In the latest in a series of features assessing the county's economic performance, Peter Barron talks to business leaders about the growing momentum behind efforts to attract inward investment

WITH a global background in the private sector, Brian Archer is ideally placed to judge Durham’s standing as a place in which to do business.

Brian arrived in Durham with a fresh pair of eyes a year ago, taking over as managing director of Business Durham, Durham County Council’s highly successful economic development arm.

He’d been working as group commercial director at Leeds College and before that was business development director in a FTSE 250 company with a £5bn turnover and 130,000 staff across 30 countries.

It adds up to impressive experience and, in Durham, he sees a county which is punching above its weight, despite the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

“We are putting business at the heart of everything we do – and there is clear evidence that it’s paying off,” he says.

Despite the political turmoil surrounding the UK’s relationship with Europe, Durham has bucked the trend by attracting inward investment totalling £75m over the past 12 months.

“These are really exciting times for Durham,” says Brian. “The county is well placed to deal with a lot of the current uncertainty. We are seeing investment continuing and business growth. Occupation levels have held up really well and there is a lot of optimism out there.”

The proposals for the Aykley Heads site in the heart of Durham City – which address a previous shortage of high-quality office space and working parkland – are an exciting opportunity, with economic impact for the whole county.

The vision could generate up to 6,000 jobs and provide a £400m boost to the county.

The northern part of the site already hosts 40 businesses which together employ 1,300 staff.

These include Atom Bank, North East England Chamber of Commerce and Waterstons IT Consultancy, which will move to the site in January.

But while much of the attention may be focused on Aykley Heads, there is strength in depth at business locations across the county.

These include the £115m development of Integra 61 at Bowburn; a £153m expansion of the Aycliffe Business Park; the £20m Jade Enterprise Zone at Seaham; the further expansion of NetPark at Sedgefield, and the £100m investment in Project Genesis at Consett.

Brian is quick to stress that his team is making the most of what Durham has to offer to businesses: a strong transport infrastructure, world-class university, high-quality facilities and invaluable financial support.

He has also been impressed by the work ethic of the North-East people and believes it is a quality that makes this region stand out.

“Businesses tell us all the time that the workforce here is amazing and really differentiates the NorthEast from other parts of the country,” says Brian.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the culture and work ethic are really important. There is a can-do attitude here which makes it easy to do business in Durham.

“It’s helped to build up a lot of trust and goodwill.”

Business Durham, based at Salvus House, Aykley Heads, is determined to look to the future in partnership with the business community.

That philosophy is underpinned by an advisory board made up of senior business leaders from across the county, with Durham County Council leader Simon Henig in the chair.

Salvus House, which has become one of the region’s fastest growing Head Honcho, Gavin Sewell business hubs following a £3.5m investment, is also home to the recently-launched Durham City Incubator, a unique joint venture between Business Durham, Durham University and New College Durham to encourage higher growth in business startups and graduate spin-offs.

The incubator is open to businesses which have been trading for under 12 months and are based in County Durham.

Companies can tap into six months of intensive support designed to ensure they are ready for the next stage of growth, with training and advice ranging from financing and marketing to legal issues, business strategy and much more.

Each business owner is matched with a mentor and given support over six months. They will have the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded entrepreneurs and connect with investors.

Business owners also receive a start-up grant of £2,500 each and can take advantage of high-calibre workspace at a discounted rate, so there’s no wonder it’s taking off.

“The Durham City incubator has attracted huge interest very quickly,”

says Brian. “There are lots of students at the university running businesses on the side to help support themselves through their studies. Who knows where those business ideas might lead?”

Providing financial support to encourage businesses to come to the county is a vital part of the strategy.

Business Durham has had significant success in leveraging funds, including winning £1.25m from GovTech, a Government scheme operated on a competitive basis to enable the public sector to buy in expertise from the private sector.

Business Durham is also working hard to secure as much money as possible from Europe before the door closes, with £9m of bids for European funding which include a capital grants programme and support for start-ups.

Durham has certainly come a long way since the dark days surrounding the demise of its traditional industries such as coal mining.

Who would have thought back then that satellite technology would one day play an important part in the county’s economic fortunes, with countless everyday applications such as mapping river levels?

The space sector now accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product and, just last week, European satellites giant Eutelsat Communications signed a contract worth nearly £180m to build two new satellites in the UK.

A deal with Airbus Defence will see components and major parts for two new communications satellites assembled in the UK.

“It represents another major vote of confidence in the UK being a leader in the space industry and the county is now well placed to exploit that increasingly valuable sector,” says Brian.

Durham had the vision to invest in space and it is paying clear dividends, with businesses that have used the not-for-profit North East Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications at NETPark, near Sedgefield, winning more than £4m of investment in the past year alone.

With another three years of funding now secured for the centre, it’s yet another example of how Durham is aiming for the stars.

No wonder Brian Archer, with his fresh pair of eyes, is happy with Durham’s progress as a place to do business.

  • Contact Business Durham on 03000 261261 or visit businessdurham.co.uk. To find out more about the Durham City Incubator, or to apply, log on to dcincubator.co.uk