In 1982 when unemployment in Derwentside peaked at 26% the team charged with attracting jobs to the area were still remarkably upbeat. Eddie Hutchinson was on that team and now the outgoing chief executive of Derwentside Industrial Development Agency, is naturally proud of its achievements.
THEY haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance." That is how the Derwentside job creation team were viewed shortly after Consett steelworks closed in 1980, recalls Eddie Hutchinson.
"There were serious doubts in some circles that what we were planning would come to nothing.
"We had tremendous central Government backing, all the support was being made available to us, but there is no doubt in my mind that there was a view that we didn’t have a chance of turning this around."
Mr Hutchinson, now 63, had arrived in Consett in 1980 as part of the British Steel Industry (BSI) team that was based on the old steelworks site. This was the arm of British Steel charged with regeneration and securing jobs for towns where steelworks were closing. Other places to get such assistance were Corby in Northamptonshire, Ebbw Vale in South Wales and Rotherham in South Yorkshire.
BSI in Consett worked hand in hand with the local councils – Derwentside District Council, Durham County Council – the DTI and English Estates.
It was a mighty task they faced and as we have heard their doubters were many.
The flames of the last furnace were extinguished at Consett Steelworks on September 12, 1980, recalls Mr Hutchinson.
In the run up to that day there were marches on the streets of Consett but the Government remained firm in backing British Steel who had decided the steelworks no longer had a future.
It had decided it was too expensive to ship the raw materials involved in steel production to an inland location and 3,500 men were made redundant.
The previous year 750 Consett steelworkers had also been put on the dole when the Hownsgill plate works – which made the steel plates for the shipbuilding industry – was closed.
In the previous decades around 20 pits in the Consett area had closed and shortly after the steelworks closed a further 1,500 people were laid off at the RHP ball-bearing factory in nearby Annfield Plain.
"Between the 1950s and the 1970s there were 15,000 jobs lost in Derwentside," Mr Hutchinson says.
"Those were dark days for Derwentside and the North-East, the shipbuilding and coal industries were also struggling and in the late 1970s there was also a recession in the UK economy.
"This was having a major impact on the local economy.
"Attempts were being made to attract international mobile branch plants such as the Ever Ready battery plant at Tanfield and Amoco in Consett, however these were very difficult times."
But the people charged with helping getting Derwentside off its knees were confident that they would achieve their goals, and Mr Hutchinson says they were confident for a number of reasons.
"We had 750 acres of land on which to build (the former steelworks site). We were building a new road link from Consett to the A1M.
"We were establishing industrial estates and advanced factory units. We had a clean air environment and the business support services were available for small and medium sized enterprises to grow.
"It was our brief to use what we had to attract jobs and develop enterprise. We had to sell the area, work with the existing business community and attract inward investment. There was great optimism amongst the team, we believed we had lots going for us. This is a picturesque area, there was no pollution, we had a skilled workforce and skilled managers."
As unemployment peaked at 26% in 1982, and it emerged that thousands of people had left the area to seek a better life elsewhere, few would have believed the town could be turned around. But during those dark days Mr Hutchinson and co were beginning to feel they were heading in the right direction.
He recalls with fondness how the location of Consett – on an exposed foothill of the north Pennines – was in many ways becoming important in helping its rebirth.
"We got a inquiry from a speciality glass manufacturer called Romag – who already had a plant in Blaydon – but said they wanted to move to the Consett area because they wanted clean air.
"There was a feeling beginning to develop in the team. Long before the man on the street saw things happening we could sense the change.
"There only one way Derwenstide could go – and that was up."
In 1982 DIDA emerged from the multi-agency team that had been established in the town earlier.
Mr Hutchinson transferred to the new public/private body from BSI and eventually became chief executive in 1988.
Many of Derwentside’s current business success stories began as venture capital-backed start-ups assisted by DIDA, including companies such as Derwent Valley Foods, CAV Aerospace and International Cuisine.
CAV – which now employs 350 people in Consett and around 500 worldwide – is a businesses which is close to Mr Hutchinson’s heart.
Born in Crook in 1944, he joined British Aerospace in 1964 and trained as an aeronautical engineer.
