Follow the leader

Rob Charlton, CEO of built environment specialists Space Group, shares his thoughts about the future development of the North East, and its quest for leadership.

The development and sustainability of the North East continually weighs on my mind. Those of us who live here know it has so much to offer, however we also need to have a clear direction and ‘brand’ for future generations. Our region has been built on industry and invention though we seem to be struggling at finding a ‘raison d'être’ at present. How do we resolve this issue?

One hypothesis is the current lack of leadership in the region. If we look back in time our successes have been built upon fantastic vision and command. Take the impact which Lord Armstrong had on the region but also the legacy he left. He developed a piece of machinery and from there thousands of people supported his vision. We have since been left with a number of stunning legacies and regional landmarks – Jesmond Dene, Newcastle University Armstrong Building, Bamburgh Castle – the list goes on.

We also had Robert and George Stephenson who paved the way with railway engineering. Even today the Stephenson Quarter is at the heart of Newcastle city centre’s renaissance.

T. Dan Smith was a visionary but one who was surrounded by controversy throughout his political career. Despite this he left a fantastic concrete legacy and thanks to him today we have an outstanding Civic Centre and the Tyne and Wear Metro system.

More recently we have had David Goldman, Graeme Wylie and Paul Walker who built Sage to be the largest software business in the UK.

With Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson we had someone to believe in and follow. If Kevin Keegan said jump off a high building most of us probably would have. The current challenges at the club are because there is no individual to follow or believe in. The business infrastructure which Mike Ashley has put in place is not about leadership or vision, but risk and management.

We need leadership in the region and currently we just don't have it. Our politicians are incredibly parochial by their very nature – there is no vision, only politics.

The North East has a charismatic leader in Steven Kelly, the new CEO at Sage. I'm sure he could do the job however he is not native to the North East and I would anticipate he would move on in a few years for new challenges.

There is the North East LEP. Bob Paton from Accenture has come in on a temporary basis and is a passionate individual. I'm sure he will do well for the duration of his post, though I suspect much of his time will be spent managing politics rather than setting a vision and helping everyone achieve it.

To see what leadership and vision can be achieved we need only to look at Manchester. Sir Howard Bernstein has pushed that city and the wider region over recent decades to make it the centre of the Northern Powerhouse.

On the subject of which, we need to get realistic; the Northern Powerhouse has nothing to do with the North East. Indeed, the Summer Budget made no reference whatsoever to our region; this is about Manchester spreading west to Liverpool and east to Leeds. The North East will be on such a fringe that we will see no benefit.

Productivity in the UK seems to be high on the Government’s agenda. This has long been an issue of mine. Just because everyone has a job it doesn't mean they are productive. Too many of our young people end up selling trainers!

We can’t magic a leader out of thin air for the region but we need to keep our minds open to see if there is anyone suitable out there. We need to embrace a vision and get behind it. It needs to be simple and unique and one we can deliver on consistently – only then will the North East compete.

Currently we seem to be scared to lead and are too accepting of help from others.

We have a history of leading the world. Let's remember that and do it again.