Doncaster Business Conference 2018 Speech

By Dan Fell, ceo of Doncaster Chamber

Welcome to the 2018 Doncaster Business Conference.  I am delighted that so many of the Chamber’s members and partners have been able to join us this morning.  I am also thrilled to welcome a number of Doncaster’s schools and young people.  I hope you find the event informative and would urge you to put your questions and challenges forward to our speakers and panellists today.

From where I stand, Doncaster is on the cusp of doing great things.  Over the last decade we have delivered a wealth of major infrastructure projects that have transformed our skyline but, more importantly, transformed the feel of the borough.  I believe that we have moved from being a borough that characterises itself by disadvantage, to one that characterises itself by opportunity.  I have faith in the Doncaster Growing Together strategy and believe that Doncaster’s best days – complete with happier communities, better jobs and more productive businesses – are still to come.


However, I recognise that this is only one worldview and am self-aware enough to know – that as CEO of the Chamber – I live in something of a bubble.  I therefore think, at the start of this conference, that it might be helpful to imagine what Doncaster could look like from other people’s hilltops.


If I was an entrepreneur wanting to start an innovative design company, would I think that Doncaster was a hub for creative activity and the right home for me?


If was a young person in Doncaster, would I feel a sense of excitement about the breadth of careers opportunities available here or would I feel that I needed to move elsewhere in the UK to get a highly paid job?


If I was a town centre retailer, would I feel bullish about Doncaster’s economy or would I be highly concern by the impact of anti-social behaviour?


If I was a skilled worker considering relocating to Doncaster for a new job, would I feel confident that Doncaster had the education, housing and leisure offer that I would want for me and my family?


If I was a migrant worker helping to fill acute skills shortages in the manufacturing sector, would I feel welcome in Doncaster following the EU referendum result?


Some of these examples may feel a little close to the bone.  However, they exemplify some of the very real challenges that we still have to grapple with if we are to deliver truly inclusive economic growth for all of Doncaster’s businesses and communities.


An area where your Chamber has endeavoured to show leadership over recent years, has been in driving meaningful collaboration between business and education.  Four years ago we established the Doncaster Skills Academy as our vehicle for ‘bridging the gap’ between the worlds of work and education.  In that time we have had the privilege of working with over 20,000 young people to increase their awareness of the careers available locally and to help them develop their core employability competencies.


This has been possible due to the commitment of Doncaster’s businesses that give their time incredibly generously to support this activity.  It has also been possible because dedicated leaders in the education sector have shown trust in us and bravely opened their doors to the local business community.  This is in spite of an ever narrowing curriculum, an Oftsed framework that places too much emphasis on grades rather than outcomes, and the daily grind of funding cuts.  It has also been possible because young people have responded fabulously to the support we are offering, demonstrating – time and time again – that they have the dynamism, ambition and talent to add value to any Doncaster business.  Our vision is for Doncaster to have the best business and education partnership in the UK and I would like to invite you all to work with us in delivering that vision. 


As many of you will know, the Chamber has been leading the bid to open a University Technical College here in Doncaster.  It disappoints me that I am still unable to tell you that we have had Government approval for this project; this is despite our concerted efforts to engage with Ministers and force a decision.  It is now a staggering 28 months since our initial application to open a UTC went to the Department for Education.   The real-time impact of this is that we have, regrettably, had to move the opening date of the UTC back from September 2018 to September 2020.   As a consequence of this, 300 young people have been deprived of the opportunity to get a first class technical education here in Doncaster.


Our project is backed by employers, two major universities, the National College for High Speed Rail, DMBC, the Local Enterprise Partnership, our MPs and local education leaders.  We want to create a parity of esteem between technical and academic education and we also want to support social mobility.  In a world where £50m was recently announced for grammar schools – seemingly on a whim and with funds grown on the so called ‘magic money tree’ – my questions for national Government today are simple:


1) Why aren’t you listening to business?

2) Why shouldn’t Doncaster’s young people have access to high quality technical education when it is available in other towns and cities?

3) And what are you waiting for?


The skills agenda, of course, is a massively important piece of the jigsaw when it comes to growing Doncaster’s economy; it is, however, not the only piece.  We also need to get our infrastructure and other conditions for growth right too.


It is self-evident that Doncaster’s connectivity is one of our key assets.  This creates a huge opportunities, not just for us, but for UK plc too.  Doncaster Sheffield Airport remains a unique regional asset and one that all of us in the room can feel proud to support.  Successful airports need a strong economy and strong economies need successful airports.  This is why we are so keenly promoting the possibility of a new railway station at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and so excited by the boldness of the airport’s recently launched masterplan.  The railway station at the airport tops our infrastructure wish list in much the same way as the UTC tops our skills list.  I am sure that Robert Hough will expand further on the scale of the opportunity at Doncaster Sheffield Airport in his speech.  I look forwards to his presentation and to throwing the Chamber’s full support behind the railway station proposal.


