Edward Twiddy’s doubly on the move. He’s striding the long corridors of Whitehall between appointments as he describes to BQ over his mobile the prospects he sees for the North East, whose Local Enterprise Partnership he’s joining as its first director.
He’s serving notice as deputy director of Local Government and Regions at the Treasury in London, armed already with optimism about, and sound knowledge of, the area whose LEP he’ll spearhead in fostering and co-ordinating both enterprise and economic growth.
The North Eastern LEP (NELEP) will need clever co-ordination, to judge from its performance so far, and chairman Paul Woolston must be delighted that his own unquestionable skills of leadership are to be complemented by those of this 42-year-old former Stockton schoolboy and Durham University doctor of philosophy, who impresses with his frankness and humour.
In his 10 years at the Treasury and on secondment to the Foreign Office, Twiddy’s diverse responsibilities have included involvement in protecting the assets of individual companies during Northern Rock’s nationalisation.
Anyone expecting a Whitehall mandarin stereotype will be surprised. Twiddy’s a product of the occasional intake of recruits from the University of Life rather than the dedicated civil service career ladder.
He helped feed starving Kurds as they fled to the barren and bitterly cold wilds from Saddam Hussein’s bombs in Iraq, for example, and worked in bomb disposal there too. Looking to his new area of activity, he sees “unbounded potential”. He explains: “I envisage in the North East a renaissance in natural resource exploitation, fuelled by resource prices globally, by renewed interest in these issues, the fact we’re a strategic centre, and that we have, either buried under the ground, growing on the surface or blowing over us, all kinds of natural resources in demand.
“Also the North East knows how to export. It’s the country’s only net exporting region. It’s also a region with an output gap – a gulf between what it could and what it does produce. So growth is possible without pushing up costs. We can become competitive, taking advantage of a cheaper pound, low interest rates and the fact inflation’s starting to raise its ugly head in some other parts of the world.
“Those things together begin to make people looking for places to locate think: stable economy, stable places, strong workforces and a tradition of manufacturing and exporting. That gives us a strong sell not just in the UK and Europe, but around the world.
“I think we must recognise we’re going to be a branch economy predominantly. We’re going to have to be a UK or European arm of businesses headquartered elsewhere. But that’s probably the lot for most places around the world, as well as the UK. Headquartering will always be very mobile.
"We’ve got to think production, employment, adding value, and contributing to the prosperity and wealth of the region. This doesn’t require a headquarters.” Retaining the status of the region’s universities for their contribution is also a priority, in his view. And another factor, clearly, is one influencing him and his wife Helen to return to the North East.
“It’s a great place,” he says. “People want that. Some places aren’t so great. People want somewhere offering a night-time economy, a culture economy, one with recreation and real potential for them to raise their family and enjoy their lives in a rounded way.”
The Twiddys, who have two sons – one five in June, the other three in August – have their house on the market and have made an offer for a house in Durham City.
His overview of the North East prompts him to question whether the North/South divide is re-opening. He refers to a recent study in The Economist.
It showed, admittedly, that between 2000 and 2010, the North East was second only to Wales in showing the lowest GVA, or average individual’s contribution to the economy.
But the amount of growth in GVA over the same period, he observes, showed the North East “only a smidgin” below national average, against the like of West Midlands (5% below) and North West (3% below), with Scotland showing an “equally small smidgin” above national average.
He points out: “We have in this country the world centre for capital markets, which means a growth issue. Level is a different thing.
“The North East’s productivity level measured by GVA is too low. That’s something we must target, something the LEP is there to do. It’s there to create the entrepreneurial depth and spirit, and to be a landing pad for inward investors so that we can leapfrog other regions. We’re holding our place in the national averages, so I don’t think it’s all gloom and doom.”
Asked about NELEP having been slow to bid for growth funding, Twiddy replies: “I’m coming to make sure we’re at the front of the pack, not just in queuing for handouts.
That’s not really what we’re about, though of course we should make the most of every opportunity that central government presents.
“But we must be up front also in showing our determination to act as one, clear in our priorities. We’ve to be clear about economic prosperity’s role in every single person’s life in the region, whether they live on top of the Cheviots or in Hetton le Hole.”
NELEP is picking up on the fact that the Government wants people with the interests of their place in mind to run economic development, services and all kinds of things run before either by government agencies or by departments of central government.
“We’re going to do this for ourselves. So yes, we’ll be in the front and we’ll do it by strong governance, strong prioritisation, and by showing we can make the best choices for everyone in the North East.”
Does he consider that with the geographical North East now divided, LEP-wise, common ground will still exist, enabling the two LEPs to work together? “Absolutely. I know Tees Valley. I was brought up there. I know Stephen Catchpole, Sandy Anderson and others of the LEP there very well. I’ve done a lot concerning their Enterprise Zones in my present job.