He was sponsored by the company to take a degree and graduated in 1968 – despite having earlier failed his 11-plus – he then went on to get an MA at Durham Business School by the age of 26.
In 1971 he joined British Steel on Teesside where he worked on the financial side, before joining BSI in 1980 and arriving in Consett in mid-1981.
"AS&T, as CAV were then known, were based in Haltwhistle but once we were aware of their interest I just picked it up and ran with it. This is the success story that has given me most satisfaction with my background in this subject," Mr Hutchinson says.
Speaking to The Journal in DIDA’s modern £1m Steel House office accommodation he recalls how things were not always so plush.
"When I arrived we were based in some old huts which had been left over from the steelworks."
He recalls the inauspicious beginnings of another of Derwentside’s success stories, Derwent Valley Foods.
"The four men behind the company were all senior managers in industry.
"Theirs was just the kind of product we were interested in, niche packaging, an adult savoury snack in aluminium packaging. Their business plan was on a single sheet of A4 paper with nothing on it!
"At first they were working in a wooden hut next door to our own ‘offices."
Not for the first time in Consett’s industrial history there was something of a frontier feel to the place, Mr Hutchinson remembers.
"We helped Derwent Valley Foods secure the venture capital finance, they got the thing off the ground and the rest, as they say, is history," he added.
One of the goals of DIDA and its forerunner was to focus on attracting the "right type" of company to Derwentside.
One company Mr Hutchinson singles out as being one of his high points is Bioprocessing which came to Consett in the early 1980s after it secured £600,000 of venture capital. The company, now known as Millipore, is still based on the town’s No1 Industrial Estate and is a world leader in cancer fighting drugs.
He recalls: "We were proving the point that you could attract management teams and individuals into an area. That was very significant."
CONSETT and Derwentside have changed beyond recognition in recent years.
And in 2001, as a sign of these changing times, DIDA declared that job creation was no longer its primary goal.
"We shifted our focus to supporting existing businesses, concentrating on small start-ups and encouraging enterprise."
Surveying the new housing estates blossoming all over the town,
Mr Hutchinson says: "Regeneration has to be looked at in the long term. Derwentside is in a peripheral geographical location but now we have private sector housing developers building homes all over the area.
"I’m immensely proud to have been part of what has taken place. Derwentside has been transformed."
In 1995 Mr Hutchinson received an MBE for services to the business community and despite stepping down from DIDA, he will be maintaining his links with the agency as an adviser.
Too modest to claim any of the success as his own, Mr Hutchinson constantly references the work of all the agencies involved in the area’s rebirth.
But there is no doubt that without the efforts of this Durham City resident, Derwentside’s regeneration would be markedly different to what it is now.
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A debt of gratitude
THE work of Eddie Hutchinson is recognised by the senior figures he has worked alongside in the Derwentside area.
Owen McFarlane, chief executive of CAV Aerospace, which currently employs more than 300 people in Consett, said: “Eddie has done an outstanding job and guided the agency through many changes over the years.
“There are many businesses and individuals that owe him a debt of gratitude for his involvement, support and contribution to their success.”
DIDA director John Pearson, director of development and asset management for Derwentside District Council, said: “I don’t think anyone should under estimate the contribution Eddie has made – both in commitment and expertise.”
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What car do you drive?
A VW Passat.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Bistro 21 in Durham.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
War and Peace.
What’s your favourite film?
Four Weddings and a Funeral.
What was the last album you bought?
Shostakovich’s piano concertos Nos 1 & 2.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Any job that would enable me to resolve the serious traffic problems on the Western Bypass and at the Tyne Tunnel. Both are a disgrace.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Causing a fatal accident.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Don’t take things at face value.
Worst business advice?
None springs to mind.
What’s your poison?
All types of good quality wine.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Ten shillings and sixpence for a paper round. Enough for a good Saturday night out in Newcastle.
How do you keep fit?
Running (a medium to fast jog!), swimming and other exercise.
What’s your most irritating habit?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Foie Gras paté.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
I admire Sir Winston Churchill.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Neil Armstrong, Billy Connolly, Nelson Mandela and Delia Smith.
How would you like to be remembered?
"He was a canny lad."