October 2, 2020
Congratulations on your appointment. Why did you decide to take on the North East LEP’s chairmanship?
I’ve lived, worked and studied in the North East, and even though I’ve had periods working in London and internationally, I’ve always come home. Throughout my career as a lawyer and in higher education, I have looked to establish a portfolio of non-exec directorships, which have been mainly focused on economic growth and regeneration in the North East. When I saw that Andrew Hodgson was standing down as chair at the LEP, I thought ‘what an amazing job’, but I never dreamt of applying. Then the phone started ringing. A number of North East business leaders – whose opinion I respect – said I should apply. The timing was perfect because I was about to stand down from my six-year term as chair of the board at the North East England Chamber of Commerce so I decided to put my hat in the ring. Fundamentally, I applied because I felt the role was about driving economic regeneration, growth and prosperity in a region that’s been so brilliant to my family and me.
You’ve taken up the position at an unprecedented time. What has been your perception of how the North East economy and its businesses and organisations have coped with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Undoubtedly, what’s happening will leave very deep scars and we will see some businesses fail. This is a tragedy and the LEP board can’t be naive about the harsh realities that surround us. However, I think the response by North East businesses has been amazing; pulling together, building partnerships and delivering solutions – all at a tremendous pace. Examples include universities opening up their labs to help the research needed to combat COVID-19, and fast-tracking the training of nurses to get them qualified and into the hospital wards; businesses offering their 3D printers to manufacture PPE equipment – to name but a few.
What do you think are the region’s most pressing issues – and what activity is needed at regional and national levels in the short term?
The main issues are keeping people in employment, supporting local businesses and collaborating to find solutions together. Also having a collective voice to speak to Government so that they understand what support is needed in the North East, and what solutions the region can offer the national economy.
The LEP was quick to establish the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group alongside the North of Tyne CA, NECA, CBI and other partners. Why was such a collective so important and what insights and activity has it achieved so far?
The mantra of the North East England Chamber of Commerce is ‘stronger together’ and I do believe that all the things I’ve seen succeed in my career have been because people have come together around a shared goal. The COVID-19 Economic Response Group has enabled us to move at pace and to achieve more, and it’s playing to everyone’s collective strengths. I see the LEP as leading where it needs to lead, but also enabling others to lead when they need to. That is genuine partnership working. It’s all about collaboration and finding that collective voice.
Your new role is centred around bringing together the public and private sectors, alongside the domains of education and charity, to deliver positive change for the region. How do you aim to maintain this and even strengthen it as you settle into your new position?
The North East LEP has a strong board of breadth and depth, which is supplemented by the wide range of skills and experience provided by the members of our advisory boards. They present the voices of the public sector, business, education and charity. We listen and we learn from one another.
More recently, the LEP has launched its #WeGoAgain campaign. Can you tell me a bit about what this represents – and to whom?
I wasn’t there at its inception but when I saw it, I was really excited because it felt like a call to arms. It was an encouragement to be confident about the future. We can’t be naive about the difficulties businesses and communities are facing, but we must go forward confidently. The #WeGoAgain campaign is very inspirational and it’s for a very broad audience. It’s not only for the LEP’s partners – which are creating the Recovery and Renewal deal – but for all our businesses and our communities. I think anyone who sees the #WeGoAgain film online will see a part of their life in there.
Phrases such as ‘fight back’, ‘hard work’, ‘determination’ and ‘resilience’ are used as part of the campaign. Why is it important to use such language?
That language was chosen very deliberately. It’s about recognising that COVID-19 has had an incredibly negative impact on our communities but the LEP has talked to those we serve, we acknowledge their struggles and we are here for them. I’m not frightened to use that bold language. It’s about being positive, confident, and putting our best foot forward.
Do you think, given the enormity of the challenges ahead, that North East businesses may have a tendency to talk themselves down?
The North East has resilience, a strong capability, entrepreneurship and grit. I don’t think as a community we talk ourselves down but I think, on occasion, especially when it comes to the Government agenda, that we haven’t talked ourselves up enough. The spirit that we want to imbue in the campaign film is very important to show that we’re ready to go again.
