In the name of progress
Sunday 16 January 2011 7:00
Teesside created a stir in many parts of the North East by its speed off the mark to form its own LEP. John Irwin, answers Brian Nicholls on how he sees its future.
First, what do you feel are achievements that Teesside can be most proud of over the past decade? Having watched Newcastle United beat Ujpest Dozsa in 1969, I found it a great achievement for the Boro to be the North East’s most successful football team for more than 30 years by winning the League Cup and reaching a European cup final. It’s also a great achievement to have survived the demise of BSC and ICI and, despite predictions of meltdown by informed and well-educated observers, to have adapted and thrived and retained strong petrochemical and heavy engineering industries of international importance. The reopening of the Redcar blast furnace later this year will be a huge confidence boost to the area – it’s an iconic feature of the area that founded the steel industry. As a governor at Teesside University, I have a vested interest in enjoying its successful transformation into the first modern university to become University of the Year in 2009.
What are the biggest factors impeding further commercial development? The lack of new commercial and industrial property in the future is a real problem for the region. At Storeys:ssp we believe a low level of demand, a general oversupply of often inadequate buildings, market values lower than the cost to build – together with very limited finance available for property – means speculative development is virtually nonexistent. It will take some time before this changes without direct help.
Is the Government’s decision to slash £18m out of the £60m Tees Valley Industrial Programme a major blow, or was it to be expected given that a reprieve to the steel industry looks likely? Very few actually believed the £60m was new money and available in the first place! While its loss is disappointing, it is generally believed the larger infrastructure projects proposed related to the heavy engineering and petrochemical process industries, which are important nationally and if necessary, funding can still be made available – perhaps through the Regional Growth Fund.
Are you optimistic that ongoing progress will be seen under the initiative of the new Teesside Local Enterprise Partnership? It seems, every 10 years or so, new initiatives come along without regard to what did and did not work before. Development corporations, enterprise zones, regeneration agencies, development agencies – now local enterprise partnerships. The LEPs, however, are different. They’re effectively penniless and powerless. While nominally they’re business led, their effectiveness will be largely determined by the enthusiasm of the local authorities. There remains a need – political spin notwithstanding – for sub-regional and regional leadership with a clear vision of the future and how to achieve it. This has to be shown by actions rather than words. The jury is out as to if, and how, the LEPs can provide that difference.
What will be the biggest obstacles, in your view, that the LEP will encounter? I think the expectation level from business as to what they can do. Irrespective of effort and remit, they’ll inevitably be judged by the previous regeneration and economic bodies, many of which were perceived to have over-promised and under-delivered, so there’s goodwill around for them. In these financially hard times, local authorities must be seen genuinely to be working together, delegating responsibilities, merging and sharing common services. It is now self-evident that on Teesside, we don’t need five of everything from the councils for such a relatively small and compact conurbation.
Do you think it likely and desirable that Teesside under the new regional development system should remain in close contact with the rest of the North East region? Teesside plays an important part in North East life. That the river-based industries, engineering and petrochemical processing are of national standing means Teesside is complementary rather than competitive to the rest of the North East – often not understood in the Tyne and Wear area. It’s as easy for Teessiders to go to Leeds and York as to Newcastle and Sunderland. The strong identity of the Teesside LEP will be crucial in helping the North East Economic Partnership (NEEP) to succeed, which in turn is vital to help the region stand up for itself in the future against fierce competition elsewhere in the North – especially in Leeds and Manchester areas.
How damaging is it to Teesside that its airport should be losing flights, passengers and revenue? Retaining Teesside’s airport is crucial to supporting the international based engineering and petrochemical process industries. It also, still, has great potential to develop as an air freight terminal alongside the growing success of Teesport. The owners did not help its progress by the confusing name change to Durham Tees Valley, which also alienated its home market. Teesside still is a worldwide renowned brand name within the engineering and petrochemical sectors. The failure of the name change and the self-inflicted damage is self evident to all who use it. It’s also another example of the importance of regional co-ordination – pertinent to the NEEP. I feel the region should never have had two airports, which are now both in the wrong locations with green fields, sheep and cows to the north of Newcastle and south of Teesside. One of the biggest regional strategic mistakes was not to develop Sunderland Airport, between the main conurbations and between the A19 and A1 and with good rail links – a huge missed opportunity born of parochial vision.
Do you think the trend is reversible? The trend is reversible but will be slow and painful with the predominance of Newcastle and the increasing investment at nearby Leeds Bradford. There needs to be strategic support for the freight terminal hub and essential business routes.
Does Teesside need a Metro rail system or will the recent government cash injection for bus transport meet future needs? I have consistently said the Tees Valley Metro always was unachievable and not needed. Proposed by Tees Valley Regeneration – with a vested interest to link their failing regeneration sites in the central core – the scheme ignored the new growing and successful business and residential areas such as Wynyard, Preston Farm, Ingleby Barwick, and Coulby Newham located on the urban fringes. Enhanced bus transport was always the way forward. Sadly, we lost too much time chasing impossible and unrealistic dreams.
Has Teesside disadvantaged itself nationally and internationally by adopting a variety of names over the years: ie, Teesside, Tees Valley, Cleveland? The Tees Valley brand was a local authority inspired justification for the 1996 reorganisation of local government. It is mainly ignored – apart from those connected with local government and in receipt of their money. Most businesses, like Storeys:ssp, retain the internationally-known brand Teesside. Sadly, it’s also an insult to those who studied geography; Teesside is within an estuary, as those from Hexham in the Tyne Valley, Bishop Auckland in the Wear Valley will testify and Barnard Castle will wonder about.
Is the region’s leisure sector sufficient for needs? The leisure sector reflects the demands and needs of its population. This in turn acknowledges that the North East has a small population and a large geographical area. I have no complaint about living in the North York Moors National Park and being close to so many others.
What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses in office, retail and factory/warehouse availability? There’s a fundamental conflict between the strengths and weaknesses in the market availability of office, retail and industrial property. One of the main strengths is the relatively low cost base compared to other regions. This, however, is also one of its weaknesses as it doesn’t stimulate or encourage speculative and bespoke high quality buildings. One of Storeys:ssp’s concerns with the demise of so many agencies is what will become of the physical assets of One North East regional development agency, which have been set up and accumulated to support vital sectors of the region’s economy and assist regeneration? This is further complicated by the fact that, because the North East property market is so diverse and specialist, it’s notoriously difficult to understand and interpret. Storeys:ssp has been able to maintain a Teesside office in Middlesbrough for more than 50 years for just that reason – and long may it remain so!