John Cuthbert has an impressive business pedigree. He was a highly regarded chief executive of Northumbrian Water for almost nine years, chairman of the Northern Business Forum for more than four years and served on the board of the regional development authority One North East. He holds a couple of non-exec board positions, is a trust board member of the Sage Gateshead and was chair of governors of the Castle View Enterprise Academy. He has also been awarded an OBE.
So why take on the not undemanding role of chairing the Let’s Grow investment panel?
“It was something that came about when the economic situation was challenging and this was clearly an opportunity to try to have an input into some positive projects in businesses within the North East that might otherwise not have an opportunity to go ahead,’’ he says.
One of the strengths of the Let’s Grow programme has been its investment panel, made up a people from the worlds of business, academia and support organisations. Cuthbert says: “We’ve always been able to call upon a wide range of sectoral expertise so we have people there who are able to make a contribution with knowledge of particular sectors that the applications are coming through from.
“Our role is to do a first formal evaluation of a project application following the initial work done by the team at BE Group and, based on what’s presented to us, make a decision as to whether or not that particular project should be pushed through for formal appraisal with UNW.’’
So, are the meetings characterised by passionate debate? “There’s always healthy discussion,’’ he laughs. “Unsurprisingly you don’t always have everybody agreeing. What tends to happen is that people are swayed by the arguments made by those either passionately in favour or passionately against. As chairman I’ve avoided ever having to take a vote on an application, we’ve always managed to get to a position where we have reached consensus and all panel members have been happy to sign up to the final decision.’’
It is worth pointing out that for him and the panel members the only reward is the satisfaction of working for the good of the regional economy. “The panel members have volunteered to give up their time because they share the same sort of passion for a thriving economy here in the North East that I have,’’ he says. “I’m hugely grateful not just for the time that they give up but also for the care and attention they give in considering each of the applications.’’
That time, care and attention is reflected in the success of the programme which has exceeded its targets. The majority of applications have been successful and received grants. Cuthbert is particularly pleased by the variety of successful applications. “We’ve had a very wide range of business sectors and a good geographic spread covering the whole of the region. Clearly, we’ve had some hot spots as you would expect but there have been projects from right across the region.
“We’ve seen some quite small grant applications where it’s a small company operating in a particularly competitive environment, perhaps with not very many employees at the moment but with a project that would double the size of the business. Also, we’ve seen applications from much bigger organisations that are much more run-of-the-mill kind of projects for those kind of organisations.’’
He was pleasantly surprised that, even in the subdued economic climate post Lehman Brothers, there were such high quality projects in the North East. “I’ve been extremely pleased by the projects that have come forward,’’ he says. “You always have a slight doubt in your mind, the economic climate being what it has been and with everybody being perhaps a little more cautious than they might otherwise be. That always leaves you with a slight concern as to whether there’s enough going on out there, but that’s certainly not been a problem, we’ve had some really first class projects.’’
Perhaps a less tangible part of Let’s Grow’s success has been in lifting business’s spirits in the economic hard times? Cuthbert agrees. “Demoralised is probably too strong a word but people get downhearted reading about the difficulties businesses are going through with lay-offs and wages being held back. To get some of these positive stories out there hopefully demonstrates a bit of a can-do attitude and demonstrates to younger people that there are people out there creating jobs and creating opportunities for them.’’
He also hopes it sends a message to London and to central Government when it sees Let’s Grow’s impressive figures in terms of jobs created, private sector funding leveraged and numbers of businesses helped. “I think it would stand comparison to pretty much anything else that is happening anywhere else in the country and hopefully that’s a message that gets through to national politicians. It might upset a view which might have been prevalent in the past that they’d almost written the North East off but here are some numbers that say there are things happening in North East England.’’
It also strengthens the case for putting regional funding decisions in regional hands. “Government are to be applauded for setting up Let’s Grow and taking notice of representations that were made,’’ says Cuthbert. “It was even more positive that they passed the responsibility out to the region. If they had pulled that into the centre, I don’t think it would have been as successful. By drawing on the expertise of the region and including the voluntary input given by panel members they were giving it to people who actually understood what was going on in the region.
“We’ve also been able to be light on our feet when fast decision-making was needed to secure major investments.’’ The big question now is: what should be done when Let’s Grow comes to an end? Cuthbert believes the success of Let’s Grow should be made clear to policy makers.
“I believe we should be making a case to Government that they should consider very seriously whether or not there is an ongoing public sector involvement in terms of funding. It might not necessarily look the same as Let’s Grow but there’s enough evidence there that we can say to Government, `You have invested in North East England and you have got a return on that investment.’