East Durham Business feature: Durham Means Business

Sarah Slaven from Business Durham on the economic landscape in County Durham, the new Durham Business Growth programme and her priorities for 2024.

EDB editor Leanne Fawcett sat down with Business Durham Managing Director Sarah Slaven to find out more about County Durham’s economic and employment performance, the support available to help businesses grow, the County Durham Inclusive Economic Strategy and why the county is bucking the trend when it comes to private sector job creation…

It’s been a tough few years for the business community. Our businesses have encountered significant challenges, including the global Covid pandemic, which has had a profound impact on many, and the ongoing energy crisis, which has affected companies and organisations of all sizes. Alongside that, we’ve had the impact of the UK leaving the EU, the war in Ukraine, supply chain problems which have left many sectors with part shortages, and the skills gap and disconnect between industry and education, which has left many employers struggling to find the right people for their business.
But as we approach the end of 2023, there’s a real feeling of positivity that we’ve finally turned a corner. And at the forefront of that is Business Durham, the business support service for Durham County Council.

Headed up by Sarah Slaven, Business Durham is leading the charge to a more prosperous County Durham, spearheaded by investment; job creation; innovation; and initiatives like the new Durham Business Growth programme and the Inclusive Economic Strategy, driven by the five ‘Ps’ – productivity, people, place, promotion and planet. Sarah said: “It does feel like County Durham is riding on the crest of the wave at the moment. We’ve got so much to shout about, and I think that’s something we are doing better – celebrating what we have and sharing it with the world, which perhaps we’ve been guilty of not doing in the past. Investment and job creation is evident right around the county. You need look no further than the world-leading North East Technology Park (NETPark), home to some of the most innovative companies on the planet.

“We are doubling the space on site as part of a £62m development, which will create a further 1,200 jobs. This is a real highlight for me as it demonstrates our commitment to creating higher-value jobs for the economy, linking up with the likes of the universities and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) to grow more innovative businesses. We started work on site at NETPark in July, and the level of interest has already been significant. We’ve had enquiries from tenants based there wanting to expand to bigger premises, from new tenants that think NETPark is the right environment for them to grow their business, as well as companies nationally that want to relocate here. There’s also the new Aykley Heads Business Park, which will be developed to form part of the new Durham Innovation District, a triple-helix model of public, private and education sectors working together. Durham County Council is leading the project in partnership with Durham University, and are in the process of appointing a joint venture delivery partner, who will work with the authority and the university to redevelop the wider Aykley Heads site as part of the new district.”

Business support remains a critical strand of Business Durham’s offering, and the organisation recently launched the Durham Business Growth programme, working in partnership with RTC North and UMi. This initiative has a total value of £8.16 million, with £4 million earmarked for business grants. Since launching, the programme has received over 150 expressions of interest, with these businesses being put through a detailed review to see the type of support they would best benefit from, whether that’s a grant or mentoring. The programme has a special emphasis on growing sectors, such as the green economy, decarbonisation, space and satellites, fintech, digital, advanced material electronics, life sciences, and the creative and cultural sectors and crucially, unlike previously ERDF-supported initiatives, the Durham Business Growth programme can help the tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as businesses based in rural sectors. And when you think about the importance of these sectors to County Durham’s economy and how vast the county’s rural footprint is, it’s a huge boost.

Sarah added: “One of the things we’re keen to do is help businesses of all sectors to understand what will drive their productivity. That can be easier to identify in, say, a manufacturing company with a clear output, but in service-driven sectors, it can be quite hard. We have put a lot of work in behind the scenes to make sure the support process is as simple as possible – we don’t want businesses to have to go to lots of different places for support, it needs to be seamless.” Sarah is keen to point out that throughout the lifespan of the Durham Business Growth programme, an evaluation company will be assessing Business Durham’s performance and outputs to ensure it’s being delivered in the most effective way possible to help businesses. In terms of challenges and opportunities, what does Sarah believe are the main themes for businesses in the area?

“Attracting and retaining good staff continues to be a challenge across multiple sectors. I think some of that is down to the post-pandemic impact. A lot of people who were reaching retirement took the decision to step away from the labour market as they had other priorities. People stopped to think, ‘what is important to me’. Things like looking after their grandchildren became more important, particularly because of the cost of childcare. The skills gap is also a factor. People at the start of their careers haven’t got the skills businesses look for. Equally, It is hard to take someone on that you need to train up because you haven’t got the capacity. It’s a real mismatch.

“Companies are taking it more seriously now though – how do they look at recruitment, pay and equality, asking themselves why would someone want to come and work for them. They’re also seeing the benefits of investing in their brand and profile has when it comes to attracting the best people into their business – people want to work for companies that are associated with success, those that demonstrate a willingness to promote from within and reward hard work and commitment. The links between industry, education and training providers are also getting better. There is a much stronger understanding of what businesses need, but also I think we’ve got better at enthusing young people about what our local businesses do and the opportunities they offer.”

And in general, more jobs are being created. Durham County Council has been analysing some new employment data published recently, which shows that County Durham is performing strongly, with over 3,000 additional jobs created between 2015 and 2022 (as well as strong growth over the Covid-19 period). Sarah added: “Hopefully this data is evidence that the work we’ve all been doing is paying off, certainly in terms of having good employment sites and premises coming onto the market, like those at Jade Business Park, Integra, Belmont Business Park and Gemini Point in Peterlee. It should help to provide confidence for the future.” The focus isn’t just on business, though, of course, that is the main priority for Business Durham.

Together with the County Durham Economic Partnership, Durham County Council is leading on the Inclusive Economic Strategy, which is about getting everyone in the county on board to create a better, more prosperous community and creating a sense of shared ownership where everyone can do their bit. The strategy has five key themes: productivity, people, place and promotion, all underpinned by planet, and the delivery plan setting out clear actions for the next two years has recently been approved. There’s no doubt County Durham is at the forefront of some of the most innovative industries around at the moment. From the manufacture of semi-conductors at Newton Aycliffe to the production of solar power film at Jade Business Park, to the move into the Space and Satellite market, of which the North East is building a significant cluster of businesses, and our growth within the green energy market, led by the likes of Clear Climate in Peterlee, the signs are incredibly positive.

As we look towards 2024, what are Sarah’s priorities, both personally and for Business Durham? “We’ll be looking at the devolution deal for the North East, making sure we know how that can benefit us and what we want to achieve in County Durham. This will give our region more powers and a better say on our future and investment. It’s important we make sure we harness the opportunities to deliver what we want locally and that our voice is heard nationally. Of course, the Durham Business Growth Programme is a big priority for us. We have to make sure the £4m we have available in grants is delivered and businesses can access the support they need to take their business to the next level. We also want to encourage more business start-ups, and to support this, 30 business support organisations are joining forces to create a stronger offering. This will also see the launch of Enterprise Hubs, which will hit the roads and travel around County Durham to make start-up support accessible for everyone.

“Ultimately, my priority is to put in place strong foundations that we can build on for years to come. We want to make it as easy as possible to have successful businesses here, whether it’s a start-up a growing or established company through to large multinationals looking to invest in the county. County Durham has so much to offer and is perfectly positioned to be a global leader for business, innovation and economy.”