County Durham is one of the nation’s greatest assets, with visitor numbers increasing, families wanting to live here and businesses wanting to relocate or expand.
The job of the county council is to invest in all three to future-proof the county and maintain and grow its reputation as a vibrant, multi-cultural and thriving area.
Businesses see the perfect blend, with a backdrop of history and a future of innovation and sustainable jobs. Workers can live among the country’s most beautiful towns and cities and work alongside ground-breaking industries supported by a forward-thinking council.
The sort of names that have chosen County Durham over a long line of suitors from all over the country and often internationally would be the envy of any other area, from the giants of Hitachi and Caterpillar at Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee to the up-and-coming technology businesses at NETPark and Aykley Heads who are changing the world through disruptive technologies.
That hunger to innovate and improve goes back through generations and the current custodian of the drive to grow is council leader Simon Henig, the man who has led the county, balanced the books and provided the services at the same time as enabling that incredible forward planning that is seeing so many cranes and developers.
“It is rewarding and inspiring to see the amount of work going on around County Durham, there seems to be a regular queue of announcements about sites all over the county that have proven to be tailor-made for a wide range of businesses,” he said.
“We have worked particularly hard to strategically develop that spread of businesses, not only because that best serves the future prosperity of the county, but because it also offers young people the widest possible choice of careers. That means they will want to study here and work here and make the most of a long-term relationship with the county.
“We have all the assets a company would want, from the transport corridors to the natural beauty, and now we are growing clusters of ground-breaking businesses where we can encourage the level of collaborations that are taking us to a whole new level.”
Simon and his council colleagues are building a county fit for the 21st Century that will be a model for others to follow and will inspire the people and the businesses. “Some people outside the county still have an image in their head of a coal-mining past,” said Simon.
“But for me that just gives us an opportunity to get them here and show them the truth about us, that just as coal helped us carve out a reputation for hard work and productivity, so the industries of 2018 and beyond are showing that we are still masters of the same work ethic, but in a different business landscape. It is important for the council to constantly move forward in our thinking and our ambitions because the economy is our number-one priority and something that needs constant nurturing from people who know what makes it succeed and what threats need to be dealt with early on to help it breathe and thrive.
“I think the reason why the whole county has performed so strongly in recent years, and has become a development hotspot, is that the council knows its role as part of a huge team of people who pull together. Becoming a unitary authority nearly a decade ago helped define that role because before that we were split into different levels and passing things around, but now we are integrated and know how to support each other for the good of the area and the businesses who want to have a conversation with us.”
That unity led to a decision that would have been a challenge before 2008 – to leave the council headquarters at Aykley Heads so the site can be used as the pivotal centre of a 20-year plan for 6,000 new high-tech private-sector jobs in ICT, financial technology and professional services, worth more than £400m to the economy.
Because the council is so committed to being a single driving force to push the county ahead, the decision to move out so that new businesses could move in was a natural one and sends out the clearest signal to investors looking for confidence and co-operation.
Why this is the place where we can grow
When one of Britain’s most innovative companies was looking for a base where it could grow, employ and invest, Durham was placed top of its list.
Atom Bank is a true groundbreaker – one of Europe’s fastest growing challenger banks, it is app based and has no branches. Atom’s customers use face and voice recognition to log-in to their own unique personalised brand and are supported by an award winning 24/7 contact centre.
Atom was started in a small office on Aykley Heads in 2014. At that time it was one of a number of companies in the Rivergreen Centre, a building that has won national recognition for its architecture and sustainability.
As operations started to grow the bank quickly outgrew its space at Rivergreen and moved in as tenant of the council a few hundred feet along the road. But the draw of Rivergreen was too strong and as growth continued at the bank and the headcount broke through 250, Atom took the headlease on the building.
As a Durham University graduate, Chief Innovation Officer and Company Secretary Edward Twiddy already knew the area well, and saw it as the perfect centre for this bold new venture.
“We knew banking needed to change – that is an intrinsic part of Atom’s DNA – so we wanted to open our doors in a place that felt like it had a unique personality of its own. The team that built the Rivergreen Centre and those who now own it have a vision shared by the council and many others for a great working environment with top quality services in Durham City. To be part of that is a great feeling for the team at Atom.
