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Build & Sustainability

Durham University Business School roundtable calls for region to take advantage of Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda

“Just as we were the first in steel, chemicals and shipbuilding, the North East is in the vanguard of a new industrial revolution. There is a golden opportunity. It is ours to lose.”

A group of council leaders, businesses and educationalists met at Durham University Business School to discuss how local government and business can work better together to deliver ‘levelling-up’ – or regional rebalancing – across the North, writes Mark Herbert.

The trigger for the meeting was a new and authoritative piece of research into the key issues facing local authorities around ‘levelling-up’, conducted by engineering consultancy Atkins, the business school and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP).

The debate, chaired by John Duns, director at North East Times Magazine, revealed shared objectives, the scale of the opportunity and a real appetite for the public, private and education sectors to work much more closely together for the benefit of the North East.

There was also an impatience to get on with the job of improving opportunities for all and, in this context, the role of the Government was widely debated.

The group also discussed the two key priorities from the research, and focused too on skills and transport.

However, perhaps the most impassioned discussion was about the need to sell the North East better.

As John Rayson, of Atkins, said: “We all have a role in building sustainable economic growth across the North.”

From merchant ships to railways – not forgetting the windscreen wiper

John Duns started by reminding the group of the contribution the region has historically made to the country.

For example, in 1850, while accounting for just five per cent of the population, the region produced 20 per cent of the country’s coal, 37 per cent of its coke, 38 per cent of its iron ore and 51 per cent of its merchant ships.

Not forgetting, too, its role in developing the railways and the electric light, and the little known fact that a local man invented the windscreen wiper 50 years later in 1908, following a rainswept journey back from that year’s FA Cup Final.

Trivia aside, 115 years later, the North East could be poised to make a further startling contribution as an engine for the green industrial revolution.

The hosting of the Government’s Green Trade and Investment Expo, in Gateshead, which included site tours of flagship green projects across the North East, was tangible proof of the region’s growing pre-eminence.

The role of the Government in regional rebalancing

Turning to the research, John Duns highlighted the fact there is widespread support for the principles behind regional rebalancing, and that the majority of local authority leaders say that progress has been made since the formation of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership eight years ago.

However, looking forward, only 24 per cent of local authority leaders in the North were confident of progress over the next five years.

In this context, the research identified a need for a more effective policy from the Government, and the group was asked what that needed to be.

Andy Kerr, head of economic development at Durham County Council, said: “We need consistency from the Government.

“Political turmoil, as we’ve had recently, leads to a proliferation of policies and knee-jerk activity, like the recent ten-day turnaround time we had to express interest in the new investment zones.

“Having consistency and a long-term view may be wishful thinking at a national level, but it would help tremendously at a local level.”

Matt Bratton, deputy director at CBI North East, said: “There was concern from my members that ‘levelling-up’ was disappearing from the narrative.

“There is more optimism under the new Prime Minister, but our membership is still not clear about the role of business.

“We want speed and stability, to get on with some quick wins and address the skills shortage.

“We would also like to unlock some of the red tape around transport and infrastructure.”

Chris Beck, director of clean growth and innovation at Tees Valley Combined Authority, said: “My message to the Government is, ‘Speed things up, not everything has to be perfect; it is about getting projects moving.’

“There is also a need to link things up like the skills agenda, growth and net-zero, and take a holistic view.

“Policy-wise, I won’t comment on issues like devolution, but from a business perspective, what I am interested in is fixing policies that block innovation.”

John Rayson, from Atkins, said: “We are encouraged to note the strong support from local authorities for the role that business can play at a local level, and that there is a strong appetite for working better together.

“Nationally, what is needed from the Government is a long-term commitment – this is essential if we are to create a platform for investors to come into the North.

“Creating sustainable economic growth needs a national commitment that transcends electoral cycles.”

Dr Ben Cantwell, innovation director at Sedgefield-based radiation-detection company Kromek Group, said: “I echo the comments on the need for consistency and to ‘get on with it’.

“I would also like procurement to be looked at more closely.

“A lot of funding goes down South, but we only get a trickle in the North.

“The Government could make a real impact on ‘levelling-up’ by using procurement as a lever without having to spend more money.”

Graham Robb, board member at South Tees Development Corporation, said: “The political confusion of the last few weeks has obscured the fact that the ‘levelling-up’ white paper is now at the committee stage in parliament, and likely to be law in April.

