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Trump card at centre of bid for education jobs
IT was a showing of true unity and strength. Beneath leaden skies and amid a deepening sense of gloom, defiant staff at Mowden Hall, in Darlington, poured in their hundreds from offices to plead for understanding from the Government.
The banners symbolised a resolution to fight to keep the 480 posts in Darlington.
The message was simple: “We don’t want to go anywhere.”
The Department for Education is understood to be looking at about 50 possible locations for Mowden Hall staff.
Although it has yet to commit to any sites, it is clear Darlington must sell itself to convince Government bosses to keep the jobs in the town.
It has been estimated that Mowden Hall workers are worth £21m a year to Darlington’s economy – money that would be lost if the offices were moved to Newcastle.
A potential lifeline has been found at Lingfield Point Business Park, which is launching its Rocket building aimed at housing the existing Mowden Hall department.
Ministers have yet to offer a firm alternative to Mowden Hall, deemed too expensive to repair, and the Rocket is capable of housing up to 800 staff in an 80,000sq ft space.
Such a move would ease the pressure on workers, who fear a move to Newcastle will be costly.
Any Government move away from Darlington would be a bitter blow to the area’s economy, still buoyant after Japanese manufacturer Hitachi confirmed it would create 730 jobs only a few miles away in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.
The company will start building a £4.5bn order of next generation high-speed intercity trains in 2015.
Yet despite Lingfield Point’s prominent position as a potential destination for Mowden Hall staff, business leaders have warned Darlington must present a wider platform to keep its existing businesses and attract new companies.
Stewart Watkins, managing director of Business Durham, has overseen the growth of North-East Technology Park, in Sedgefield, County Durham, and says Darlington must look to constantly raise its game if it wants to present itself as a viable business base.
Mr Watkins leads a team working with new firms and existing companies to attract inward investment to the region and boost the local economy.
He says: “We live in a vibrant area and have the fine manufacturing heritage, but companies always want the basics, which you need to provide for solid inward investment.
“You need a good range of properties, which fit the criteria of any business, but you also need a blend of skills and breadth of skilled workers.
“The North- East also has cultural benefits – there is always a lot going on which makes for a vibrant economy.
“The Hitachi deal is a huge fillip for the North-East, and the message to other companies is if the area is good enough for them, it can be good enough for you. That is a very simplistic way of putting it, but it is a clear example of what this area can achieve. But it is never an easy process, because you are competing with the rest of the country and each area has certain strengths.”
He confirmed the North-East had seen a rise in investment, and says that presents a clear sign it is now well respected by large companies. He says: “The pipeline for inward investment is much more improved than it has been for quite some time, which is obviously good news for the North- East.
“The process of bringing companies to any region can sometimes be prolonged, but in the past year, the inward investment market seems to have picked up.
“I am an optimist and the economy is slowly but surely turning for the better.”
The Government will reveal its decision on a final location for Mowden Hall workers later this year.
However, council leaders and Darlington MP Jenny Chapman continue to sound out potential new homes for Mowden Hall staff, which also include Northgate House, in Darlington.
Lingfield Point, run by property development company Marchday, has transformed buildings at the former Paton and Baldwins wool factory, as well as the Rothman’s cigarette manufacturing plant, into office and leisure space housing dozens of firms.
John Orchard, managing director of Marchday, said it was keen to take the Department for Education staff and retain their posts in Darlington.
He said: “We would be able to house the staff in Rocket, but all the options must be presented on their merits and we want to work together for the benefit of Darlington.
“This is an exemplar scheme here at Lingfield Point and is Darlington’s trump card.
“It is such a unique development for the town and has been shaped around the public sector services to give them what they want and make it easy for them to carry out their work.”
Mr Orchard, originally from Essex, agrees Darlington must promote itself as an attractive destination for businesses, with Lingfield Point a catalyst for that.
He said: “Attracting investment is an extremely tough process and it is difficult when you are dealing with a public sector organisation to speak to the people you need to.
“The important factors always come down to the buildings that are on offer, a skilled workforce and the price.
“Darlington has those things and the town is also really well served by road and rail.
“But the town also has Lingfield Point, which already has public sector workers on site and is tailor-made for their requirements.
“That is what makes it Darlington’s trump card, Durham and Newcastle don’t have anything like it and it ticks so many of the boxes on the Government’s wish list and offers positives for other companies looking at future investment too.
“These jobs are core jobs for Darlington, these people have worked in the town for decades and the town cannot afford to lose them.
“We must work together to get this right and do what we can to keep the jobs here – that is in everyone’s interests.”