Speech by Dan Fell, CEO, Doncaster Chamber to Doncaster Business Conference delegates, Friday 21 April 2017
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Doncaster Business Conference. The purpose of today’s event is to stimulate an effective dialogue between the Doncaster business community and the region’s politicians, decision makers and educators. The need for that dialogue, I hope, is clear. If our business community can articulate its challenges and aspirations, then our public sector partners and politicians can react with the policies and plans needed to deliver inclusive growth and a better business environment.
Partnership working runs through your Chamber like a stick of rock; on behalf of the private sector we work collegiately with those that share our values and have a focus on creating positive change. Hopefully the growth we have seen in Doncaster over the last decade acts as a testament to this ethos. Landmark projects such as Doncaster Sheffield Airport, the Great Yorkshire Way, the National College for High Speed Rail, CAST, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park and many others are testament to Doncaster’s renaissance. Each also acts as a reminder that, put simply, partnership working, works.
However, in my view, there are good and bad versions of partnership. The bad version is when we just say nice things to each other, nod politely through stakeholder meetings and then continue to plough our own furrows. The good version involves: difficult conversations, constructive challenge, critique and compromise. The latter version is harder but it is, ultimately, the version that is in the best interests of Doncaster.
As place leaders, myself and others therefore owe it to businesses and residents alike to be our harshest critics and to strive for continuous improvement. So whilst Doncaster has started to build an enviable reputation as a place where you can get things done, it would be a fair to observe that, primarily, we have built that reputation based on successful capital projects, infrastructure schemes and new buildings. There is no shame in this and, of course, many of these projects will provide the essential foundations for future growth.
However, the hard truth is that, whilst many of the borough’s big projects have transformed our skyline they have, not yet, transformed the life chances of young people or the growth prospects of our SMEs. That is why the hard work starts now and why the true testament to a successful place will be delivery of much harder outcomes such as: dramatically improved schools, better quality jobs, more patents applied for, more exporters and greater productivity. Such activities do not necessarily generate the same headlines as new link roads and new institutions, but they are the characteristics of good growth and the outcomes that need to sit at the heart of Team Doncaster’s vision.
Delivering against these objectives is also how Doncaster will achieve what has been termed the ‘city standard’. Personally, I am fairly agnostic about ‘City Status’, I think it would be nice to have but it is not a label that Doncaster should pursue for the sake of it. The important thing is that is that we deliver the attributes of a city – better education, better connectivity, better culture, better leisure and, ultimately, a better economy. I expect that many of these themes will be discussed at length in our first debate today. I also, anticipate that we will spend some time debating the mechanisms that we use to get Doncaster from A to B and that, inevitably, we will reflect on some of those underpinning issues such as devolution.
At present, Doncaster is reflecting on the merits of forging an ever deeper alliance with partners in the Sheffield City Region versus working with colleagues from slightly further afield to pursue a Yorkshire wide devolution deal. I can see the benefits of both models. The Sheffield City Region has many assets and – when taken as a whole and not just as South Yorkshire – has the characteristics of a functional economic geography; importantly, the region has a good devolution deal that is already in the oven. The Yorkshire option is much less mature and clearly carries risk. However, in the run up to a post-Brexit world there is much to be said for the huge benefits that Brand Yorkshire could engender, particularly when we consider important issues such as tourism, international trade and inward investment. Additionally, as I will reflect on shortly, I am far from convinced that central government is currently in listening mode. Conversely, a population of circa 5 million people would command attention and demand to be heard; in a world beset with macro economic headwinds and political uncertainty that can only be a good thing.
I therefore think both options need to considered and think there is an urgent need for a more robust dialogue with the broader business community about this issue. Crucially, I don’t think this is necessarily a binary choice. It is 2017 and successful, outward looking places can cope with fluid and dynamic alliances; indeed, businesses will always applaud nimbleness and pragmatism if it leads to growth. Perhaps more importantly, I think it is important to remember that, from a private sector perspective, that much of the devolution debate is just noise. Business ultimately cares about outcomes rather than processes and, as such, will be supportive of whichever route can be shown to deliver more commercial opportunities and a more resilient economy.
The second of our debates shifts the attention from place to focus on people; it also follows the recent publication of the One Doncaster report by the Independent Commission for Education and Skills. Your Chamber engaged heavily with Commissioners as they took a deep dive into Doncaster’s skills challenges and supports many of the recommendations made in the report; we now look forwards to playing our part in bringing those suggestions to life. Of course, your Chamber did not just wait for the Commission to produce its findings and – to borrow a great phrase from DMBC’s Chief Exec Jo Miller – we proceeded until apprehended with two vitally important initiatives.
