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Saturday, 01 November 2014

Expanding horizons for Britain’s Energy Coast

A FORTHCOMING trade mission between Britain’s Energy Coast businesses and Japan and South Korea shows the size of the opportunity opening up for Cumbria.

That’s the view of the two men who have invested so much in the vision of Britain’s Energy Coast to deliver economic and social transformation for West Cumbria.

As Britain’s Energy Coast’s outgoing acting chief executive, Tom Gilroy, 61, has done so much to get the West Cumbria Economic Blueprint to this stage – a key strategic document launched back in June.

The delivery of the vision is now in the hands of 56-year-old Steve Szostak (pronounced Shostack) as the organisation’s newly-appointed chief executive.

We meet up in Workington, both men around the same table, blueprint in the middle. The excitement about where BEC has come from, and where it is going, is palpable.

Tom has done the job he set out to do, combining four previous organisations – BECWEC (formerly West Lakes Renaissance Urban Regeneration Company), West Cumbria Development Agency, West Cumbria Development Fund, and West Lakes Properties Limited into a single organisation – Britain’s Energy Coast.

He has done this while maintaining the support of the three nuclear partners – Sellafield, Nuclear Management Partners, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – and the three local authorities – Cumbria, Copeland and Allerdale.

He said: “It has simplified the situation for businesses and inward investors with one recognisable brand.

“Before they were confused as to who did what, now they know who to go to. We are now a one-stop-shop.”

The merging and strengthening of these organisations was only one of Tom’s three primary objectives while at the helm. The others were to get momentum behind the programmes spanning regeneration projects and business support initiatives and to produce a strategic direction for West Cumbria through the blueprint. He sees the appointment of Steve as furthering all of these three key ingredients.

In terms of the regeneration project, which he probably gets asked about most, he is proud of the progress of the Albion Square office complex development in, Whitehaven and the continued improvements being made to the Port of Workington.

Albion Square is seen as an opportunity to have a big impact on the local economy in Whitehaven, with almost 1,000 workers on site, spending their money in the town.

“They will be spending their money in Whitehaven, it’s where they will buy their sandwiches at lunchtime, it’s the shops and services they will use,” says Tom. And it will also help transform mindsets around travel to work in West Cumbria which Tom says is crucial if the area is going to make the most of the infrastructure available.

“It will get 1,000 people off the Sellafield site and represents a lot of cars no longer making that journey,” says Tom, who wants to see far greater use of the rail network along the coast, and less obsession with what Britain’s Energy Coast is going to mean for the area’s roads.

“Eddie Martin (Cumbria County Council leader) talks about the ‘art of the possible’ and that’s the mindset we need to take on roads. It’s not about focusing on the impossible – dualling the A66 to Penrith is not going to happen in my lifetime.

“But what we can focus on is what is achievable, such as making the most of the railway system, using the port system. Carlisle Airport also has a very important role to play. We can develop integrated transport hubs at Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. I’d far rather focus on what we can do, than what we can’t.”

In terms of timescale for Albion Square, Tom sees the development being handed over to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for its offices in January. And he sees it being completed by the end of 2014.

The £5.7m investment in the Port of Workington is only the start of what Tom sees as a bright future for the port.

With developments at Sellafield he sees the port as the single most important infrastructure development on Britain’s Energy Coast.

Skills and training are also a vital part of the plan. And the new £7m Britain’s Energy Coast Construction Skills Centre at Lakes College, Lillyhall, Workington, due to open in April, is a major part of the plan. “It will prepare local people for the opportunities arising within the nuclear and low carbon economy,” says Tom.

This is where Steve comes in. He sees part of his role to help bridge the skills gap between the opportunities emerging in West Cumbria and the capabilities of the workforce.

“We know there is going to be a growth in demand for well-paid opportunities and that industry needs certain skills.

“We must narrow the gap between industry need and local skills on offer,” he says.

Steve wants the private sector to help bridge that gap and help develop the skills of the local workforce to give the chance to grab the opportunities that are going to become available.

He wants to continue to attract skills from outside the area but not at the expense of the west Cumbria workforce, who he wants to have the skills and training ready to take up the challenge.

“What we don’t want is unemployed plasterers sitting at home watching a minibus full of plasterers coming in from away when they could have done the job themselves,” he says.

Coming from a regeneration background Steve also sees a strong social benefit from the blueprint in terms of closing the gap between the haves and the have nots.

He said: “There is something wrong when we have areas on Britain’s Energy Coast coming out at the wrong end of government indices on fuel poverty.

“We have got to do something about that. I’d hope at the end of my time in this job that (the level of fuel poverty) is no longer the case.”

He also wants to see West Cumbria looking more outward for opportunities, highlighting the forthcoming trade trip to Japan and South Korea.

Expanding the horizons of West Cumbrian supply chain companies to seek opportunities in the global nuclear marketplace was identified as a key part of the blueprint.

He said: “Britain’s Energy Coast is facilitating 12 businesses from this area to explore businesses opportunities in Japan and South Korea. It is not about Britain’s Energy Coast going, although the brand exposure is obviously great; it is about us helping businesses in West Cumbria to market themselves to companies in countries actively looking for link-ups with our world-class supply chain.

“We want companies to start thinking globally because the opportunities out there around the world are vast. This area has been self sufficient and there is nothing wrong with that, but we don’t want to be isolationist, we need to explore outside Cumbria, the North West and the UK.

“This trip to Japan and South Korea is West Cumbria dipping its toe in the water and seeking to build business partnerships for the long-haul.”

