initiated the debate. “Everyone I meet is impressed by the sheer amount of work done by Durham County Council and its willingness to take risks, to be a bit different. Place of Light came out of a lot of research – this is what Durham is about, a big story, and it’s a flag we are planting. It is relevant for whatever sector and people at whatever age.”

Kielder Observatory’s John Holmes formerly worked on the Passionate Places, Passionate People initiative while at ONE North East and has also worked at Durham Cathedral. He said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to get on with it – there is something about out of the darkness into the light. It is surrounded by optimism and I would like to see greater partnership between Northumberland and Durham, around things such as Christian Heritage and Leisure tourism.”

New College Durham’s Suzanne Gregory said: “People don’t appreciate everything we have in the county. It is one of the selling factors for international students.”

Chris Jones of Northumbrian Water said: “This is an exciting initiative – the thing that struck me was the link between light and enlightenment, the links with research at universities and education – a place where people can learn and grow, businesses can learn and grow and prosper.”

It is a point which resonated with Ruth Robson of Durham Cathedral. “This is a fantastic opportunity for the county as a whole to come together and use its assets under a single entity to promote itself to the wider world. There is so much going on in County Durham, not just in terms of heritage tourism but in industry, education, the quality of life of its residents – we are also shining a light on their wellbeing – the cathedral plays a part in all of that. We have amazing treasures, artefacts and objects which have been hidden away for centuries. We have just opened up our exhibition space which is an opportunity to put objects on display – the significance of which are known to academics around the world but the public have not had access to, so it is wonderful for us to be able to broaden our audiences.”

Chris Woodley-Stewart, director of AONB, North Pennines said it was important that the initiative was inclusive. “There are some incredible things happening in the rural communities. Anything that can bring different sectors together to help to focus on the natural and special assets of County Durham is a good thing. We need to engage the person in the street so they understand Place of Light. The story needs to be well articulated so that everyone can get behind it and promote the things this county has to offer.”

Gavin Brydon of Thorn Lighting agreed. “We have a huge amount of innovation and great partnerships in the county – with people from NETPark and other companies. I am amazed, having engaged with a lot of small companies, at the talent we have in the North East and County Durham but it is not joined up. I would like to know how we bring it all together, what is our beacon, our rallying point? Lighting is very important for people’s moods, for their health, for how you feel about space – light is great at triggering emotions. We are all still thought of as shipbuilding and coal but it is not true, there is so much innovation but how do we bring it out? We have advertised as a Place of Light but what does it actually mean to anyone coming to our region? Is there going to be a path of light to highlight our buildings and companies? How do we sell the story and bring it to life?”

Catherine Johns said: “What this initiative means for me is fundamentally changing hearts and minds of a broad spectrum of people that Durham is here, it is open for business, it is innovative and it is part of the North East region. It is also about changing perceptions – we are vastly proud of our shipbuilding and coal heritage but it is not what we are now. We want people to think about and consider Durham. Hitachi Rail Europe wouldn’t have come here because they saw a lovely postcard – it came because of the land availability, the skilled workforce and the partnership which showed them we wanted them here. It took six years.”

Chair Caroline Theobald said the initiative should be seen to be part of the fabric or it wouldn’t have resonance.

“We tested the initiative to the point of destruction and for me it was seeing the instinctive response, linking the cultural, education assets, innovative expertise, public and private sector,” said Catherine Johns.

Ian Thompson added: “We had three or four ideas but it was the light one which people responded to. Place of Light can be used in a variety of ways – it has to be exciting, generate a level of interest and give us the opportunity to do things differently.”

Chris Woodley-Stewart again stressed the need to encapsulate the initiative in a nutshell. “We all need to find a simple way of articulating what this means in a pub pitch - something to articulate what is behind this tremendous collaborative spirit we have here.”

John Holmes said: “There is an opportunity for the Place of Light to be Durham’s DNA – it is positive, open for business and we are determined to drive it forward whether that’s in education, heritage, tourism or business, demonstrating something very positive and enthusiastic. Place of Light says optimism, partnership, accessibility - you can hang it on anything.”

Place of Light 02Durham Lumiere, the UK’s largest light festival, has shown the power of events in getting messages across argued Frank Wilson of Event International. “Lumiere has been a tremendous success, with an amazing impact locally and internationally and people took ownership. Is there not a logical connection to have a public-facing science event, to get thousands along who would get the connection and understand this is more exciting stuff with light but different to Lumiere?”

Chris Jones said the ‘place’ aspect of the initiative is very strong. “We are a place which has some coherence. We can show how we use light in the services we deliver and it could be a hook to engage the communities. Our branding is Living Water and for life you need water and light so there is a neat coherence.”

John Bone said it was possible to have a set of themes around water, light and space. “The majority of my business is looking at the earth from space and the light that is emitted and you can do all sorts of innovative things – how other organisations use satellite data for example. The more we can publicise and demonstrate this the more likely we are to get investment in the area and show it is a great place to work and live.”

He was supported by Kerrin Smith “We are a blue light service and we harness new innovations. We are a leading force in developing cyber security and working with businesses to help themselves.”

