The North East LEP’s new helmsman

March 1, 2016

Well-known as one of the region’s leading business figures, Andrew Hodgson has become the new chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). Deborah Johnson speaks to him about the challenges ahead of devolution, the Northern Powerhouse, and in making the region’s voice heard

At such an unprecedented time for the North East as it ventures into the unknowns of the months ahead – with devolution moving ever closer and the region’s role within the Northern Powerhouse yet to be clearly defined – the need for strong leadership appears more important than ever. So against such a background, it is perhaps little wonder that the choice of Andrew Hodgson as the new chair of the North East LEP is such a popular one.

Encouraged by key public and business figures to make the step up from his previous role as vice chair, Andrew’s appointment has been hailed from all quarters.

As one of the North East’s most respected business figures – his ‘day job’ is chief executive of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) in Wallsend, the global leader in making underwater robotics – he is seen as an ideal candidate to rally the business community and encourage them to engage with negotiations for the devolution deal.

The recipient of three Queen’s Awards for Industry as well as an OBE for services to business, Andrew’s distinguished career has seen him named North East Business Executive of the Year, EY Entrepreneur of the Year and EEF’s UK Manufacturing Champion.

As chair of the LEP – succeeding Paul Woolston, who stood down last year after five years at the helm – Andrew has taken on the role at a crucial time for the region.

As well as the immediate concerns of devolution and working as part of the Northern Powerhouse, Andrew is outspoken in his views on the necessity of improving the region’s skills base, as well as changing deep-rooted attitudes about the North East and its capabilities.

Cumbrian-born Andrew is well-known as a passionate ambassador for the North East.

He comments: “I’ve been here for seven years but I’m not from here. I still spend a lot of time in the North West and I think with that perspective, you can get a clearer indication of some of our challenges.

“From inside the North East, there is all too often a difficulty in really seeing what we have here and in shouting about that. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with elsewhere and try and replicate what they have – the North East has many of its own successes and we don’t need to do that.”

Andrew continues: “With devolution, the business community is engaging very well, and is coming together as a group – or as near to one group as you’re ever going to get – to ensure our voice is heard. We are well positioned for devolution and business, together with the public and third sector, is working proactively towards it.

“Within the Northern Powerhouse, however, I do feel our voice needs to be heard to a greater degree. We cannot be subsumed in this debate. While a city like Manchester is a huge economic centre, we must make ourselves heard on an equal level.

“We are not a Manchester or Leeds, and we must remember what is distinct and unique about the North East. And we must ensure we get that across.”

The son of a steelworker, Andrew began his own career with British Steel, and continues to be a champion of the manufacturing industry.

“While the North East has fantastic strength in new industries, like digital and technology-based business, it is my firm belief that manufacturing is the future, as it has been the past,” says Andrew.

“Today’s manufacturing industry is, of course, different, but I think many people don’t realise that. For example, at SMD we actively recruit apprentices from the local area, but we find it a common problem that these young people’s families think there is no future in manufacturing. At SMD, we are a digital business, we use software and have a huge simulated environment. If we were based in California, alongside the likes of Google, doing the work we are doing, our reputation would be huge.

“There are certainly opportunities in the region – through the Strategic Economic Plan, we set a headline figure of creating 100,000 new and better jobs between 2014 and 2024. There have already been 20,000 new jobs created in the region within the last two years. It’s perhaps only when you reflect on these things you realise the existing achievements of the North East.”

With the devolution discussions ongoing, and that being the most immediate concern for Andrew in his new role, he is typically optimistic while being very realistic about what it means for the region: “We have got off to a very positive start, we are working proactively together, but there is a lot of work to be done. The opportunities for us are there for the taking – but we have to make sure we take them.”