The tough times are back but County Durham has grounds to believe the hardships it once suffered will not return. In 1986, unemployment in some areas was officially put at 20 per cent, though known pockets of male unemployment actually touched 50 per cent. Now, unemployment in the county is about national average or just under, and Stewart Watkins, chief executive of County Durham Development Company (CDDC) is confident.
“We’ll face the challenges of the present downturn, just as we have faced the challenges of the past 20 or 30 years,” he says.
“Ours has been a county in transition since the 1970s, with coal’s decline, the disappearance of the steelworks at Consett and a wagon works at Shildon.” The Consett closure in 1981, after 146 years, cost 9,000 jobs and resulted in 36 per cent local unemployment - more than double the national average. The Shildon demise four years later, after 151 years, cost 2,000 jobs. In collieries and coke works, the 150,000 jobs of the 1920s had all but vanished by 1993.
Nor did it end there. “Throughout the 1990s we faced losses of manufacturing jobs brought about by threats from globalisation,” says Watkins. “We absorbed all that and also addressed the scars of heavy and extractive industries, restoring rolling green countryside. The county council put immense effort into an environmental redemption, making it attractive. It introduced a more robust and driven economy, and encouraged more small and medium-sized business.” This encouragement has created about 2,000 new jobs a year. Nearly three decades ago, the county owned nine industrial estates which were almost empty. Now it has interests in 13 and they are almost full.
“Through the efforts of the county council and its partners, we have been involved in creating almost 50,000 jobs, mainly in manufacturing,” says Watkins. “In the early 1990s recession, we weathered low-cost competition from the likes of Poland, Romania, Hungary and China. Our manufacturing base today is smaller, but much more resilient amid change.
“Business will be difficult again now for some time, but we are confident it will still grow and develop here.” Science and technology have a higher priority today. The Incubator at NETpark, Sedgefield’s new science and tech park, is full to overflowing. Kromek is the flagship, spun out from Durham University and developing semi-conductor materials for three-dimensional x-ray imaging in digital colour.
Other groundbreakers there include ANTnano, which is active biochemically in enzymes, estrogen, dioxins and furans, and Roar Particles, specialising in nanoand biotechnology. PETEC, the Printable Electronics Technology Centre, is advancing research commercially relevant to this and the next century for new materials to make roll-up computers and flexible displays.
“Durham will also be the UK’s national centre for printable electronics in due course - one of only four such centres in the world,” Watkins says.
“The county can take advanced initiatives thanks to a world-class university which is particularly accomplished in physics, chemistry and engineering. These all play a major part in the new, highly specialised economy the entire North East wants.” It is one of the world’s top four institutions in space sciences and the top in Europe. The university, England’s third oldest, has already been a palliative, not least via its highly rated business school, and now its role in responding to new global challenges is crucial.
“We use the university’s strengths in NETpark’s encouragement of spin-out companies. These, in turn, enhance other firms throughout the country,” Watkins says.
“Strengths in biotechnology and electronics, for example, lead to new companies at NETpark andinject skills and intelligence to the business knowledge economy.” While even high-tech businesses come and go at times, skills remain to be deployed in new ventures. Example: the factory built for Fujitsu’s introduction of a sunrise industry to Durham through the microchip. Ten years later, sunrise became sunset as the market for silicon chips changed. Filtronic replaced it because adaptable skills and experience were on tap. Now, with the market against Filtronic too, the American group RFMD has taken the site for semiconductor manufacture.“That companies may come and go need not be important if the basic skills remaining are relevant to others,” Watkins suggests. While massive multinational inward investments from the likes of Nissan and Komatsu may be a closed chapter for the North East’s foreseeable future, County Durham still looks overseas to develop local business. Excellent flights between Newcastle and Dubai enable the county to target the Gulf region with local goods and services, working with UK Trade and Investment, the Regional International Trade Office and the North East Chamber of Commerce. Six businesses from County Durham – 10 per cent of the mission - will be among a UK trade delegation in Dubai next month.