Open for business

Open for business

Durham County wants to open a new chapter in private sector relations and speed up new opportunities. Development director Ian Thompson talks to Brian Nicholls.

More than 1,200 people a year are launching their own businesses in Durham County. More than 2,000 retail jobs could be on their way, too, if three Tesco openings go ahead. And 400 advanced jobs could be coming up at NetPark, the county’s regional centre of high-tech research and business - plus 200 at GT, particularly valued at Peterlee as helpful to a jobs blackspot.

Still many more jobs will be needed, of course, but the 3,800 outlined here suggest a will and a way - early shoots of a brighter employment bloom for the county still suffering more than many from the collapse of coalmining and steelmaking. If Durham County had a tourist spend like that of Lincolnshire - hardly top of many visitors’ wish lists - the county would have a further 1,500 jobs.

And there’s confidence such a parity can be attained. After one year as an all-embracing eight-intoone authority, brought about by reorganisation of local government, the message from Durham’s enlarged county council is that inward investment, and attracting new companies while supporting existing local ones, will be the bastions against still troublesome rundowns of times past and the Whitehall cutbacks to come.

“We’re open for business,” is the council’s pledge in this exclusive BQ interview with Ian Thompson, a recently appointed corporate director, who brings 20 years’ experience to his remit of regeneration and economic development. Relations will be cultivated with the private sector, key agencies and other partners to appeal to private investment.

A surge of tourism is one key aim. “We believe we have the backcloth, so we’ll invest in branding, in the place and in events,” says Thompson, who’s confident the private sector will enter partnerships to nurture supportive facilities and amenities, giving benefits within four years. An existing tourism partnership already works with Business Enterprise North East, and success of the recently-opened Radisson SAS Hotel in Durham City is encouraging.

Good news too awaits local business people who appealed in a recent BQ Live Debate for easier access and fairer consideration in the award of public sector contracts. Thompson acknowledges this. “How we spend locally, that’s something we’ve been working on, procurement processes and practices, so that local businesses can find a better way in,” he says.

“Procurement can be a labyrinth, especially for small business. We can do something to help.” Given the county’s £1bn organisation already spends about £600m locally, this looks a lead worth pursuing.

County Hall is already cosying up to existing big business, automotive heavyweights like Caterpillar (95% of its land vehicles exported), TKA Tallent (1,000 employees), TRW (500 employees) and GT whose new £10m investment to produce exhaust transmissions has brought a jobs increase. Thorn Lighting too is precious. It hasn’t only safeguarded 600 jobs and championed local skills by keeping its new £32m plant within the county (Factory of the year in a Cranfield business survey), but has also combined manufacture with innovation, siting its Academy of Light there too.

Aware of the county’s slide in GVA wealth ratings recently, the council now intends to see Durham as a county even more attractive to live in, work in and spend time in. Leeds-based developers as well as local housing developers are taking note.

Thompson believes, reasonably, that if Durham County rather than the South East suits Richard Kirk, pioneer of electroluminescence, and his firm Polyphotonix, then more frontier-pushing businesses can be persuaded to follow.

Suitable sites exist, also pretty countryside to give appropriate lifestyle accompaniment - all this, and England’s most beautiful cricket ground with the most successful county cricket side playing on it.

A branding of Durham, city and county, is about to emerge. It requires, though, a brighter shine on 14 market-town centres and shops; a fuller range of housing from executive to socially rented, and more attractive schools. Educational standards have already improved; the county is now one of the country’s top 20 authorities in GCSE attainment, suggesting on the tick sheet of enquirers an availability of suitable labour.

Its the school fabric that’s getting attention; some £500m being spent over 10 years to update all major secondary schools. Durham Johnston has had the pilot upgrade; Seaham, Stanley and Consett all have planning consent. Upwards from there, the county can cite five universities easily-reached for research support and advanced training to potential corporate newcomers, also a chain of colleges to meet other skill requirements.

With Tesco in mind, the authority is already working with them to step up retail skilling. Manufacturing is considered crucial, particularly in advances such as low carbon economy, printable electronics, photovoltaics.

