Stewart Watkins, the first chief of newly created Business Durham, talks to Peter Jackson about a career spanning much of the UK's post war economic history.
STEWART Watkins is Welsh. In fact, he’s so Welsh that when we meet in his Durham office he sports a paper daffodil in his button hole.
”I think it’s for Marie Curie or something, but the main thing is that it’s a daffodil,” he jokes and then goes on to crow about Wales success in rugby union’s Six Nations grand slam the previous weekend.
He has lived and worked in the North East for more than 30 years, but retains a pleasing Welsh lilt, which is even more pleasing when frequently interrupted by deep laughter and throaty chuckles.
He is not, it is apparent, a man who takes life too seriously.
Born 63 years ago and brought up in Ebbw Vale, in the heart of industrial Wales, he left school at 16 “with no qualifications whatsoever” and started work as a production apprentice at the local steel works, which employed some 12,000 people.
“On my first day, I was taken in by a neighbour and we walked between two slab reheating furnaces and I thought that I had probably died and gone to hell.
“There were flames coming out of the furnaces, there was hot slag dripping out, there was steam, we were walking over a grid gangway, so you could see all that was happening below and it was noisy, dirty smelly, it was just a dreadful place.”
The environment was compensated for by the camaraderie among the workforce and, fortunately for him, his employers sent its trainees to a local further education college, where he gained City & Guild certificates.
Then, aged 21, he joined the industrial engineering department, working all over the plant for the next five years.
This set him climbing a ladder of self-improvement that he attributes partly to his own interests and partly to serendipity.
“I’d always found science and technology, even metalwork and woodwork, quite interesting and British Steel would have sent its apprentices on the training courses for the training levy they received.”
In 1970 came an opportunity that was to have a fundamental influence on him. He saw an ad in the works paper which said something on the lines of: “Wanted: steelworkers to travel the world”.
It invited applications for Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship and Watkins was one of a small group who were accepted. This allowed him to go on a three-month tour of the US studying steel production and work study techniques.
This was a time when America was culturally dominant, particularly among the young, yet travel to the US from Europe remained beyond the means or imagination of most.
For a 22-year-old from the Welsh valleys who had never been abroad this was a huge adventure.
“Looking back on it, so much of it was just good luck, being in the right place at the right time and getting some good advice from senior people. The arrangements were all left to me, I had to contact the US steel works, ask for permission to visit, and ask for a host. It was a very formative experience, three months on my own.
“I visited at least a dozen plants from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. I saw a great deal of the States and had lots of really interesting conversations with people who had been in steel a long time. It was just an amazing opportunity.
“I could talk about that trip for hours,” he says, and adds, laughing, “but some of it wouldn’t be printable.”
Perhaps through what he learned on the trip, he could see on his return that “the demise of Ebbw Vale Steel Works was on the cards”.
It could not compete for efficiency with the Germans or the Japanese.
Watkins started going to night school and did O and A-level economics and an Ordinary National Certificate in sciences.
“There was no plan,” he explains. “I wasn’t ambitious to become the general manager because that was just beyond grasping, you couldn’t do that, you might as well try to fly to the moon.
“But then someone at the works education department said, you’ve got this far, why not go on to do a degree?
“This again was a revelation. Lads from the shop floor at Ebbw Vale Steel Works don’t do degrees, but I said, yeah, okay, why not.”
So, even though he was by then married with a young son, he left British Steel and, starting in 1974, travelled to Cardiff every day to do an economics degree.
“Three years later I graduated with a 2:2 in economics, and was unemployed.”
But he got a job on a research project with Mid Glamorgan County Council into the county’s industrial structure and encouraging trading between local businesses.
When the one-year contract came to an end, he applied for a job with Durham County Council as an assistant industrial officer.
He started in 1978 “and I’ve been here ever since”, earning an insider’s view of a series of roller coaster transformations in the county’s economic fortunes.
At that time the council owned nine, almost empty, industrial estates and was facing the gradual closure, through exhaustion, of the county’s coal mines. More dramatically, and only two years after Watkins’ arrival, Consett Steel Works closed, an affecting experience for a former steel man.
“I don’t want to sound corny about it, but it was quite emotional. I’d seen the effects of the run down of the Ebbw Vale Steel Works but it was still operating.
“Here, we had the complete closure and one Friday afternoon, 3,500 – mostly men – walked out the gates and that was it, the works was closed and Consett was devastated.”
Within a few months, Ransom Hoffman Pollard closed its ball bearing factory nearby, putting another 1,500 out of work.
Watkins worked with a government-sponsored task force to build Consett Number 1 Industrial Estate to bring in businesses that could provide jobs quickly.
“There are some notable businesses that are still here today as a result of those efforts back in the early 1980s. For example, Derwent Valley Foods is still making Phileas Fogg branded products.”
But, elsewhere in the county the redundancies rolled on as the old heavy industries went inexorably to the wall: in 1984 Shildon Wagon Works closed, putting another 2,500 men out of work in South West Durham.
The county council responded by building industrial estates, and giving grants and loans to businesses in a bid to create a new and more diverse economy.
“The county council had a grant fund which peaked at over £1m and we were giving out 200 grants per annum to businesses that were creating 2,000 jobs per annum.
“By 1986 official unemployment in County Durham was 19.6% and these numbers are engraved on my memory, but we knew that the unofficial figures, in various small towns and villages throughout the county, male unemployment was much, much higher than that.”
In response, the council set up the County Durham Development Company, CDDC, whose primary role was to attract inward investment and over the next decade, it enjoyed considerable success with companies such as Fujitsu, Sanyo, SMK and other Japanese and US companies coming in.
Sadly, this was not to mark the end of County Durham’s economic woes. In the mid-1990s, increasing globalisation saw manufacturers move operations offshore.
“We had achieved our ambition of being no longer reliant on heavy industry, we had developed a diverse manufacturing base but, in turn, we were now the victims of our own success we were subject to the winds of change blowing through the global economy. Again, I spent a lot of time in the 1990s sitting on task forces and response groups in response to closures at Electrolux, LG Philips, Mattel Fisher Price, and all over the county major international companies were making 500, 600, 700 jobs redundant at a time, so again, the county found itself going through a very difficult period.”
In response to these problems and the UK manufacturing’s vulnerability, the Government adopted the knowledge economy agenda which, in Durham, took the form of NETPark, the high tech and science business park set up under CDDC’s stewardship near Sedgefield and inspired by the Research Triangle Park in Durham North Carolina.
“For a long time, there had been some criticism of bringing in companies from outside which then left the area when the grants had gone, a theory that I’ve never subscribed to. I can understand why people might see it that way but I don’t think it’s particularly accurate. The contrary view was that we should be helping local people to start up local businesses, which has always been difficult to do in enough quantity to make the difference required to the economy, but using the science and technology base and Durham University and its spin-out companies we could help to drive forward the technology agenda.”
This policy, he believes, has been vindicated by such success stories as Kromek and the Printable Electronics Technology Centre, PETEC.