“There is a lot in it, a lot that can be done, and we should take advantage of it.

“I would also like to pay tribute to the five brave Labour councils who got together with the Tory administration to form the Tees Valley Combined Authority in 2016.

“That has helped drive the progress we are seeing on Teesside, and it is my hope this is replicated across the North in a more cogent way.”

Sarah Mulholland, deputy chief executive at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “We need political stability because businesses, institutions, citizens and local leaders have been hamstrung by the recent political turmoil.

“We have had four secretaries of state for ‘levelling-up’ – admittedly two were Michael Gove! – and it is very hard to drive the ‘levelling-up’ agenda without stability.

“If there was genuine devolution, then decisions would be faster, and money unlocked sooner.”

Professor Christos Tsinopoulos, a former professor at Durham University, said: “We need consistency.

“We also need to upskill and work closer with investors.

“And as someone who frequently travels from the North East to the Home Counties, the need for transport infrastructure investment is profound.”

Guy Currey, director at Invest North East, said: “We should not underestimate how massive the scale of the ‘levelling-up’ challenge is. And how hugely behind the North is.

“Any Government policy has to be long-term – it cannot change every few years.

“I know that is difficult, but a strong overarching regional policy really does need to be carried forward.”

Councillor Bob Cook, leader of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, said: “Along with capital investment for ‘levelling-up’, we also need clear policy direction and sustained funding to invest in our people and communities.

“We need to ensure we upskill our workforce so they have the education and skills to be a success in the new jobs that ‘levelling-up’ can bring.”

Professor Kieran Fernandes, of Durham University Business School, said: “Policy should be focused on a regional basis, as macro policies are not always effective to bring about a micro change.

“While some of this can be achieved via devolved administration, others must be co-ordinated centrally.”

Kieran Purvis, Durham University PhD student representative, said: “Rebalancing, or ‘levelling-up’, suggests a focus on the relative performance of the North East to other regions in the UK, the South and London in particular.

“Paul Graham’s essay, ‘How to be Silicone Valley’, implies the need for a strategy that accommodates the unique characteristics of a given region; and how this both makes it difficult to emulate more successful regions; but also the tantalising possibility of overtaking them.

“I’m certain that the ambition for this region, can and should, go above and beyond its relative performance to other parts of the UK, and that the role of the Government should simply be to empower it to do so.”

The skills gap  – how do we meet the challenge?

The discussion on skills was framed by one sobering point when Sarah reminded delegates that ten years ago a report suggested the key issues facing the North were skills and transport.

The Atkins research of 2022 has the same message.

Sarah’s view was that we will only get real change if mayors have real budgets, and it cannot be done from Westminster.

That triggered widespread discussion

Kieran Fernandes said: “We need a form of social contract between four players: policymakers, business, universities and citizens.

“Understanding the region is also important – you need to match and anchor skills to a region and the business models in the region.

“There is often a mismatch.”

Chris said: “To attract a high quality of person we have to have a family offer of skills.

“My big win would be big firms coming in; we want growth whatever the size.

“Our biggest issue as a region is that we don’t have global headquarters here.

He added: “What I would like to see is all the companies getting together and talking to the local authorities about the skills issue – and to do it once.

“It would be more effective, and you would save so much time and money in the process.”

John Rayson said: “What about the more deprived areas – how do we give them opportunity?

“The private sector has to get involved in disadvantaged communities to promote diversity of thought and experience, because everyone benefits.

“A lot more has to be done by companies which is meaningful in the social value space.”

Andy said: “Aspiration and knowing what jobs are out there is important.

“Also, don’t just talk about high-value jobs, have a range of jobs available.

“Building aspiration in young people is key.”

Ben said:  “It is hard for SMEs to define what skills are needed, unlike a larger company.

“But what we have done is to set up a cluster (North East Advanced Material Electronics – NEAME) which can help build a critical mass for skills and where people can move around to find something with similar skills requirements in the region.

“The next stage is how to explain to universities what we want.”

Guy said: “We should not underestimate how massive the scale of the ‘levelling-up’ challenge is.

“And how hugely behind the North is.

“Any Government policy has to be long-term – it cannot change every few years.

“I know that is difficult, but a strong overarching regional policy really does need to be carried forward.

