Mike Hughes looks to the future of the town with Darlington Borough Council Leader Bill Dixon.
Darlington is a town whose future is built on connections. Just like the opening 190 years ago of the railway linking Stockton and Darlington put the town so firmly on the map for innovation, now commercial relationships, infrastructure and high-speed broadband have pushed it to the top of the list for investors and businesses.
The council has guided and overseen a root and branch transformation of strategy and outlook that has laid solid foundations for the future, and built the town’s reputation to attract the biggest companies with the most far-reaching plans.
Bill Dixon is a born and bred Darlington leader, and a councillor since 1979. His pride in the town’s history is matched only by his vision for its future. “Darlington has gone through a transition,” he says. “And a lot of that is a case of back to the future, with such a resurgence of skills at such landmark companies as Cummins and Whessoe that is symbolic of what the future holds for Darlington. Advanced manufacturing will always be a big part of Darlington, with managers who are really pushing their plants to provide the products we are famous for.
“We have so many firms that are embedded in the town and committed to it and their success draws others in across an endless range of sectors, with subsea being one of the newest, but already with a huge reputation worldwide.
“We will always have major businesses wanting to come to Darlington – they know the support is here because others have done it and succeeded. But it will always be important that we protect our community, because that is such an important factor. In reality it may not be the board of directors who have the final say on a company move, but the families who want to relocate here and be part of Darlington.
“We understand that someone with a corporate career will be told to go somewhere and they will go because that’s how you develop a career. A skilled workforce can be sourced locally or trained up here, but the critical mass of these companies, the very highly skilled technicians, will only go where it is best for their families.
“But it has to be all knitted together, with residential as the final connection. We don’t want people having to live in Darlington, we need them wanting to live here, and work here, rather than work and commute from somewhere else. Commuting doesn’t make for a holistic community.
“If you just let the housing sector rip, then you will get a complete mess, but we are able to manipulate the housing market in a good way, by providing homes at all sorts of levels and in some of our key areas.
“Prime residential land around the town is an integral part of the economic future of the borough, and the size of that borough means we are agile and more able to manage demand and supply. And the fact that our borders are shared with organisations like the health commission makes it all easier to plan and simplifies issues for businesses that might be looking at the area as a possible site for their workers.”
Protecting and developing facilities like the Civic Theatre and making sure the town and its surroundings stay as green as they are now are also vital components as Darlington builds a future for itself. Restoring the theatre to its original glory is part of a £7.8m project which includes the creation of a new café-bar and gallery, better disabled access and improvements to backstage areas, which will allow the theatre to accommodate even larger shows and bigger names. And it is the people who will be at the centre of this project, with a Darlington Civic Theatre Foundation fund being run by the County Durham Community Foundation to ensure it makes a real difference to supporters near and far.
“The other essential elements of continued growth are our schools and shops. We have always had outstanding schools that have been among the very top performers and we will always make sure we have the right range of shops – and the ones we don’t have in the town centre will always be within commuting distance.
“We’ve seen the value of a cluster effect with the range of food destinations we can offer. When one comes they all come in and now people can go to the likes of Duke Street for a meal and just take their pick when they get there. There will always be something to like.
“And while they are there we have well above the national average for small independent shops surrounding them and we have the covered market as well as the big supermarket brands.
“These all add up to a huge pull for incoming industries. We want to continue to be a place where workers who may be passing through on a contract will want to stay because it offers a quality of life that is missing in so many towns.
“For us, economic development is about more than only building roads and factories. It is about the whole package and we work hard to get that mix right because if that holistic package isn’t there then people will go elsewhere.”
That continuing influx of businesses is the lifeblood of regional towns and Darlington’s future lies in keeping that flow coming in as well as staying close to the home-grown SMEs. They need a base in the town but they also need to be able to swiftly build relationships to give them the chance to expand and pump money back into Darlington’s Economy.
