Edward Twiddy has swapped life at the heart of government for the role of spearheading the North East's economic recovery. He tells Adrian Pearson that he's relishing the challenge.
FIRST, let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way. Edward Twiddy has twice worked in Iraq, tasked with rebuilding a country gripped by internal divisions. Now, as chief executive of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, he is responsible for getting Sunderland and Newcastle to work together.
The pressures of his latest role, bringing with it an uncertainty over what counts as success in the changing landscape of regional policy, may seem a far cry from his previous roles, but they all follow from a key piece of advice.
“I remember what Gus said to me still,” Twiddy says, referring to Gus O’Donnell, the former highest-ranking official in the civil service. “You have to get out to get up.”
That need for a new challenge will serve him well in the North East. Twiddy returns to the region of his university years with a wife and two children. This, he says, is only part of what brought him back from his previous role working inside the Treasury.
“I came here for the professional challenge, but also because it is a brilliant part of the world to bring up my children,” the 42-year-old explained.
“I have very fond memories of being a student in Durham. I certainly don’t feel it is a step down. I have greatly enjoyed myself at the centre of government and I just think in career terms it goes back to what Gus said, and you have to find the right moment to get out and do things.
“You can get back into the civil service, but I joined late, I have done other things and have tried to do jobs at the edge of the public sector, working with the private sector, to keep that challenge there.
“The decisions are still similar, the desire to do things well and be part of a well-functioning operation, that doesn’t change.
“The institution is barely started in some respects, that’s the bit that is most different, the starting something, getting it to stability, versus an institution that is some 200 years old, that is the biggest difference.”
And the economic challenges facing the North East, including the UK’s highest unemployment rate, are part of that challenge, Twiddy said.
“I have not chosen the easy option in my past life. I think the challenge here is part of the reason for coming, it is good to test yourself, to do something that pushes you.”
The challenge is as big as Twiddy makes it, with the chief executive readily admitting LEPs are what their members make them.
“There is a personal challenge to do the most with what we have, but for the LEP two years from now I’d hope to have shovel-ready schemes, to have reached into the heartland of the economy to have identified and be working on what those existing companies need and have clear vision of how we grow private enterprise.”
With his role setting Treasury regional policy, Twiddy will have seen over the years many of the requests from North East councils and MPs for funding and support. Indeed, he is in many ways one of the civil servants whose decisions this newspaper has repeatedly questioned.
Does he believe the region has a cap-in-hand mentality?
“It’s interesting really to have worked in private office and close to ministers and with local government and you can see no politician wants to be associated with bad news, you can see that results come from promoting from what is best about ourselves,” he said.
“So I don’t have a problem with cap-in-hand, you can go cap-in-hand if you have something positive to say, something positive to sell. And there are loads of examples of that here and loads of reasons why we have a positive North East message to promote.
“There are challenges but there are opportunities here. We are a net exporter, we can say to the rest of the country, you can learn something from us.”
Twiddy brings with him experience of dealing with, in Iraq, troubling situations. As he says, the politicians he currently has to deal with don’t bring their own guns, so he can perhaps relax a little.
Two separate stints out in Iraq, first as part of the fuel for food programme and then again as part of rebuilding efforts following Tony Blair’s Iraq war, shaped his sense of realism.
“The Iraq I went back to in 2003 was very different. I was not part of the coalition authority, I was the UK government’s person in a world before an embassy was created. The guy who succeeded me in my job became the first secretary in the UK embassy for oil. I was doing that kind of role for UK interests.
“I had wanted to go back, it is a beautiful country, but it was coincidence in many respects that I went there. I was working for Ruth Kelly, I had bits of a finance Bill to finish then I was off and away into this vary energising environment which in just a few weeks had gone very terribly wrong in security terms after the bombing of the IMF delegation.”
Twiddy met US mega-corporations, foreign delegations from around the world and with them helped rebuild an economy entirely built and controlled by the state.
Those sort of experiences are a world away from the one he know faces. Twiddy came back from Iraq in 2004 a stone and half lighter.
He kept the body armour, but he also brought back a sense of perspective. “I don’t tend to get flustered,” he says. Such skills will serve him well.