“We are all guilty of looking to London first and it’s getting members to look within the county at the innovation that is going on here,” said Simon Hanson, “Seeing is believing and this initiative is positive in that respect. It is not against something but it is celebrating what we have. It needs to be long term – a 5-10-year initiative - to make sure we get the message across. Our members would get behind that. What they have seen in the past is several short-term initiatives, they get behind them and all of sudden it disappears.”

Caroline Theobald asked “how do we pull people in and get businesses involved to spread the message?”

Richard Welsby said: “I don’t think we should get too hung up on having a literal concept for the Place of Light. It is interesting that this is far deeper than a tourism branding initiative.” He said Bowes was showcasing Durham by taking its famous silver swan to the Science museum in London as part of an exhibition next year. “We hold exhibitions at the Royal Society in London and get 30,000 people through the doors, we should look at running that sort of thing in the North East,” said Professor Sharples.

Chris Woodley-Stewart agreed a countywide event would be welcomed. “We had 2,000 people come and see waterfall project in the dark at Teesdale, to see projections of three of our waterfalls. It got people looking at the landscape in a new way and that is exactly the kind of thing we would like to do more of to get behind the initiative.”

Catherine Johns said: “I work in this field every day so it is normal to me that Durham is world leading in so many areas. Place of Light is a chance to step back and see it from an external perspective – it gives us a platform to talk about our heritage, landscape, innovative centres, our outstanding police force etc. We have been working with New College Durham to introduce innovation management into all their foundation degrees – the first college in the country to do so. We need to raise aspirations and get into schools – children’s jaws drop when they visit NETPark and see some of the things we are doing here.”

Suzanne Gregory said: “Durham is so vast with an eclectic mix of people from different backgrounds. It is about making people realise they all have that ability and the opportunity. If you have a goal and a particular job in mind, usually you can get there – it is very rare that they are unable to achieve that. You just have to be aware of the different pathways to reach that goal. Too often people are told ‘you can’t do that what about this instead’ but we are more about yes you can but it might take a bit longer – or you might have to take a different route to get there.”

Attracting people from other parts of the UK and overseas is a key component of the initiative but Ruth Robson said it was just as important to look closer to home. “We are working with hard-to-reach communities,” she said. “There are people in County Durham that have never been to the city, it is hard to believe but it is true. Open Treasures is a project about broadening the horizons of the local communities but also bringing people into Durham to enjoy the Cathedral for what it is – a place of Christian heritage – and supporting the local economy through overnight stays etc. We are at the heart of the city both visually and in terms of helping the city and the county achieve its potential. Light in itself is fundamental to what we are.”

Place of Light 03John Holmes said: “For hundreds of years Durham people haven’t actually shouted about what they have got. They have hidden their light under the bushel. I remember when I first went to work at Durham Cathedral I said to one guy ‘have you got a Magna Carta?’ and the response was ‘oh we’ve got three!’ It was very matter of fact and it is something we need to address. This region has a great story to tell and there so many characters in Durham who could talk the area up. Something ironic is that one of the great wealth creators was underground and in the darkness (mining) to power the world and we are bringing it to light – there are all sorts of anecdotes to help bring the initiative to life.”

Caroline Theobald said there was a need to bring the stories into a place to be shared so how could that practically be done?

Kerrin Smith replied “We have a project called mini-police which we have used to support Lumiere and lots of other community events. They are children aged 9 and 10 dressed up in mini police uniforms to spread good news and safety messages. We also use them to get messages about cyber crime and safety into schools. The feedback we have had from schools, especially in deprived areas, is that parents are changing their behaviours through listening to the children going home and telling them what they are doing. There are lots of avenues through using the children to bring these messages to light and getting into the homes of communities. It is fantastic.”

John Holmes said: “The more people we can get talking about what a great place Durham is and this is why we are here as a business – it is so diverse, so inclusive, so flexible, a great local authority, great university and colleges, the cathedral – the better. Just get on and do it. More people need to know about the exciting things going on at NETPark for example. We need to focus on the positives.”

The investments at Bowes and Beamish Museum plus the cathedral was a great opportunity for the initiative said Ruth Robson. “We should be telling the world what is world class about Durham. We need to find the tools and methodology so that it is embraced by everyone. It will only succeed if it has buy-in from everybody.”

Catherine Johns “There is an immense amount of pride here. At the Durham Gala you see the banners coming over the hill. It is incredibly moving. What came out in the audience research for Place of Light was a lot of quiet pride, pragmatism, resilience – it is about how we make the most of that and make it outward facing.”

Chris Jones said people don’t always connect what they do on a daily basis with innovation there was a need to somehow capture this, a point Frank Wilson took up. “We need to innovate to get our message across,” he said “Stirring films have been done to death. It seems like repetition. We need to use technology to get people excited and look at things differently.”

Chris Jones said things like aerial satellite pictures were still innovative if you could show Durham from a different perspective and literally lit up. “You can get communities to light their own beacons and photograph it – it is a tangible way of connecting the community through light.”

Ruth Robson said Visit County Durham is going to take part in a project promoting the heritage cities of the UK using augmented reality to new audiences in the States – “that is the kind of technology which will engage new audiences.”