“We won’t just look at the big guys,” says Bill. “The philosophy is to get alongside our businesses in the good times and then be in a position to get ahead of the curve with them if they are struggling. We will continually lean on anyone we can to leverage support for our firms and help steer them through a labyrinth of options.”
Bill and the council understand the needs of those smaller businesses. They know they need to be fast-tracked because their businesses are vulnerable in their early stages.
“There is no point in sending them glossy brochures about the sales potential at a Munich festival, they just can’t afford the time away from their business. Many SMEs around here have never sold a product outside the area and often aren’t trained in the techniques of selling or exporting, so we should just give them a box – pure and simple.
“Tell them to put their product in the box along with a 4,000-word description and we will take it to Munich for them. They can stay and make their widgets and we will help sell them.
“Helping SMEs can be easier than some people make it look – and Darlington is in a position to rethink how it’s done.”
The connection between all these factors is what gives Darlington its advantage and gives it the pulling power to bring in such game-changing national projects as the £38m National Biologics Manufacturing Centre. The connection goes right back to the men who built the railways, through the long established Darlington companies, to the new business start-ups all around the town and then to the national projects that want to come here.
Each of those needs the other in the matrix and together they will grow in Darlington and as they do they will add another strata to those foundations and others will build on that and the next generation of Darlington development is created, as Bill explains. “The Biologics Centre proves how far Darlington manufacturing and engineering has come and where its future may well be, because the big change will come when they start to spin out the SMEs from the new technology.
“There will be a lot of future benefit, because it will be about biologically-based tailored medications. Within a couple of years every child will be able to get his or her DNA mapped for just a few pounds and you will then have the possibility of medicine personal to each patient.
“The council has to be in a position to take advantage of these new industries and have the capacity to move fast and offer them a home and all the support they need.
“Our planning for the future of the town means we have to be able to bring onstream land around Darlington faster than we might have intended. We have always maintained a strategic landbank, which means there are sizeable chunks of land that could house the really high-end SMEs that will be coming out of that biologics sector.
“Often these new firms will set up anywhere from 5 miles to 25 miles away. But we don’t want them 25 miles away – we want them in the town so we will always be ready to move fast. We will find a way to help any new businesses or new sectors - that’s what we do in Darlington. Any company that comes remotely near us, we will be there for them with a very focused council team who will go after the business and grab it. Very little gets away from us. Hitachi has already seen the benefits of the area. The name brings out great emotions in Darlington. Its huge effect on the regional economy is literally close enough to touch, with its boundary fence in Newton Aycliffe being on the same line as the town’s boundary. And what it is making couldn’t be more evocative of this town’s pride and history – trains are back and Darlington will play its part in restoring a legendary sector in this region.
“A significant part of their skilled workforce will come from within the valley and our own engineering companies see it as a huge advantage because it makes the area even more of an attraction for that kind of work,” says Bill.
“This is the great attraction of developments along the scale of Hitachi – they create a cluster that stretches from screwdrivers to advanced engineering and that drives the skills development in those sectors as well.
“We would expect our colleges to pull together, rather than compete against each other, to be recognised for our centres of excellence, guaranteeing a strong future by working in a collegiate way.
“I really believe the aspirations of the town are limitless. We won’t let it grow into something that is ‘neither nowt nor summat’. The last five years have been hectic, but transformational, with the private sector working with us to keep that Darlington spirit alive and thriving.”
That spirit is embodied in the Ingenious Darlington initiative, a cross-section of people and organisations who do not pull their punches in fighting alongside the council. They say “that same imaginative spirit, blind to reason, which allowed a small group of railway-men and women to kick-start modernity, is still alive and well.”
With Bill and the council backing businesses every step of the way for the future prospects of a 100,000-plus population, those people who might ask about Darlington ‘is that near Newcastle or Manchester?’ will soon get the message like the rest of the country. We don’t need to be ‘near’ anywhere else. This is Darlington, building on a peerless heritage and a thriving reputation to create an exciting and limitless future.