Local partnerships are, of course, key to leveraging economic growth opportunities.  However, some activities must – necessarily – take place across a bigger geography.  It is therefore important that we have structures, governance and mechanisms in place that are fit for purpose and that enable us to get the job done.  We are pretty good at standing up for ourselves here in Doncaster, but sometimes we need to work more closely with our regional allies to  amplify our voices and to get government to listen.  This is just one of the reasons why the Chamber – led by its members – continues to advocate for a Yorkshire wide version of devolution.


I believe that Doncaster can pursue a Yorkshire devolution deal simultaneously working closely with Dan Jarvis MP – the newly elected Sheffield City Region Mayor – to get the money and wider benefits of the South Yorkshire deal flowing into our economy.  Despite the best efforts of some to characterise devolution as a binary debate, it has never been about South Yorkshire versus Yorkshire.  Instead, it is about doing things at the spatial level appropriate to the task in hand.


Whilst it was not unanimous, the majority of Doncaster businesses that engaged with our devolution consultation stated that they wanted to see a Yorkshire deal as the end destination.  I anticipate that the EU Referendum played a significant role in dictating member sentiment on this issue.  Indeed, responding businesses stated that – in the context of Brexit related uncertainty – ‘brand Yorkshire’ would be an important asset when it came to promoting the region internationally to: investors, tourists and skilled workers.  They also stated a belief that an overall population of 5 million would have heft when it came to banging the drum for the region in Westminster and that there is real strength in numbers.


There is, of course, still some detailed work to be done in solidifying the economic case for a Yorkshire wide devolution deal.  However, intuitively, it feels right for Doncaster’s businesses and this is the position that the Chamber – based on member sentiment – will continue to advocate for.  I do not pretend that getting to a Yorkshire wide deal will be easy or without critics.  However, if we did not take on projects that are hard, I doubt that many of us in this room would be in business for long.  I personally think that the prize of a successful Doncaster, at the heart of a successful Yorkshire, is a prize worth fighting for.


So far this morning, I’ve talked about a number of topics – such as railway stations and devolution – that, even as a dedicated policy wonk, I would concede could feel a little dry!  I raise these issues because they’re important and to demonstrate to local businesses that we’re cracking on when it comes to tackling the issues that matter most.  However, it is also important that we acknowledge the lighter side of the debate as well.  Having fun is an important part of building relationships, enjoying work and also in making our place attractive to visitors, investors and skilled workers.  This is why: your Chamber continues to place such a high emphasis on our cultural economy, why we welcome the bold new Town Centre Masterplan, and why we want to see an expanded and diversified evening economy that caters for a much broader audience.


The recent decision by 360 Degrees Media to invest in Doncaster to create Film Studios and a VFX Academy in High Melton is genuinely game changing for the region.  This spectacular project will create hundreds of jobs, enhance our economy and demonstrates, at a stroke, just how fundamentally important the creative sector is to the economy.  With this in mind, it is fabulous to see that our Team Doncaster partners are really starting to understand the role that art and culture play in making a vibrant and exciting place.  I am also delighted that so many people seem to have been inspired by the success of Hull City of Culture and that conversations have begun about how we might deliver a version of this that is appropriate and authentic to Doncaster.  I am very much looking forward to our second panel debate today and the opportunity that this creates to hear some reflections about how we can maximise our cultural assets and also engage our communities to create new ones.


I hope that businesses in the room feel well served by their Chamber, by our Team Doncaster partners and that you share my worldview that Doncaster is moving in the right direction.  Whilst the Doncaster Growing Together plan is robust, it is inevitable that there will be opportunities missed or challenges not yet met within that plan.  That is why we want to generate as much debate as possible about what else we can be doing to create a more dynamic Doncaster that works for you.  Therefore, during and after the event, we want to capture as many innovative and different ideas as possible about what else Doncaster can do to change for the better.  Please contribute your boldest ideas and your greatest flights of fancy; that way we can keep redefining the scope of our ambition and building an increasingly progressive economy.


Before I finish, I would like to introduce a short video from the Chamber’s President, Mike Wilkinson.  Mike is currently overseas on business and unfortunately cannot be with us today.  He was, however, anxious to join me in setting the context for the event and has recorded the following short message.


I hope you enjoy the video from Mike and I hope you have a fantastic Conference.  Thank you.

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