THE economic downturn has created many challenges for the North East. The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) was formed to turn such challenges into opportunities, and create economic growth across Northumberland, Tyneside, Wearside and County Durham.
NELEP has a strong starting base. Our area has real growth potential, including being the only UK region with a positive balance of trade, as well as a widely-admired manufacturing and engineering heritage.
North East business expertise and experience in these and other sectors means that a number of our companies are already global leaders.
Our universities conduct internationally renowned research and are commended for their teaching – attracting thousands of overseas students to the North East every year.
Our voluntary and social enterprise sectors are increasingly innovative and involved in the delivery of key services.
And we must not fail to mention regional ambassadors such as Sage, Greggs and Virgin Money (formerly Northern Rock).
It is this sense of ambition and achievement that has galvanised private and public sector leaders to invest time and money in NELEP.
The argument is often made that the North East is suffering more than other areas as a result of the recession. Evidence pointed to includes higher levels of unemployment and greater numbers of redundancies than the national average, particularly within the public sector.
Recent high-profile closures of key regional employers, including Rio Tinto Alcan in Northumberland, further supports the view that the North East has disproportionately suffered as a result of the downturn and associated austerity measures.
Andrew Hodgson, vice chair of NELEP, said: “Undoubtedly the North East is facing a huge challenge in an increasingly competitive global environment, but we are in a very strong position to break through the barriers to economic growth. Our continued investment in skills for new industries will be a major element of our growth strategy.”
NELEP was formed in 2010. The nine private sector board members and chair, Paul Woolston of PricewaterhouseCoopers, were recruited in 2011 following a formal application process. The leaders and elected mayors of the seven partner local authorities and representatives of the region’s universities and colleges also sit on the NELEP board.
The board has stated its commitment to making the new partnership work, and have agreed four key priorities to guide their work. These include: supporting enterprise and private sector business growth; building on key economic strengths; improving skills and performance; and strengthening transport, connectivity and infrastructure.
Board members have been designated portfolios of work to champion. For example, Fiona Cruickshank, a former North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, leads on communications and marketing, while Jeremy Middleton of Middleton Enterprises leads on access to finance and taking forward the North East Enterprise Zone. The newly recruited team supporting the board in this work is headed by Edward Twiddy, formerly of HM Treasury.
NELEP has a number of tools at its disposal, but the most critical of all is the shared goals and good will of its board and partner organisations. The only frustration among regional partners is that the results will not be immediate.
NELEP director Edward Twiddy points out: “Inevitably, it will take time to make an impact. Ensuring businesses have access to finance, effective transport links and a highly skilled workforce is critical to our success and we need to put solid foundations in place. There are, however, some quick wins that will help to lay these foundations and demonstrate the direction we’re moving in – the Enterprise Zone is key to this.”
The Enterprise Zone covers sites across the North bank of the Tyne, Nissan and its surrounding area in Sunderland, and South East Northumberland, primarily around Narec (the National Renewable Energy Centre) in Blyth.
Tax and capital incentives will encourage companies in industries such as offshore wind and low-carbon vehicles to locate and grow within the zone. Vantec’s recent decision to invest in the site next to Nissan, creating 230 jobs, is one of the first examples in the country of companies investing within a newly designated Enterprise Zone.
A further tool available to NELEP is the Growing Places Fund. In the North East, seven projects have been selected for further work on due diligence.
NELEP chairman Paul Woolston said: “This is great news for the North East. We worked hard to win one of the largest amounts of Growing Places funds awarded to a region – over £25m – to kick-start projects which have been slowed by the recession.”
The Government also granted NELEP over £3m to take forward a Rural Growth Network (RGN) pilot in the region. The RGN will create hubs across rural parts of Northumberland, Durham and Gateshead with a goal of promoting enterprise.
NELEP is an incredibly ambitious partnership with a small staff. This will enable it to remain focused and visionary, delivering through its partner organisations. The Partnership is very clear that it is trying to do something different from what has gone before and what exists in other areas.
It will be an organisation that meets the needs of its partners, and ensures that the North Eastern area is the first to identify and maximise economic opportunities in the years ahead.
There are times when you have to stand up and realise that a well-made argument can win the day