A growing network of high-quality development sites, combined with a can-do attitude from a respected team of experts, is helping Durham buck the trend on inward investment. PETER BARRON reports

WITH 20 years of experience at the heart of the industrial property market, Richard Scott is in a prime position to assess Durham’s credentials as a place to do business.

His verdict is that a powerful mix of high-quality development sites and joined-up thinking at local government level puts the county ahead of the game when it comes to inward investment.

As a partner with commercial property consultants Cushman and Wakefield, Mr Scott concentrates on the industrial side of the business, based in Newcastle but covering a vast area from Northumberland to North Yorkshire.

He describes Business Durham, the economic development arm of Durham County Council, as “one of the best and most proactive teams” to deal with.

Business Durham manages a portfolio of business properties and excels in finding new or expanding businesses the right sites, including commercial office space, modern laboratories and industrial units.

“At present there’s a lot of uncertainty in the market due to the wider economic picture, but if there was a company with a live requirement to fulfil, I’d have no hesitation in putting them in front of Business Durham,” says Mr Scott. “They are willing to look at alternative ways of delivering development that other local authorities either won’t or can’t do.”

He laments a lack of quality, modern stock across the North-East but acknowledges that Durham has several emerging development sites which give the county a commercial advantage, whether it’s for an indigenous business aiming to grow or a company looking to relocate.

Mr Scott points to the recent announcement that a new globally-important tenant is coming to Integra 61, and is confident it will be the catalyst for further industrial activity.

In the recent past, Durham has been restricted by a lack of major development sites, but the county council’s vision of creating an extensive range of development locations capable of accommodating major industrial players is now paying off.

“It’s made a massive difference,” says Mr Scott.

“If another occupier wanted to build a million square feet facility, Durham now has the options to make it happen.

“Companies want to know whether there are sites available, if they have outline planning consent, if there’s a strong labour force and if the local authority can make it happen.

“Durham ticks all those boxes. It has a number of excellent business locations, less expensive occupation costs, a deep pool of labour and skills, and in Business Durham a team which will overcome hurdles and put in as many incentives as possible.”

Mr Scott was involved in the negotiations which recently saw Heather Mills revealing plans to reopen the former Walkers Crisps factory at Peterlee to produce a new range of vegan sausages and burgers for her food range, VBites.

“During the sale process Business Durham really helped us by outlining what support and incentives were available.”

Another business to benefit from the practical and financial support of Business Durham was insurance tech firm Honcho Markets Ltd (honcho), which relocated from Newcastle to Durham a year ago.

The company’s chief commercial officer, Frank Speight, is delighted to now be based at Salvus House, the award-winning office building and business incubator at Aykley Heads.

“We looked at other locations, but Durham was ideal,” he says. “Salvus House is modern, with good infrastructure, and is flexible in terms of enabling us to grow,” he says.

Being a ten-minute walk from an East Coast Mainline railway station and within easy reach of the A1 was also attractive.

“I live in Richmond, but I can be at work in 40 minutes,” says Mr Speight.

Proximity to a world-class university offering a pool of talent to choose from is another clear advantage, but it was also the fact that Business Durham was able to help finance honcho’s move through its Finance Durham Fund that proved crucial.

CrowdCube investors had raised £700,000, but the Finance Durham Fund, managed by Maven Capital Partners, injected £150,000 in the innovative technology start-up.

“That was extremely helpful because it was a real vote of confidence,” says Mr Speight.

“We’ve just found Durham County Council to be more enlightened than many other local authorities across the UK when it comes to entrepreneurship, and Business Durham is extremely supportive.”

Pioneering chemical development company High Force Research is another business making the most of cutting-edge facilities in Durham, having recently expanded into NETPark, at Sedgefield.

The business, which supports new product development in the fine chemicals, pharmaceutical, diagnostics and printed electronic industries, was established 30 years ago in the Mountjoy Research Centre at the back of the Durham University science laboratories.

It was there for eight years before moving to what is still its main site at Bowburn.

As the company grew, it rented laboratories at Wilton, on Teesside. However, the distance between Bowburn and Wilton wasn’t ideal and, a year ago, a unit became available at NETPark.

“NETPark is a prestigious science park so it is an ideal fit for a company like High Force,” says the company’s CEO, Roy Valentine.

“It is ten minutes from Bowburn, the environment around NETPark is attractive and the facilities are really good, with the flexibility that we need. We were able to take on a big empty room and convert it into our own purpose-built design.”

High Force Research has close ties with the region’s universities, which are a regular source of recruitment as well as producing spin-off businesses that have become new customers.

The company is currently looking for apprentices and has a STEM ambassador encouraging talent at local schools.

With 60 per cent of its customers based worldwide, High Force now has 30 employees at Bowburn, with five more at NETPark, and expects to go on growing organically.

“The staff from Business Durham have been incredibly helpful throughout the process. We have ended up with exactly what we needed with the minimum of fuss,” says Mr Valentine.

That’s satisfying feedback for Cllr Carl Marshall, the county council’s portfolio holder for Economic Regeneration, who believes Durham is now reaping the benefits of a strategy aimed at streamlining the process for businesses.

“Durham has a far-reaching reputation for cutting through the bureaucracy and supporting businesses in very practical ways so they can deliver jobs,” he says.

“Whatever type of location a business is looking for, we can come up with the answers. Add in a rich cultural programme, a world-class university plus superb transport links and Durham has outstanding credentials.”

Indeed, it all adds up to a county that’s bucking the trend with £3.4bn of planned private and public sector investment.

Around 3,400 businesses have relocated, set up or expanded to Durham in the last four years, and 40 multi-nationals have invested or re-invested in the county since 2016.

Meanwhile, the £400m Aykley Heads site in the heart of Durham, subject to planning permission, has the potential to create up to 6,000 jobs and give a £400m boost to the Durham economy, and the £150m Milburngate commercial and residential scheme is another huge economic boost in the city’s heart.

Thanks to the county council’s foresight in establishing Business Durham as a one-stop shop for practical advice, entrepreneurs can avoid a confusing maze to get the answers they need.

“We have the infrastructure in place alongside transport links, great skills, a flexible workforce and lower labour costs than elsewhere in the UK,” says Business Durham’s managing director, Brian Archer.

“At a time of great national uncertainty we have invested in building relationships and the result is that businesses trust us to find a way forward. It all gives Durham a huge advantage and that’s why there is every reason to be optimistic about the future.”

Business locations helping Durham to buck the economic trend include:

Aykley Heads. Durham County Council has plans to develop one of the country’s most attractive business locations at Aykley Heads, pictured left, in the heart of Durham City;

Forrest Park. An ambitious scheme for a £140m extension of Aycliffe Business Park over 116 acres, Forrest Park has the potential to create 3,200 jobs and boost the local economy by £495m over the next ten to 15 years;

Integra 61. A new development at junction 61 of the A1 at
Bowburn, Integra 61 provides industrial and warehouse units from 50,000 to 100,000sq.ft along with residential and leisure opportunities;

Jade Business Park. Situated south of Murton, in east Durham, Jade Business Park is a former colliery and cokeworks site that now offers 22 hectares of employment land for offices, large scale manufacturing and distribution;

Merchant Park, Newton Aycliffe. Home of the Hitachi rail freight terminal and manufacturing facility, Merchant Park has development plots across 35 acres;

NETPark, Sedgefield. One of the UK’s premier science, engineering and technology parks for the commercialisation of cutting-edge R&D.