“Teesside’s still one of Europe’s great process innovation hubs, having fabulous success getting its blast furnace back on its feet.” And, he adds, Teessiders are finding success in sectors other than manufacturing, and have things in common with Newcastle and Sunderland.
“There will be competition,” he agrees. “And yah, boo, sucks too – but that’s life, you know. It can happen everywhere. It happens in every committee.
“It’s about how you take that forward and present it externally. The best run organisations have those debates.
“Then they move on and create opportunities together. I don’t think it stops us sharing our ambitions with the rest of the country, or indeed with Scotland.” He sees a need to change the North East’s dynamic with Scotland.
“A bunch of companies is going to be looking very closely at devolution, and how the debate plays out. We’re involved with Scotland whether it’s, say, Narec at Blyth and its relations with establishments in Orkney or Clydeside, or whether it’s the process industries and their relations with Grangemouth. We’ll still have links. Then there’s the finance industry. All these are things to make the most of.” Twiddy acknowledges, however, spend per head tension between the North East and Scotland.
“That’s something the North East must continue to make its case for. It’s partly the reason I’m interested in my new role.
“It’s also part of the reason I was given the opportunity. I think it’s all about how we present ourselves, our arguments and opportunities to people in Whitehall who may feel the North East a bit too far to jump on a train and visit in a day.
“Let’s have our debate about what the North East contributes not just within the region, but right across the country.”
How does someone with obvious drive and ambition feel about leaving the Treasury employing 1,000 people to join an organisation possibly of 10 staff maximum?
Twiddy replies: “I run a team with direct responsibility for about £60bn of spending, and indirect responsibility for about another £90bn of spending. That team comprises nine people. I believe small is beautiful.
“I also run a charity reaching nationwide and into Ireland and the Continent. We do that with seven people. It’s all about the quality of people, and how you work. So we’ll be employing the best people we can and working very effectively, I hope.”
Appointments to date include Gillian Roll, former head of regional strategy at One North East who’ll be Twiddy’s deputy, and Helen Golightly, who’s been co-ordinator for economic development and planning at Newcastle City Council.
She’ll be responsible for Enterprise Zones and Growth Funding. Twiddy’s heartened by the backing to the LEP now from the relevant local authorities, and the access to resources being offered.
“The challenge now,” he suggests, “is how do we pick some winners and show real progress in the short term, then get people to get behind a single strategy and vision for the area?” The lure of the LEP for him is partly that much of his time in Whitehall has been at one end of delivering economic development.
“I feel it’s time to come back and put myself at the other end,” he says. There are personal reasons too. Mum and Dad, as he says, were married at Ponteland.
His mum’s family lived in Durham, Northumberland and Thirsk. Grandad worked for the Agricultural Advisory Service, restoring colliery sites to grassland.
His dad worked in agricultural chemicals at Urlay Nook. Twiddy himself was born in Reading in 1970 after his parents moved south. They moved back to Teesside when Twiddy was five.
“I know what it is to support Middlesbrough – wouldn’t say avidly, though! I remember Irving Nattress, David Armstrong and, for a couple of seasons, Graeme Souness.” Work took the family south again when he was 11. But he returned later to enter Durham University.
“I wanted to do geography and environmental science but I’m afraid,” he confesses, “my other great passion is fishing. The only decent uni with a salmon river running through the town is Durham. Exeter may claim also but it’s not really a decent uni.” After gaining his first degree, he researched for a couple of years then returned to Durham and a PhD. He worked for a couple years in spin-offs involving the Middle East and environment. He worked in Iraq with a Unicef team on the “awful” food deal.
In project planning and survey work he tried to plan the spend available to feed the refugee Kurds in the no-fly zone.
Following another UN job there, in mine clearance, he gained another degree, in public law.
“Just couldn’t get enough of it all,” he recalls. “Then I found myself going on holiday with a girl I’d known from Durham 10 years before. We looked at each other and thought: ‘Oh, this might work!’ She worked in London. I vowed I’d never work in London. Sometimes different parts of your body take over. I found myself in London looking for a job.”
The girl of course was Helen, and she looks forward to a return north now. Her mother, Carolyn Andrews, recently retired from her post in the education department of Sunderland University.
In his Treasury career Twiddy has worked on a European team, served in private office with former Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly, then in 2003-4 on secondment to the Foreign Office returned to Iraq.
He worked on tax policy, then corporate finance including the Northern Rock assignment. After a central government project he spent three years in the regional job he now leaves.
“The great thing about the Treasury,” he says, “is that it does everything, and everything must come through it, whether bank insurance or building bridges. Out of the 1,000 working there 600 or 700 are supporting key policy people.
"So actually it’s one of the smaller government departments and certainly one of the meanest in pay. No, it’s true! We recently produced a report on ourselves. It shows just how frugal we are.”