Waiting for Barry Dodd, chairman of the North Yorkshire LEP, to arrive for our lunch meeting at the restaurant at Swinton Park Hotel, I look out the window, notice a helicopter circling, and wonder if it’s him.
He later tells me that that he does in fact frequently fly his own helicopter, has on occasion flown it to Swinton Park before, only on this occasion he chose to come by car. The helicopter is really because his main business interest, GSM Group, the automotive engineering company he set up from scratch, now has four main units around the UK, none of which are in Yorkshire.
As he also explains, the company has come together through 15 acquisitions over the years, so there are actually plenty of branch offices that he does need to drop into. But the helicopter could also just as usefully be used in his job with the LEP.
Because the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership, to give it its full name, covers a vast area – everywhere from Skipton in the west to Scarborough on the coast.
And unlike the three other LEPs operating in the Yorkshire region, it doesn’t really have a city region – civil servants’ and economic planners’ favourite new buzzword – to hang itself around.
Dodd would be the first to admit that businesses in Scarborough probably don’t have much to do with businesses in York, a 40-mile drive away, let alone businesses further west. Some might see that as a weakness.
Dodd, however, insists the partnership is more one of similar economies, rather than distances. And it is an economy that, in the week that we are talking, has been given a big boost by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement.
In it the Chancellor promised £314m to upgrade the A1 between Leeming and Barton to a threelane highway, and announced that York would be allowed to share in the £50m fund the government is making available in its Super Connected Cities programme to deliver high speed broadband to key centres.
He also talked more about bringing LEPs like Dodd’s to the fore in decision making and allocating funds. For Dodd himself the statement was a great shot in the arm, as he admits that up until that point he still had not been convinced about the government’s real desire to support him in a role that, as a former board member of Yorkshire Forward, was asked to take on – he never put himself forward.
“Until that statement it was a case of back us or sack us,” he says. “Unless you give organisations the resources to be successful, it is very difficult to succeed.
"When I was on the Yorkshire Forward board, when you went to any discussion there was always an awful lot of money coming to the table so the discussions were very serious, whereas to date the money behind LEPs has not been substantial so they have not been taken seriously.
"But now the Chancellor has said that in the future the LEPs as representatives of business will be the front and centre of economic development. I am not sure what infrastructure and skills funds will be put through LEP, but it will be significant funds.”
As for the city region idea, Dodd can actually see that it has some merit. “City regions are an interesting concept,” he says, “and as I travel around the world I see they are prominent in other countries. Atlanta is a very successful one. So too is Dallas/Fort Worth, a region that wasn’t great at one time, but is now. What is interesting is that all of these places have a major international airport.”
But he is keen to stress that such city regions evolve themselves. “You can’t invent them,” he says. “They happen for a reason, and economic geography is not determined by any town boundaries.
“It is determined by the economics of the area. They will happen over a period of time. Successful city regions always grow.” This need for fluidity is one of the reasons why he is perfectly happy for parts of his LEP area – Craven, for example, and in particular the East Riding – to belong to other LEPs as well.
“The LEP on Humberside is doing something different to us, which is to concentrate on the Siemens development, an enterprise zone, and offshore wind. The East Riding hasn’t swapped sides, but if it is advantageous for businesses in that area to be in the other LEP, then they should be. It should not be about geographical boundaries, but about what works best for business. At the same time, the Leeds City Region and our LEP can exist independently and be still be complementary because they are very different economically.”
As for his LEP area, he sees a number of “seriously exciting projects” providing the immediate focus. The first is the York Potash Project, the £2bn potash mine that Sirius Minerals is hoping to develop in an environmentally sensitive way in the North York Moors.
“We are negotiating with them to reach an agreement to have 60% local content in construction of that mine,” he says. “That’s content in terms of value. We will then have the opportunity to attract people into the supply chain. We can use a rifle shot approach to attract potential suppliers.”
He dismisses arguments from some environmental campaigners that the main part of the York Potash plan that makes it seemingly environmentally friendly – an underground pipeline to carry the mined potash to Teesside to be shipped away – has never been tested before, and so isn’t workable.
