Despite the huge challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, Durham County Council leader, Councillor Simon Henig, explains why he is confident the county can still look forward to a bright future

BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic, the outlook for County Durham was filled with confidence and optimism – we were entering a new era, with a range of key developments poised to transform our economic landscape.

And, despite the huge challenges that lay ahead, that absolutely remains the case.

After three months of lockdown, amid the biggest public health crisis in a generation, I firmly believe that County Durham is well-placed to meet those challenges and continue to steer an ambitious course.

It would be wrong to suggest it is ‘business as usual’. How can it be when we are living in such unprecedented, turbulent times? But I am certain that we have enough reasons to remain optimistic, and to have confidence that the county has a bright economic future.

To begin with, we should take great confidence from the fact that those key developments – representing £2 billion of opportunities in the construction sector alone – have not ground to a halt during the lockdown. Far from it. Work on Jade Business Park, near Seaham; Integra 61, on the A1 at Bowburn; and Milburngate in the heart of Durham City; has continued, with only small delays, and that is a remarkable achievement.

The Northern Echo: Milburngate, in the heart of the cityMilburngate, in the heart of the city

It also sends a really important message: if those landmark schemes have carried on under the Government’s social distancing rules, then the rest of the business community should have confidence about the future too.

To see that a world-class company like Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems Europe has been able to become the first occupant of Jade Business Park, only a few weeks later than scheduled, is an extremely positive milestone. And the fact that work is underway again on the key junction at the Integra 61 development, which is supported by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, is a clear demonstration that County Durham remains very much on the move.

It would have been easy to get bogged down by a negative narrative around everything having to stop, but that clearly hasn’t been the case in Durham. We are pressing ahead with these momentous developments that are more important than ever.

Look at what’s happening at NETPark too. Sixteen years after it opened, near Sedgefield, it has become one of the fastest-growing science, engineering and technology parks in the UK, and occupancy levels have actually gone up during the lockdown period. When the national tendency is to presume that everything is bound to be in decline, NETPark remains very much on the up and an exciting part of Durham’s future.

One of the attractions of NETPark is that the offices are so spacious and, in the age of social distancing, that has become a critical factor. NETPark is a symbol of County Durham’s future and it is thriving.

The likes of NETPark, Jade Business Park, Integra 61, and Milburngate are among the cornerstones of Durham’s economic strategy and it is fantastic to see them still moving forward, but we should never underestimate the rich variety of small and medium sized enterprises that make such an important contribution to the county’s fortunes.

That is why Durham County Council worked so hard, right from the beginning of the pandemic, to make sure businesses were able to access relief from the Government’s initial announcement about the Business Rates Grant scheme. We knew those £10,000 and £25,000 grants would be a lifeline to many businesses, and we were able to make the first payments before the council had even received the money from the Government.

On top of that, we worked closely with all kinds of organisations, including community centres, to ensure as many as possible were able to benefit from the funding. So far, we have paid out almost £95.6m to more than 8,600 organisations, leading the way in the North-East, and earning praise from the Government nationally and businesses locally.

The Northern Echo: • Heather Harker-Smith, owner of Alice Elizabeth in Coxhoe who welcomed the business grant scheme• Heather Harker-Smith, owner of Alice Elizabeth in Coxhoe who welcomed the business grant scheme

For example, Heather Harker-Smith, the owner of Alice Elizabeth Couture bridal shop, in Coxhoe, went public on social media to say that receiving the grant via the council had been a “massive help”. Paul Ruscoe, the managing director of R&R Bearings Ltd, in Consett, described the speed with which the support had been provided as “mind blowing”. He added: “This grant will help us massively over the coming weeks and make a big difference to our business.”

Feedback like that really brings home to all our staff how vital it is to cut through the bureaucracy and get support out there as quickly as possible.