Automotives too - though Thompson acknowledges: “This will only remain a growth sector if we continue to research and develop so that the companies can move on.” Existing business and industrial parks offer diverse, attractive and widely located options: DurhamGate at Spennymoor, Amazon at Newton Aycliffe, Durham Green at Bowburn, Spectrum at Seaham and Bracken Hill at Peterlee. DurhamGate will give 440,000sq ft of business space including a prelet of 26,000sq ft - enough to accommodate 2,000 jobs - and 380 homes. Amazon Park at Newton Aycliffe is both a manufacturing and logistics location. At NetPark, Sedgefield, another 60,000sq ft should be ready to occupy within two years.

“That’s significant,” Thompson points out. “NetPark is for cutting-edge and technologybased firms and it’s time now for some start-ups there to move into manufacturing. “We should see benefits as NetPark changes from simply a technology park to one where large businesses employing local people are also developing. Three new buildings now exist for that purpose, that’s a big advance, for we’re also encouraging the small businesses there.” Durham City, a World Heritage Site, is toserve as a catalyst.

Its recent failure to become the nation’s city of culture is put down to experience.

As Thompson says: “Cities we were up against have a stronger track record and are bigger. you can understand the Government might want to go with a larger city ... lower risk. But we got good feedback.

“Durham City is well known from its position on the East Coast rail line between Edinburgh and York. We must attract people in then disperse them to the rest of the county. We’re aiming for festivals and other events here to make the city second only to Edinburgh for street festivals.”

A recent highly-successful international light festival and mystery plays around the city from this May – befitting a great Christian centre – are foundations to build on, as are a book festival, the annual regatta, and Durham Miners’ Gala. Traditional themes, says Thompson, can be made meaningful to visitors today.

Community support for culture stood out when 38,000 signatures backed the culture bid, only 7,000 fewer than supported Sunderland’s bid to host World Cup football. Bishop Auckland, Barnard Castle and Consett, where demographics and town centre appearances are changing already, also have visitor and residential attractions to develop; recent examples being a Consett in Concert event and an arts festival at Barnard Castle.

The Pennine axis of Stanhope, Kilhope and Alston strikes Thompson as one of the country’s most underdeveloped tourist areas.

“It’s fantastic – a real nugget,” he enthuses, with the experience of earlier having been head of regeneration and development in york.

“The fells behind the site are dramatic, and anywhere else people would take your arm off for it.” Uncertainty and mixed local opinion still surround this Weardale area. But the county is working with regional development agency One North East to resolve an outcome for the site of the old cement works at Eastgate. Something positive is expected within 12 months.

Proposals have included small industry, eco-housing and a resort for health as well as extreme and winter sports, and general outdoor adventure. Thompson thinks local enthusiasm for some proposals may lag because not enough is known yet.

“Ideas being circulated work elsewhere,” Thompson says, “and discussion has intensified. I expect developer interest once confidence returns to the market. You could do lots more for tourism in the county without adverse impact.”

Weardale’s re-opened railway, driven by American enterprise and possibly to be partly underwritten by freight business, is expected to develop like the North york Moors line.

And, with roadbuilding unpopular at Whitehall, railways could also help people who may want to work outside the county for better prospects.

Besides two new projected rail halts, a Bishop Auckland upgrade and a new stop on the East Coast main line in East Durham, a general re-opening of the Leamside line would bring Nissan’s factory at Washington closer - and the Tyne Wear Metro at Heworth.

In the other direction, the proposed Tees Valley Metro could also be connected. It’s early yet to say how many of the 3,000 business start-ups in two-and-a-half years will survive long-term. But in deprived areas (former coal communities largely) a local enterprise growth initiative (Legi) is at work, and the voluntary sector continues to foster self-employment.

The council itself, which employs 23,000 (certain to shrink, surely, as public sector cuts bite) has about 190 jobs advertised at the moment and has taken on about 60 apprentices, mostly in neighbourhood services.

“We’ll have to see the impact of the recession, of course,” Thompson admits. “But there are bags of opportunities here for people who maybe never thought of starting their own business.”