The campaign also highlights the need for a ‘greener plan’. How do you think the North East can contribute to a more sustainable recovery – and why is this important?
The Government is saying to us that having a greener economy is important and is asking how the North East can help? We have great assets to support the international energy agenda, particularly in offshore energy and subsea innovation and we’d be mad not to maximise these. But clean and green growth is about more than the energy sector and as a region, we need to look at all future developments and strategies with a green lens to ensure this is at the forefront of our planning.
What about the other strategically important areas of the LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) – digital, advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences, and energy?
Despite, the impacts of COVID-19, we have seen our areas of strategic importance thrive in the face of it – I believe that four years of digital adoption was achieved in three months, we’ve seen a huge commitment from SSE and Equinor, to locate their operations and maintenance base for Dogger Bank – that will be the world’s largest wind farm – on the Tyne and through our strengths in health and life sciences, we are contributing to the quest for a vaccine. We need to retain our commitment to these areas, so they can continue to thrive.
Given that this issue of North East Times has a focus on professional services, can I ask specifically about the priorities in this area too?
The Strategic Economic Plan has four strategic areas and underlying and supporting these are four service sectors – education, transport logistics, construction and financial and professional business services. Professional services are key to enabling economic growth and prosperity. We have sector strengths in the North East that we must maximise. If I look at the sector I have a background in – legal – we have very strong firms that are headquartered in the region as well as specialist expertise in niche areas of law, for example, the world of shipping, which is crucial to trade and international business.
You’re also the chair of trustees at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, so will know only too well the damaging impact COVID-19 has had to the region’s cultural environment. How much will a drive to rekindle the North East artistic sector form part of your role at the LEP?
James Ramsbotham [chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce] recently described the business sector as the heart and lungs of the region and the cultural sector as its soul and I agree with him wholeheartedly. I’m deeply troubled about the long-term survival of some of our key institutions in the city and the spirit and hope that these arts and cultural organisations bring to us. If I’ve been lobbied on one thing in the first weeks I’ve been LEP chair, it’s been around supporting culture and arts in the region and recognising the economic benefits of that sector.
You’ve been heavily involved in the North East LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan since its inception and have described the pandemic as having “taken us further away from [its] goals”. Do you believe the target to create 100,000 more and better jobs by 2024 is therefore achievable?
I’m going to give a confident answer – yes. We have to go forward feeling confident that we can overcome the setback that arrived six months ago. Before COVID-19, we were doing really well in achieving our targets to create new and better jobs. There were some important strategies in place, and they’re still there, and we know we can adapt and make them work again.
If we are further away from this goal, how can we make up the shortfall?
By creating new jobs in the sectors that have become stronger because of the opportunities that the current climate has brought us.
So those businesses that have taken the opportunity to be more innovative and have pivoted and developed their business in different ways. We need to get behind and support them.
How do you describe what ‘better’ jobs mean?
I interpret ‘better jobs’ not only in terms of higher salaries but as ‘good jobs’, by which I mean those created by businesses that have great training in place, who develop their staff, have career progression and are secure jobs.
What role will higher education play in ensuring better jobs for the region?
Universities have a really strong role to play here, developing talented graduates to work in our North East businesses, providing workforce training and development, delivering degree apprenticeships, playing a part in attracting new business to the region and crucially undertaking innovative research, which will help current businesses innovate and grow and create new businesses. We need to capture the imagination of the young people in the North East early about the amazing jobs in the region and the strength of the universities on our doorstep.
Do you think that message is getting through to young people?
The last six months have made people introspective. We’re all reflecting on what’s important in our lives. We’re asking – what do
I want to do? Where do I want to be? Who do I want to be and who do I want to be with? It’s the same with our younger people – and our students are reflecting on the qualities of the North East and the opportunities there are for them here.
Finally, what is your one message for the business community at present?
Keep focused, be confident and if there was ever a time for radical change and transformation, it’s now.
North East LEP