‘I’ll exorcise the devil’

‘I’ll exorcise the devil’

Nick Brown tells Brian Nicholls why the concerns of the North East’s private sector top his agenda as minister for the region.

Big Ben strikes lunchtime. Nick Brown, officed off the Central Lobby - the crossroads of Parliament - calls for another black coffee between appointments.

This isn’t one of his frequent 14-hour days. Well, not exactly, but the indefatigable portfolio carrier – Government Chief Whip and also now Minister for the North East - will have to catch an evening train to Newcastle for a weekend’s work in the region.

Close to home, he’ll phone his customary request to Sachins Indian restaurant to keep its kitchens behind Newcastle Central Station open, as he’ll be in shortly for the curry that sets him up for the weekend.

He will then come face to face not only with his constituents in Wallsend and East Newcastle, but also anyone, in theory, among the North East populace who has something to say.

He will certainly butter toast with big private sector interests at business breakfasts. The breakfasts are invaluable, the affable parliamentarian says.

“Exchanging letters or phone calls wouldn’t be the same. Nor would seminars or lectures.

Here, you have the opporunity to talk the problem through, get a clear understanding and see what we can do to make things easier.

“I am well supported by other MPs and local authority leaders in this, and I don’t just mean the Labour ones.” So his backing for the region’s private sector goes far beyond his published messages of support for the North East’s self-driven Real help for businesses now endeavour.

He says: “I’m putting more time into helping North East business than any other thing at present, apart from getting the Government’s legislative programme through the Commons which,” he grins, “is a sort of day and night job.

“The private sector is having the toughest time for reasons we all understand. The devil in all these things is in the detail.

It’s taking up detailed points that have all been raised with me, and all the things raised nationally – such as the availability of credit and its terms, and things like the payment of bills.

“The Government is aiming for 10 days on payments to business. That helps firms’ cash flow, and it’s right to work with local government and the health authorities to try to persuade them to do the same thing.

“People say there has been a vast improvement on this, though people also say there are instances where they have their disappointments, as well as the things that are going well.

There is huge willingness to help in our region though.” So how fares the region, where Northern Rock forewarned the nation of a crisis? The minister is optimistic.

“We’re much more like the economy of the rest of the UK than one and two generations ago, but we have a long way to go.

When I was appointed Minister for the North East I said my ambition was to drive up the region’s prosperity, my method to engage right across the piece - particularly with the private sector.

There was no ideological motive, says the MP whose career began in advertising with Procter and Gamble.

“It’s entirely to do with the structure of the North East’s economy.

We’ve done a tremendous job transforming from the old employment base to the new, but we could still do more in the service sectors – hospitality, tourism, retailing and all the private sector services which make our economy more like the nation’s economy.

“It’s not right that the nation’s prosperity should be in London and the South East and that hard-working people in our region should be paid less.” Reasons to be cheerful? “Until the credit crunch, we had the fastest growing growth rates of any English region – we were getting there.

My job now is to do everything I can as regional minister to get us through.” Hence, he’ll stick to his guns about driving up prosperity.

“That’s not wrong just because recessionary forces are at work,” he says.

“As the labour market loosens, I’m determined to do all I can to tighten it again. I don’t think something as straightforward as that would work nationally., but our region’s population is – what? - 3.5% of the national population. We are small, and although our economy trades within the UK, we are also a strong exporter.  So we can do a lot within the region.

“There’s a list of projects, mostly private sector, which if they come on will provide new jobs. The proportion of employees in manufacturing in the North East is higher than the national average, and we have great strengths.

“All sectors are affected by the downturn – but some far more than others. The processing sector for example, very strong on Teesside, also provides more than 20% of all private sector jobs in the region.” In a recent meeting with representatives in Redcar to go through specific problems, he found the underlying business case for most of the firms very strong.

“They were clear about what they wanted. Some of it is very specific, some commercially confidential. All of it I can take away and do.