“The argument about it not being tested before is technically correct,” he says, “but it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is perfectly normal to take ores of a different type, liquidise them and pump them through. The only reason why this hasn’t been done before is that there are not many potash mines in the world.”
Another favoured development is the Food and Environment Research Agency site outside York – not least, says Dodd, because there are some 55,000 people working in food manufacturing jobs in Yorkshire, many of them in his LEP’s area.
“We hope to turn some of that site into an innovation and enterprise zone,” he says, “not by asking for special dispensation from central government, but just by negotiating with the local authority to have simplified a planning agreement so that it is much easier to get businesses in there.
"There are already 600 scientists and 800 people working there. That business is capable of expanding and attracting inward investors by virtue of its scientific base. We are working with DEFRA to make that happen.”
The final specific area of focus he says is the carbon capture project the Drax power station and other bodies are working on to have the carbon it produces captured and pumped into storage caverns beneath the North Sea.
“Drax is another great opportunity for us,” he says, “and we are talking at highest level about how we put together a supply chain of services they need as they vastly expand their plant.”
He sees this as particularly important because the only existing pipeline he knows of which is currently carrying carbon off in such a way – a pipeline in Washington state – has proved to be a magnet for companies who want to use carbon. “This is another huge inward investment opportunity,” he says.
“There are all sorts of industrial processes where carbon is a benefit. That is why, while some people see this as a project really just to pipe the carbon out, I see it as a different opportunity entirely.”
Once again, he uses the “rifle shot” image to describe the way in which the LEP will go about attracting these companies. This, he says, is the new way of attracting inward investment. “If you are still going to an exhibition and putting up posters, then that is the old way,” he says.
“This is the new, more effective way to target specific industries who you already know will be interested in investing.”
But putting an emphasis on such projects is not to detract from the other issues that need addressing, he says. The first of those is tourism. “Tourism is obviously really important right across the patch,” he says.
“But we have to get our tourism businesses to be more innovative and service oriented, because future looks different to the past.”
Such businesses will be helped, he says, by the arrival of super fast broadband in the area – and the LEP can help in “designing the business support package”.
ourism businesses need to realise, he says, just how broadband could transform their business plan. “If you are a farm shop and you have visitors and you attract them to buy, there is no reason why their new favourite food can’t be sold to them via an internet shop when they go home to, say, Essex.
Wouldn’t it be great if all the farm shops could be online and retain their customer base? Obviously such an arrangement needs to be networked so a fulfilment service is put together. But that’s the kind of thing the LEP could help with too.”
The other area of concern is skills development. Dodd agrees that it is appalling that this subject seems to keep coming up again and again.
“I think it is because more and more kids have been pushed towards financial services rather than manufacturing, because that is seen as where you can make more money. Manufacturing has been out of favour with the government. But that is not the case now. People realise that an industrial economy like Germany is good.” He is not saying going into financial services is wrong. Such an assertion, in an area where Aviva and CPP are still major employers, would be rash.
“We need financial services,” he says, “but we also need a more balanced economy.”
That is why one thing the LEP is doing is trying to appoint a “business ambassador” from a local successful business for every school in its area who can go in and preach to the pupils the value of apprenticeships. You rather get the feeling that this project might be in its infancy, however, as when I ask him how many schools there are in such a vast area, he can only answer “lots”.
But he also believes the LEP has a role to play in teaching leadership skills to the higher than average number of SMEs in the area. So, given his Yorkshire Forward background, is he happy with the new set up? Does he not think Yorkshire would have been better off if the regional development agency had been retained? “Yorkshire Forward was too expensive and had grown too big,” he says.
“My preference would have been to cut it down to size, because there is always a delay when you set up new things, and the delay we had was exactly at the time when the economy was bombing.
“However, I have learned as an entrepreneur that in any set of circumstances there is an opportunity. You will always spot an opportunity, and that is what we have done. We are just like any other start-up company that I have done in my working life. We are a start-up business.
“And that also means we are learning. We don’t get everything right first time.” Then he adds a bit more, drily. “In the public sector generally nothing ever fails. In real life you need to know when to can things. With the LEPs now we have a way of working together as a public/private partnership that really works and is democratically accountable. It would be foolish to have any competition between public and private.”