Tom adds that the clean-up job at Fukushima in Japan stands at around £10bn, while there are new build and decommissioning opportunities across Asia and Africa and between 40 to 60 reactors in Europe which need decommissioning. “West Cumbria has to get in on the act,” he adds.

West Cumbria itself is facing a potential £90bn nuclear opportunity, he says, including two or three new reactors, a new grid connection, new spent fuel facility, new Mox plant, and new disposal facility.

Plus there’s the whole area of innovation and diversification which comes from the mix of energy opportunities on Britain’s Energy Coast. These include wet renewables such as tidal and wave and wind as well as anaerobic digestion.

“It is so much more than nuclear and we mean that. Britain’s Energy Coast is about building a diverse and sustainable future and we’re not looking to put all our eggs in the same basket again,” says Tom.

While he believes Britain’s Energy Coast will benefit from clarity from government in relation to the nation’s energy policy, Tom is satisfied that the initiative has the ear of senior government ministers who know the crucial role the area already plays, and the opportunities for the future.

Steve is keen to continue to build that profile with projects which “turn heads”. “If it’s to do with energy and it’s the world’s best, it’s got to be here,” he says. “We have an important selling job to do.

“Cumbria can be out of sight, out of mind, almost unknown.

“But some of the UK’s most exciting projects are going on in this area. We want to turn heads.”

Steve’s approach, again learned from his regeneration background, is to work collaboratively, to build an “in it together” approach with stakeholders and the community.

He says: “What is great for me is that they have all signed up to the blueprint. The three local authorities have all made a big commitment to this document as well as our funding partners.”

And Steve makes no bones about the fact he wants the area to be known for cutting edge technology ahead of its world-renowned Lake District landscape.

“People keep talking to me about tourism, but I’d far rather have half a dozen world-renowned scientists visiting here to see a state-of-the-art renewable energy experiment than half a dozen walkers popping down the coast from Keswick.

“I actually get a buzz when I approach Workington and I see all this industry. I don’t mean smog, and grime, and ‘it’s grim up north’. I mean leading, state-of-the-art industrial innovation.

“I’d like renewable energy researchers and academics to be visiting us for that reason and then, coincidentally, see that we have superb coastline and hills to enjoy during leisure time. That would be a good way round for me.”

Tom highlights world class research facilities the area now has with the Dalton Cumbrian Facility and the state of the art technology it will soon be installing there.

“If you provide scientists with one of the best toys in the world to play with, they will come from far and wide to play with it,” he said. “And we have it right here in West Cumbria.”

He sees a “blossoming area of academia” with the University of Liverpool also now “knocking on the door” at the West Lakes Science and Technology Park, in addition to the well established but equally important institutions such as UCLan and, of course, the University of Cumbria.

“We cannot forget that UCLan was the first and remains crucial to the innovation and R&D agendas, and so much more”, concludes Tom.

And this, combined with the natural resources of wind, tidal, wave, and wood, the manufacturing capability, skills and training, and the expertise of the nuclear industry makes for a compelling proposition.

Major decisions lie ahead which will have an even more major impact.

There’s the National Grid route with the preferred option being the “ring” route around the edge of Cumbria.

“Not everyone will be happy,” says Tom, “because it will mean pylons. But the connection is absolutely vital, not just for West Cumbria but for the energy ambitions of other areas of the county.”

He recognises the energy opportunity is countywide, with the whole coast, including Barrow, and energy projects throughout the county, but he’s unashamed that the engine room, the core of the activity to drive Britain’s Energy Coast, lies in west Cumbria. “A strong west Cumbria makes a strong Cumbria,” he says.

He cites superfast broadband as an area where BEC can play an active role and interact with businesses to help deliver a better outcome for Cumbria.

When it comes to the area’s health Britain’s Energy Coast is a strong advocate of the area’s new hospital. And Steve sees benefits from encouraging a healthier population, with the right mindset, to make the most of the opportunities. He sees this as an indirect benefit from some of the social improvements to come from Britain’s Energy Coast’s investment.

“I want us to work with businesses, organisations and communities to make lasting, sustainable improvements.

“We are not about signing blank cheques, we are about investing in the future. We’re shifting from a funding pot to a commissioning agency.

“With our Investing in Business initiative we are talent spotting to fund businesses which are going places.

“I have come from a background where every single penny was important. And that’s not a bad approach to have.

“I am looking forward to working with partnerships to make that money sweat and earn a return for Britain’s Energy Coast. We need private sector buy-in; they are our biggest advocates. And I want to work with the LEP and help deliver Cumbria’s objectives.”

Tom says the innovation and diversification elements of the Blueprint were shaped by private sector businesses themselves. “Because of that, they own it and because of that it’s likely to be successful,” he said. “We’ve always said that Britain’s Energy Coast exists to support businesses in the best way we can – as an advocate, facilitator, and when required, to intervene directly. But at the end of the day it will be the businesses that instigate real economic change and create new business and job opportunities.”

Tom is heading back to Sellafield to work on security projects but he’ll still be on hand for advice for Steve. And he knows he leaves the Britain’s Energy Coast business in good shape.

“This is one of the best teams I have ever worked with,” he says. “We are a small organisation which can make a big difference and with Steve and the team there’s the passion and drive here to do just that.”

Steve says: “I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. Tom has left so many well worked-up projects and there’s so many great ideas on how we can take West Cumbria forward. My job is about delivering them and helping to realise this area’s undoubted potential.”

For Tom the joy will be seeing what he helped start come to fruition. For Steve, the opportunity has only just begun.

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