Despite growing national economic uncertainty, Durham business leaders are redoubling their efforts to work together to promote the county as a place to invest. PETER BARRON reports

THE national picture may appear more uncertain than ever as the deadline for Brexit looms – but the contrast could hardly be greater in County Durham.

Against a backdrop of mounting national division, Durham business leaders have reaffirmed their determination to come together behind a common goal to showcase the county as a great place to invest.

Indeed, it is hard to remember a time when there was such a united front from the business community to bang the drum for a county which is bucking the national economic trend.

The figures speak for themselves: Durham has £3.4bn of planned investment, and statistics recently released by the Inform Direct Review of UK Company Formations – using data from Companies House and the Office for National Statistics – show that more new businesses were established in County Durham in 2018 than in any previous year. A total of 5,223 companies were registered in the county last year, bringing the total number up to 28,771 – a growth of 8.3 per cent.

However, business leaders and council officials insist they won’t be resting on their laurels and have spoken of their determination to build on the momentum in the wake of the success of a landmark summit in Durham City.

Atom Bank’s Chief Innovation Officer, Edward Twiddy, who was part of a panel of experts at the recent Regional Business Leaders’ Summit at the Radisson Blu hotel, is among those who are invigorated by Durham’s economic vision.

He is particularly passionate about the newly-launched Powered by People inward investment campaign which has been driven by businesses and puts local people at the heart of a movement to attract more jobs to the county.

When businesses were widely consulted about what made Durham so appealing for inward investment, a list of factors were put forward: excellent transport links, world-class heritage, an internationally-respected university, a can-do attitude from Durham County Council and Business Durham, excellent business locations and stunning countryside. But by far the most important ingredient was people – their resilience, flexibility, adaptability, positive work ethic, realism and sense of humour.

“Everybody in the room at the Business Leaders’ Summit had people at the forefront of their minds,” said Mr Twiddy. “Every meeting I go to, it’s about skills, skills, skills, and everyone came to hear about a new vision and a new way of describing a shared agenda. Without having vibrant, well-trained, energetic, committed and loyal people to employ, we wouldn’t be here.”

Atom Bank is just one of a growing number of companies happy to be staking its future in Durham. Based at Aykley Heads, the bank – launched in 2016 – already employs more than 350 people.

“Focussing on people is exactly what we should be doing,” added Mr Twiddy. “It has been a richness for us for centuries and it is still what gives us our distinctive appeal and sense of identity.”

Mr Twiddy believes people are even more critical as we face up to “the fourth industrial revolution”.

Atom is a digital bank, which might be considered remote, yet it has the country’s best Net Promoters Score, which gauges the loyalty of customer relationships. It also has the UK’s highest Trustpilot rating, based on customers recommending the bank to someone else.

“It is a technical solution, but it’s operated by people, the vast majority of whom live in the county and have gone through an exhaustive selection process and seven weeks of intensive training,” explained Mr Twiddy. “We are powered by people so we are committed to spending time on training and continuous improvement.”

Mr Twiddy was joined on the panel by Ivor Stolliday, Chair of Visit County Durham; Susan Bell, Chief Executive of Waterstons; Dawn Fairlamb, Vice Principal of New College Durham, and Jonathan Walker, Assistant Policy Director at the North East Chamber of Commerce, which also has its headquarters at Aykley Heads.

Mr Walker said: “What struck me was the depth of the quality of the businesses at the summit. They may not all have been household names, yet they are companies doing great, innovative things across the county and showing you can operate globally without having to locate elsewhere.

“The more we can speak with a single, unified voice about the economic opportunities in County Durham, the greater chance we have of being noticed on the international stage. The summit was certainly evidence of that.”

Ms Fairlamb added: “I’m delighted to have been part of such a positive and vibrant event which brought together so many businesses and leaders to focus on our local potential and collaborate for the future.

“At New College Durham we are passionate about supporting the local economy and celebrating local talent, and we always welcome the opportunity to hear from business to help us build the workforce of the future.”

Keynote speaker at the summit was Heidi Mottram, Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water –which has its headquarters in Durham – and Vice Chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

She called on businesses to shout about their successes, saying: “Our region is at the forefront of some of the biggest opportunities in the country, but one of the lessons we have to learn is to be more confident about what we do. Together we can be world class.”

Meanwhile, Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice Chancellor at Durham University, told the delegates at the summit that Britain had faced a ‘fundamental problem’ for 70 years in the form of a productivity gap with other European countries, the USA, Japan and Korea, and that that still needed to be addressed.

“We have to make our own future – we have to seize the day,” he said.

“It feels like we are doing that in County Durham by working together as businesses. The university is proud of our partnership with the county council, and things are really moving.”

Other speakers at the summit included Mauricio Armellini, the North East Agent for the Bank of England, and Brian Archer, Managing Director of Business Durham, who announced that the county has the biggest share of business growth in the North-East.

John Holmes, Managing Director of Langley Moor flooring contractor, Reprotec Group, was another business leader who was enthusiastic about the summit and the opportunities that lie ahead.

“It was a refreshingly positive and upbeat message about plans and developments in County Durham, especially in the present political climate,” he said. “The summit provided encouraging news of great opportunities for local businesses.

“Hopefully we, at Reprotec Group, a local company established for 30 years and serving all sectors, can capitalise on these opportunities to increase growth potential and local employment.”

Capitalising on the opportunities that have been created is exactly what Durham County Council leader, Cllr Simon Henig, wants to see.

Cllr Henig said: “There’s a huge amount of positivity around the county, with a number of game-changing developments that will transform the Durham economy for the future.

“We have always prioritised economic growth, but we now feel it is all coming together, even if there is this degree of national uncertainty. Let’s build on the great things that have been achieved so far by working together.”

Terry Collins, Durham County Council’s Chief Executive, added: “The summit demonstrated the collective power of having like-minded people in the same room, but what really matters is how they use the Powered by People campaign once they’ve gone back to their own workplaces. Once we get people here, the county sells itself. We just need to get the message out there and encourage people to come.

“What is happening is truly transformational, but we need to work together to maximise that opportunity,” said Mr Collins. “We now need to see the businesses themselves shaping what we do by adopting the campaign and sharing their own stories.”

The onus has been placed firmly on County Durham businesses to capitalise on the opportunities presented and to build on the momentum that is defying the uncertainty of the national picture.


The Northern Echo:

•An easy-to-use promotional toolkit is available at durhampoweredbypeople.co.uk or by calling 03000  261261;

•Social media templates can also be provided, along with ready-to-use copy for marketing and communications and headlines which show why Durham is great for business;

•The official marque, artwork and films can be added to company websites, intranets, brochures, emails and office walls;

•Businesses across Durham are urged to make the initiative their own by sharing their positive stories and backing them up with the hashtag #DurhamPoweredByPeople.


• The Aykley Heads scheme, which has the potential to create 6,000 jobs in the heart of Durham City;

• Milburngate – a £150m development of residential and commercial buildings in the centre of Durham;

• NETPark – The North East Technology Park at Sedgefield, which has a track record of working with high growth innovative businesses;

• A £200m investment in Auckland Castle at Bishop Auckland;

• The ‘overwhelming success’ of the Salvus House office complex and business incubator at Aykley Heads;

• Forrest Park, a £140m business park with more than 1.75 million sq.ft of accommodation that could create more than 3,000 jobs. Plans were recently submitted for this scheme.