Firstly, we have continued to grow and expand the Doncaster Skills Academy. For anyone unfamiliar with the Skills Academy, this is the Chamber’s vehicle for ‘bridging the gap’ between the worlds of education and business. Through this project we help to: raise aspirations and improve careers information, support work readiness, promote enterprise and develop financial literacy for Doncaster’s young people. Over the last four years we have gone from a standing start to supporting 10,000 learners a year and engaging with every secondary school in the borough; in recent months we have started to work with some of Doncaster’s primary schools and directly with parents and carers too. In the coming months we have exciting plans to turbo charge this project further and to increasingly connect Doncaster’s young people to economic growth in our borough, please continue to support us to do this.
Secondly, the Chamber has been leading the charge on a bid to bring a University Technical College to Doncaster. Our manufacturing, construction and rail engineering members tell us, on pretty much a daily basis, that they do not have a sufficient pipeline of talent entering their industries. Those businesses also feedback that, for too long, there has been a paucity of good quality technical education in the area and that the resultant skills gaps are hindering their growth prospects.
This is why the Chamber, along with Wabtec Rail and Keepmoat Construction, became a founding member of the UTC and why we have worked doggedly for the last two years to convince Government that this institution is a necessary addition to Doncaster’s education landscape. The journey has been hard. Many of you in the room – and certainly those of you that follow me on Twitter – will already be well versed in the frustrations we have had with this project and deafening periods of silence we have encountered from the Department for Education and the Secretary of State. Put simply, this shoddy treatment of the business community is not good enough and flies in the face of the Government’s own rhetoric about Technical Education and Social Mobility
I am pleased to share with you today, the news that the tide is slowing turning and that – in recent weeks – a dialogue has been opened up with the DfE. Unfortunately, prevarication from Government means that we will not hit our initial opening date of September 2018; furthermore, this week’s news about the General Election now makes me nervous of promising you that we will deliver the UTC in September 2019 instead. However, I can promise you that your Chamber is not giving up on this one and that we will work resolutely with our partners until industry and young people in Doncaster have the quality of technical education available to them that they deserve.
Regrettably, our frustrations with National Government, have only been exacerbated this week by the unfortunate news that the Northern Powerhouse Minister, Andrew Percy MP, has dropped out of today’s event with little notice and little explanation for why he does not want to engage with the Doncaster business community. This, coupled with the challenges we have encountered with the UTC project, sends the regrettable message that Government is not interested in listening to businesses beyond those in the UK’s core cities. For me, it also betrays an alarming amount of complacency about how concepts such as the Northern Powerhouse and Industrial Strategy might be brought to life on the ground. Doncaster’s business community stands ready to engage and ready to deliver on growth for the benefit of UK PLC. Indeed, we have shown time and time again – through collaboration with local government – that the Doncaster business community can work effectively with the public sector to get things done. However, such relationships can only be created if everyone collaborates in putting a shoulder to the wheel.
The Northern Powerhouse will not come to fruition just through the delivery of transport links and shiny new Enterprise Zones – as important as both are to economic growth. In my view, an Industrial Strategy can only be brought to life if Government builds a proper relationship with the real economy and engages proactively with SME business communities such as Doncaster’s.
Therefore, whatever the outcome of the General Election on 8th June, it is vitally important that – within the context of delivering a version of Brexit that works for business – that national Government takes the time to listen to the needs of employers, understand what an SME really looks like, and engages properly with places like Doncaster.
We will be bringing today’s Business Conference to a close with a Mayoral Hustings ahead of the Local Elections on 4th May. The Chamber supports the Elected Mayor model and has, over the last decade, always worked hard to forge a strong working relationship with the Mayor regardless of their political disposition. Today provides an opportunity for the mayoral candidates to present their manifestos and, by responding to your questions, a chance to explain how they will deliver a better Doncaster.
From my recent conversations with Chamber members, there are five key things that we would like to see the successful candidate do in the coming months and years:
1. Be relentless in the pursuit of a demand led education and skills system that works for Doncaster’s people and employers alike.
2. Promote and champion arts and culture; the cultural sector is a hugely important one for successful economies and its growth will help other businesses attract talent to our borough.
3. Give our town centre the urgent attention it needs. The Town Centre Master Plan is a great document and the vision it contains for Doncaster’s urban core has excited the business community. However, there are very real here and now challenges that must be addressed; businesses want to see a town centre that they can be proud of and that reflects the borough’s ambitions.
4. Send a message that Doncaster is open for business by capitalising on assets such as Doncaster Sheffield Airport and by working with partners to promote the borough internationally to investors, businesses, tourists and skilled workers.
5. Create the conditions for growth by delivering procurement, planning and regulatory functions at the Authority that are business friendly.
We have a lot to talk about. Thank you to our sponsors, thank you for attending, and thank you to all of our panellists and speakers for joining us at today’s event. Everyone, please be vociferous with your views, a robust dialogue today will lead to action tomorrow and, that way, we’ll create a better Doncaster and a better place to do business. Enjoy the morning.
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