The team at Business Durham, our economic development arm, has also done a great job to keep in touch with businesses, help them to deal with their difficulties, get them the right information, and direct them towards potential opportunities. I’m proud of the fact that all of our industrial sites, business centres, and offices have remained open throughout the lockdown, and that other staff were able to adapt so quickly to working from home to keep the support flowing.

With such a major shift in working arrangements, we will be looking closely at the impact on office space, and what the accommodation needs of business will be going forward.

The Northern Echo: Intergra 61, along with NETPark, Jade Business Park and Milburngate, are among the cornerstones of Durham’s economic strategyIntergra 61, along with NETPark, Jade Business Park and Milburngate, are among the cornerstones of Durham’s economic strategy

Business Durham has invested a lot of time and energy into building up long-term relationships with companies and it is paying dividends in these difficult times. The team understands the needs of individual businesses and appreciates how hard it is for many of them. That is why we immediately announced a three-month rent deferral for April, May and June across our properties and we will continue to be as flexible as possible at the end of that period. That also includes providing bigger office space for those companies that feel it is needed to ensure social distancing.

It is all about supporting as many businesses and jobs as possible while still looking to the future. The county council regularly lobbies Government to give County Durham a voice, and the fact that we were recently able to secure an additional £4m for the County Durham Growth Fund is further evidence of that.

The fund had only just marked its first anniversary when the lockdown was announced. By then £2.7m out of a total budget of £4.9m had been invested in 11 County Durham businesses to enable them to create 310 jobs over the next two years. With the extra £4m, we will now be able to support another 22 companies, meaning more jobs are in the pipeline, and we will go on talking to Government about new funding streams.

Details of the vital work being carried out by the Business Durham team, along with invaluable information on the layers of support being provided by the council’s inward investment arm, are published inside this magazine. If you are a business owner in County Durham, it is well worth reading every word.

I am also acutely aware of how important tourism is to County Durham’s economy and how hard that sector has been hit by the pandemic. Tourism is responsible for nearly 12,000 jobs in the county, with almost 20 million visitors a year being attracted to our beautiful and historic part of the world, generating a value approaching £100m annually.

We designated 2019 as the Year of Culture, because of the 10th anniversary of the Lumiere light festival, World Cup cricket coming to Chester-le-Street, along with a host of spectacular festivals, events, activities, openings and anniversaries.

The Northern Echo: • Volunteers at Lumiere - November 2019, a cornerstone of the county’s Year of Culture • Volunteers at Lumiere - November 2019, a cornerstone of the county’s Year of Culture

Twelve months later, there could hardly be a bigger contrast. It was a big disappointment that we were unable to host the North East Culture Awards at Durham Cathedral in May, but I know how hard Visit County Durham has worked to find new ways to keep the county in the spotlight locally, nationally and internationally while supporting tourism businesses.

Hopefully, we will see a gradual unlocking of the sector over the summer because County Durham has so much to offer visitors.

In the meantime, it has been a joy to see how many tourism businesses have reinvented themselves and moved their trade online. Digital Drive was one of the County Durham programmes that was in place before the pandemic to help businesses maximise their digital potential. It has proved to be more important than ever as companies accelerate their online activities.

Other County Durham companies have brilliantly adapted their manufacturing processes to produce personal protection equipment (PPE), while science-led businesses have been engaged in research into vaccines.

Over all sectors, we are seeing incredible creativity and adaptability – qualities we have in abundance in County Durham – and that should give us further cause for optimism. Our biggest asset is our people, which is why we launched the Powered by People movement, placing people at the forefront of promoting the county.

The Northern Echo:

There is no hiding from the fact that there are difficult times ahead, and for many it is a fight for survival.

But the message from Durham County Council is that we remain as ambitious as ever to support existing and new businesses, and grow the number of good quality jobs. We know that by doing so, many other social benefits will follow, including better public health, higher educational attainment, and greater community engagement.

We were on an upward trajectory before coronavirus struck – and, by working together, I have every confidence that we can still achieve so much.