Guy Currey, Director of Invest North East England, explains how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted inward investment in the region in 2020, and how – moving forward – inward investment can help the region bounce back.

At the start of 2020 it was Brexit, and its potential impact on the North East and UK economy, that dominated news headlines and was the focus for businesses in our region and across the country.

Just three months later, the coronavirus pandemic would force Britain into its first national lockdown and completely transform life as we know it.

Writing this article in December 2020 gives me the opportunity to reflect on an unprecedented year and consider how COVID-19 has impacted the North East economy, our ability to attract inward investment, and our region’s future.

Whilst some sectors of industry in the North East have suffered greatly because of the pandemic – arts and culture, tourism and hospitality for example – others have seen increased demand, particularly those in growing markets like health and life sciences, digital, advanced manufacturing and renewable energy.

In March – right at the beginning of the pandemic – British chemical giant INEOS announced a new role for its plant in Newton Aycliffe. In just ten days, it changed its operations to help support the country’s demand for hand sanitiser.

North East England’s health and life sciences cluster played a key role in the UK’s immediate response to COVID-19, with businesses at Newcastle Helix and NETPark in County Durham delivering vital R&D for new drugs and healthcare to fight the virus.

Although attracting new inward investment to North East England has been challenging during the COVID-19 crisis, Invest North East England – working closely with its many partners – has been able to help deliver some significant successes for the region in 2020.

In February of this year we joined colleagues from North Tyneside Council and North of Tyne Combined Authority in welcoming Europe’s largest domestic alarm provider, Verisure UK Services Limited, to its new North East headquarters at Quorum Business Park. Verisure UK has committed to create 1,000 new jobs in the region. 

In May, Equinor and SSE Renewables – the two companies behind the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, Dogger Bank in the North Sea – announced a new multi-million pound Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Base will be built at the Port of Tyne, creating more than 200 jobs. The energy sector in North East England is one of the region’s biggest growth industries and has a pivotal role to play in delivering the government’s Green Industrial Revolution, which aims to create and support up to 250,000 highly-skilled green jobs in the UK, many of which will be here in the North East.

Continuing the North East’s own ‘green revolution’, Britishvolt announced in December that it had selected a site in Blyth to build a massive electric battery gigaplant, which will create 3,000 direct jobs and another 5,000 in the wider supply chain.

Another huge job-creating project opened in the summer, with global retail giant, Amazon, opening a brand new fulfillment centre in County Durham, bringing with it 1,000 new permanent jobs with many more to be created at peak times.

North East England’s digital sector was given a further boost in 2020 with the arrival of leading Irish virtual and augmented reality company, VRAI. The Dublin-based company – which uses virtual reality (VR) to deliver simulation training for companies working in high hazard environments – chose to open its first British office in Gateshead after visiting the region in 2019 as part of an international delegation we hosted in partnership with local councils and the Department for International Trade (DIT).

The company’s move is significant for a number of reasons. North East England’s digital sector is driving forward innovations in advanced manufacturing, which is another significant growth area for the region. VRAI is also now part of the North East England’s thriving immersive technology sector; recognised as a High Potential Opportunity (HPO) in the UK by DIT.

Because of the immersive tech sector’s HPO status, we hosted an online event in December to promote the region’s assets to international immersive tech companies and DIT’s global network of trade advisers. This was a great success and has led to a number of new leads. It was one of many virtual events we’ve delivered in 2020 to promote inward investment opportunities in North East England.

Our Inward Investment Manager, Rachel Burdis, has run a popular vlog in 2020 in which she’s interviewed industry leaders and companies that have moved to North East England. We’ve also delivered virtual walkarounds and digital Q&A sessions with stakeholders from the region.

Like all organisations, coronavirus has forced us to adapt, but it’s been positive to see we can still effectively promote the region despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic.

So what does inward investment look like moving forward, and how can it help the region recover from COVID-19?

Working with DIT, we’ll be developing three new HPO documents in 2021, this time focusing on healthy ageing, plant-based products, and heat networks. The HPOs will be used to showcase the North East’s strengths in these sectors to international investors in more than 177 cities around the world.

We also expect to see some major development sites come to fruition in 2021, including; Energy Central in Blyth, IAMP (International Advanced Manufacturing Park) in Sunderland/South Tyneside, Jade Business Park in County Durham, and the new Tyne Clean Energy Park at Port of Tyne. Each site offers significant opportunities for inward investment.

North East England is also well placed to respond to the continued demand for Grade A office accommodation with sites such as The Lumen on Newcastle Helix, The Beam on Sunderland’s Vaux site, and the in-development Millburngate in Durham City, offering a wide choice for businesses. Whilst the impact of COVID-19 on future plans of office occupiers is still to be seen, the North East is well placed to benefit from future north-shoring projects from both government and private sector office relocations from London and the South East.

There’s no denying North East England has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but green shoots are visible. The North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group has published its North East Recovery and Renewal Deal proposal to government, and the £55m Getting Building Fund is helping kickstart infrastructure projects across the region. The North East has also prepared for our exit from the EU by putting forward an ambitious bid to host a Freeport in the LEP area.

North East England remains an attractive destination for investors. Right now we’re supporting major enquires that, if successful, could result in thousands of new jobs for the North East.

Our region is ready to start its recovery and inward investment will have an important role to play in helping the North East return to pre-COVID levels and continue its ambitious plans for the future.  

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