“Skills is the biggest challenge we face, across all sectors – it is the number one issue.

“If we are going to rebalance, we will need high-quality jobs, which requires high levels of skills.”

Kieran Purvis said: “Are we fostering empowerment?

“Is ‘levelling-up’ coming from within, is it coming from above or externally?

“Things need to be self-generated.”

Graham said: “Maybe public authorities and universities need to think more radically?

“Can we encourage people to stay by offering to pay back some of their tuition fees?

Christos said: “How do we retain students around universities?”

Councillor Cook said: “Start when children are in primary school, not secondary.

“We need to inspire them with the different sorts of skills in the Tees Valley.

“And with graduates, we need to get people to come back.

“But to do that we have to have the jobs to come back to.”

The challenge of transport

Transport, like skills, was one of the priority areas identified in the research and has been a major issue across the North for decades.

HS2 coming to a satisfactory conclusion would be helpful to some, although it could be seen as a political virility symbol.

A major issue is the problem of getting workers to the site and there was a question as to what other technologies can be used to tackle transport.

Transport, like skills, is an area that the group agreed required further discussion, more than the two-hour limit allowed.

Selling the North East

A figure that emerged from the Green Expo was that there is €850 billion of investor money to be spent on net-zero.

The question is, ‘Where to invest?’

John Rayson pointed out that where investors can see visible projects and delivery happening in the next couple of years – as they did on the Green Expo tour of North East net-zero projects – then the investment is much more likely to follow.

Visibility across the North, a higher profile and net-zero were crucial.

Guy said: “Net-zero is so important for the North East as a means of attracting investment.

“There will be thousands of jobs created – offshore wind, electrification, clean energy.  You name it, we probably lead in it.”

Councillor Cook said: “All organisations up here find it difficult to get people to work up North.

“The perception may go back 50 years, to when it was smoke and chimneys, poor air quality, lots of petrochemicals.

“But once they come here, they love it.

“We have to sell it better.

“And there is more still to be done for people already here, by bringing in companies and good jobs and skills.”

John Rayson said: “There were 200 international investors at the Green Expo.

“The region and the Government, through the Department for International Trade, excelled in selling the region, but we have to keep the momentum and make investors aware of the viable projects and opportunities in the region.”

Sarah said: “I agree the North East is great, but we have to be frank about what holds us back.

“The interconnectivity of our cities is atrocious; problems need to be sorted out in an ambitious way  – Newcastle to Liverpool, three hours if you are lucky, two days if you are not.”

Guy said: “The challenge is getting people up here – but when they come up here, they are blown away with how much collaboration there is between businesses, universities and different agencies.

“There is so much to offer: skills availability, cost and availability of property, the loyalty and enthusiasm of staff.

“And not least for some sectors, the Geordie accent, which is always voted number one in terms of conveying honesty, reliability and friendliness.

“But there is the perception from some that we are peripheral up here.”

In conclusion

The energetic and constructive nature of the two-hour discussion demonstrated a strong willingness for the those in the room to work together.

The role of the Government, and the challenge of skills and transport, were well aired.

But perhaps the major theme to emerge, and upon which all were agreed, was the scale of the opportunity for the North East and the need to keep our profile high.

It was perhaps best expressed by Chris.

He said: “We sometimes risk talking ourselves down.

“We should talk about the economic regeneration we are going to achieve, and tell people this is a great part of the country to live and invest in.

“We have to continue to be positive, otherwise investment will drift off.

“Just as we were the first in steel, chemicals and shipbuilding, the North East is in the vanguard of a new industrial revolution.

There is a golden opportunity. It is ours to lose.”

A follow-up meeting is planned.


Roundtable attendees

John Rayson; Atkins

Chris Beck; director of clean growth and innovation, Tees Valley Combined Authority

Councillor Bob Cook; leader of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council

Matt Bratton; deputy director, CBI North East

Sarah Mulholland; deputy chief executive, Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Prof Kieran Fernandes; Durham University Business School

Prof Christos Tsinopoulos; formerly of Durham University

Graham Robb; board member, South Tees Development Corporation

Andy Kerr; head of economic development, Durham County Council

Kieran Purvis; PhD student university representative, Durham University

Dr Ben Cantwell; innovation director, Kromek Group

Guy Currey; director, Invest North East

John Duns; director, North East Times Magazine (chair)