“I’m lucky.  My relationship with my colleagues in government is pretty good. I can get to see them. Being Chief Whip is not a disadvantage.  They do listen. Nobody has turned me down.  Mind you, some things they can do, some they can’t. The decisions have to be for them. But I do get our region’s point of view through to the very heart of government. A Labour government has a huge affection for the North East and wants to help.”

On the aircraft carriers controversy, and a less than expected share likely for the North East, the minister momentarily drops his usual equanimity. “I think this is a red herring,” he declares. “We were after the carrier programme when Swan Hunter stopped building ships years ago. If we are able to get some fabrication work now on the back of it, that’s a bonus. But it is not reasonable for A&P ship repair yard on the Tyne to say suddenly that they are defence contractors and build warships. Just tell me when they last built a warship.

“If they can secure sub-contract work from the main players, good for them. But we can’t claim it’s our core work. Tyne yards now have fabrication and ship repair facilities - McNulty fabrication, A&P ship repair.

“Far more exciting is getting into the offshore wind farm game in the old Neptune yard, and the North of the Tyne A&P yard - plus the 450 jobs which were just created in the old Hadrian yard, the old Amec yard, fabricating two topsides, one for the North Sea and one for the Mediterranean.

“This is fabrication work we have done before and are well used to – it was Amec’s core business in the yard.” What of possibilities that at least one of two SeaDragon drilling rigs, originally to be built on the Tees but now likely to be switched to the Far East, might be saved for the region? “I have intervened,” the minister says.

“Peter Mandelson (the Business Secretary) has been trying very hard to help to find a solution in keeping the work on Teesside, and is dealing with it personally which, given everything else he has to do, is pretty good.

He remembers his links to Hartlepool, which he represented, and to Teesside.” But SeaDragon, he points out, is a commercial arrangement between private sector partners.

“There isn’t a public sector solution,” he admits. “But we are trying hard.” (Since this interview, the £300m platform project offering work for up to 1,000 has been switched to Singapore, a key bank having declined to support a North East build).

Finally, offshore - how strong are North East chances of getting the £150m European proposal for a North Sea renewables energy grid to serve the Continent? “This is quite a complicated set of discussions, but yes, we have a credible bid and are really interested.” Asked why only 5% of the 17,000 civil service jobs being regionalised have come to the North East, the minister replies: “We have just won the new national Marine Management Organisation.

We won because we presented a case for the region, showing what was available in all of the region. “We let the customer - the people coming - say what they wanted and preferred, rather than us saying ‘you’ve got to have this one and the one next door’s rubbish’ - you know, fighting among ourselves.

“We didn’t do that so we got a positive result. Strong competition? That’s an understatement. But the decision was made on merits.

When it was re-checked to ensure fairness, our case was found to be even stronger.” Here the minister gives credit to Alan Campbell, the MP for Tynemouth, John Harrison, the Mayor of North Tyneside, and One North East.

On public sector jobs, he observes that 32% of North East employees already work in that sector, against 28% nationally.

“In public expenditure per head, the difference between England and Scotland is always pointed out. The North East’s profile is much more like Scotland’s than the rest of England’s. So we want to be a bit careful with that argument!” Instead, he suggests: “We’d be better concentrating on things we really need - like a stronger private sector. Playing to our strengths in manufacturing is a big part of that.

The hospitality industry, too, at its best in our region is very good.” On the prospect of the new generation of East Coast Main Line trains being assembled in the North East, the minister says he is making representations and Gateshead is bidding strongly.

Shouldn’t Darlington, with its railway manufacturing tradition, be a candidate? “Again, we should take it as a case for the region, although Mick Henry and Gateshead Council’s leadership generally are very capable in putting up a first-rate bid.

We should all get together behind them to help.

“Gateshead has the sites – that’s the important part. Again, it’s not for us to tell people. The new way is to say, ‘we’ve all these things in the region. Come and see. What are you interested in?’ We get behind what the customer wants, rather than trying to tell them what they’ve got to have.

“We’re a great region with many diverse things to offer.  People who are already here like being here. It’s a great place to live. Discretionary income goes a lot further in the North East.”