“More widely, County Durham sits in the centre of a stunning region where the most remarkable businesses have found the right environment to produce products and services that have never been seen before. We are putting down our roots amongst them, building partnerships with universities, schools and a whole range of companies to create a community of innovation in data and knowledge businesses which is attracting attention from all over the world. We know this is the place where we will stay and grow, and to do that we continue to want to employ the very best people, so that means that as well as taking as many people as possible from County Durham we recruit heavily across the region and in cities such as Leeds, Edinburgh and London. Consequently connectivity will always be a top priority for us. The future of the City must be as a connected place – physically, digitally and socially.”
Part of Atom’s investment in the region is now helping build the business of the future through a new startup incubator.
Unveiled by chairman Bridget Rosewell at the Great Exhibition of the North’s Business Summit, the Atom Incubator will offer professional advice and fully serviced workspace. The incubator already has its first business – Intogral Limited, a Durham University spin-out developing image analysis software using AI and ‘deep learning’ technology.
Edward said: “As a new and still fast growing business, we know how important support is. We were immediately embraced by the business community here and with the council’s help we have had all the collaborative support we need to get to a commanding position in the banking sector. Now it is time for us to invest in the county and repay that by helping other businesses with enormous potential establish themselves and lay the foundations for County Durham’s future.”
Where there are such high levels of innovation, there will always be education and at New College Durham, the link is a crucial part of the county’s offer to firms who want to invest here.
Dawn Fairlamb, Vice Principal for Economic Development & Student Progression, says the college is using its considerable resources to tailor courses so that each worker, from trainees to managers, gets precisely what they need.
“We have done a lot of work over the last couple of years and are pushing the boundaries of what the education sector can do to make sure that wave of investment continues to build,” said Dawn.
“County Durham is such an exciting place and is understandably attracting a lot of interest, so we are all working together to support those companies. Because we have had Foundation degree-awarding powers since 2011, we have been able to design our programmes and modules to meet market needs in short time frames. We have worked with Business Durham on a degree module called ‘Innovation, Idea Generation and Enterprise’ to support the innovators who are the lifeblood of the county.
“We invite any organisations coming to Durham to talk to us and we can develop a module in three to six months for any employer. That gives us a crucial edge.
“It means inward investors – like the three major employers we are currently working with – can introduce these vital and bespoke skill sets to the people they are moving up within their businesses to support their expansion plans.”
The college’s foresight in creating the modules means it is now an approved member of the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs, which gives an added level of certification. Partnerships and collaboration are key to how the college works, including teaming up with Durham University and Business Durham to offer innovation and enterprise programmes at the Durham City incubator at Salvus House.
“Finding the right way to deliver essential training and skills is simply what we do best, and we have continued growing along with the region to make sure every need is met,” says Dawn.
The firms that are making County Durham the home of innovation
A key company working in the satellites industry, designing and supplying high frequency semiconductor chips. The firm, based on the Aycliffe Industrial Estate, has won three contracts with the European Space Agency to develop next generation high power radio frequency (RF) amplifiers and RF front-ends for future satellites.
A leading supplier of cutting-edge radiation detection components and devices for the medical imaging, civil nuclear industry, nuclear threat scanning and safety screening markets. Head office is at NETPark, although it started as a two-man spin-out from Durham University’s physics department in 2003.
A developer of new technologies leveraging big data and artificial intelligence. Based in Salvus House in Durham, the business works in the fields of augmented reality, big data and artificial intelligence.
The company has expanded into the space satellite industry, with a background in telecommunications components. The NetPark firm has developed specialised optical modulators, which put a high-frequency electrical signal on to fibre for demanding, high-capacity transmission systems.
Thorn Lighting/Zumtobel Group
A major employer at its UK base in Spennymoor. With an international client base the company supply lighting for applications including, offices, industry, education, road, tunnel, retail and sport and boast many major names amongst its customers.
A family owned engineering business founded by John Bignall who is passionate about engineering and is heavily involved with Future Business Magnates to promote careers in engineering to young people in the county.
Based in Durham, this company provides qualified drone pilots, thermographers and data analysts to provide services tailored to architects, surveyors, engineers and others in the construction sector and facilities management. Using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the latest technologies, the company carries out a huge range of surveys and inspections.
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