Gavin Brydon said heritage was still key. “We took a delegate from China to Beamish Museum and he was completely surprised that we were the leaders in the railways, coal mining and steam engines,” he said. “He was totally fascinated and never knew. Also, he was amazed at how lush green our landscape is.”

“Industry has often traded on natural beauty – it is a huge attractor and I hope we can have a renewed focus on the importance of heritage to Durham. We don’t make enough of it,” said Chris Woodley-Stewart.

Gavin Brydon added: “We also have Durham University - we have the education and the talent. We need to make much more of how good we are to get people into the county. How easy it is to do business, to export – it is all those things.”

Catherine Johns said: “The reason we land so many inward investments even in straitened times – we have just got the biggest ever investment in County Durham with 1,300 jobs in Seaham (ResQ) - is because we handle enquiries individually. We get fantastic support across sectors, we know how to showcase that. NETPark has its own story and it is pioneering across the world. What we have never had is an opportunity to link it in with everything else and this is why Place of Light is so important. We took Hitachi up in a helicopter to fly over the site where they would be and they saw the line that ran past it was the one where Locomotion touched the tracks for the very first time. It was the trigger point, an emotional connection. It was in their power to bring the railways home. This initiative is getting the trigger point before people come to talk to us so that we get even more and better inquiries.”

Visuals remain important as a first impression in a 10-second pitch said Ian Thompson “It is the visual effect that sucks people in, then explaining the layers underneath to prove to whoever it is that it is a great place and we can do all these things as well. That is how we get their attention.”

Simon Henig spoke of opening a newspaper on The Tube to find the Lumiere featured on Page 3. “The image projected on the side of the Cathedral was just fantastic. The cathedral in the centre of the county is like a beacon – it draws people to it with all these fantastic things on the outside.”

Ruth Robson said “The Cathedral is so much more than a church. People perceive it in different ways.”

It is important that the initiative showcased other parts of the county and not just the centre of Durham said Kerrin Smith. “We need to be careful how we sell this locally and nationally,” she said. “It is not just about the pretty places we have got to show some of the true understanding of our communities. Seaham for example has done so much to change its image – the seafront is so much more welcoming and it is an amazing place.”

Chris Woodley-Stewart agreed adding: “There are very special things happening in Bishop Auckland around the castle. Kynren (an open air live spectacular) is showing people we can do this and it’s heritage based. It was an incredible thing delivered by the community. It is a great example of showcasing somewhere which isn’t outwardly pretty and has fantastic heritage coming together to innovate and change people’s perceptions of the place they live in as well as external perceptions. It certainly changed mine.”

So how do we get that coherence in the business community? Simon Hanson said “I think it is moving away from some of the usual suspects. Too often we use the cathedral and the big employers which doesn’t resonate with smaller businesses. Yet there are resilient communities like Derwentside where small businesses have flourished and it is how to we use some of them to showcase that they are on the doorstep – they are just as important to those communities as the bigger employers. It shouldn’t be about big businesses v small businesses or prosperous communities v disadvantaged communities. It should be about the community at large and how everybody can play a role. Live, work and play – you can do any of that across the county within half an hour of anywhere so we need to get more people to see that.”

Chris Jones elaborated on the Yorkshire pride, where people feel part of something. He said: “The North East doesn’t have the same brand feeling let alone County Durham and one of the tests of the initiative is whether that can be achieved – whether people can buy into it.”

Richard Welsby agreed but believes there is a pride in County Durham which just needs awakening. “As was said earlier it is a quiet pride – it is a latent resource,” he said. “When Bowes did the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition last summer there was a massive response from the town (Barnard Castle). There was a real pride with flower displays and shop window displays.

There was a sea change in the attitude towards Bowes locally – it was seen as not just a place people come to for the day, park their cars and go – the town was very busy.”

There was a general feeling the initiative could be an opportunity to attract more national events to County Durham possibly themed around light, while Catherine Johns sees social media as key to getting people involved. “They can snap a video on their phone and it is there on the website,” she said. “We have that enormous power we can tap into in different ways. It is how we get everyone in Durham to be an ambassador for Place of Light that will be interesting. It is a unique concept – we are saying we are great at light in all its forms so it enables us to stand out from the crowd in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

Ian Thompson said the way to capture faraway places is this all encapsulating tangible thing that Durham is harnessing better than anyone else while Simon Henig said: “The ingredients are there it is how do we pull them together. It is work in progress.”

Kerrin Smith agreed saying visitors were always struck by the county’s biggest asset – its people while Chris Woodley-Stewart urged that the debate should lead to something tangible.

“We have a number of partnerships to do something connected to Place of Light, and we should be engineering some stuff so people can get it. It is very difficult to articulate what it means without it sounding too esoteric to capture the imagination of people. Let’s not forgot these things are underpinned by the quality of our natural environment.”

And with that the debate closed after an enlightening two hours with the spotlight firmly focused on everything positive about Durham. Now there is an opportunity to reflect on what needs to happen next to ensure the message is clearly communicated and the Place of Light initiative shines just as brightly with the wider population as it did among our dinner guests.

To find out more about the initiative and get involved visit