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Doncaster Business Conference 2019 – Dan Fell Speech

Good morning and thank you for joining us at the Doncaster Business Conference.

Last Friday evening, I joined a number of other privileged guests in celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Yorkshire Wildlife Park.  The event was an apt reminder of how far Doncaster has travelled in the last decade.  In that time, the borough has achieved many great things, including key developments such as: the Great Yorkshire Way, Cast Theatre, and the National College for High Speed Rail.  At the event, I had numerous conversations about the positive change we have enjoyed and it was clear just how palpable the belief in our borough currently is.

During the course of those celebrations, the brilliant people behind the success of the Yorkshire Wildlife Park were, quite rightly, recognised and lauded.  However, the typically gracious leadership team also took the trouble to acknowledge and thank Doncaster for its part in their success, reflecting on the warm welcome given to them by the borough and on the passionate support and advocacy of Doncaster’s agencies, people and politicians.

The ‘warm Doncaster welcome’ is a phrase we have now heard on numerous occasions.  We have heard it from Amazon, we have heard it from 360 Degrees Media, and we’ve heard from a range of SMEs, developers and investors who increasingly state how easy it is to do business in Doncaster.  The results of this business-friendly approach are starting to speak for themselves.  Doncaster has just enjoyed a record year for house building, Centre for Cities rank us as one of the five fastest growing economies in the UK, and employment is at a twelve-year high.  Consequently, I need to commend the leadership of Mayor Ros Jones in recognising the centrality of the economy when it comes to delivering inclusive growth and social justice.  Conversely, those that fail to understand the importance of enterprise in the current climate, would do well to reflect on where Doncaster would be without it.

Whilst I am bullish about Doncaster’s fortunes, we must not rest on our laurels or believe too much of our own hype.  Yes, we have done brilliant things but, equally, we have much to do.  If Doncaster is to become even more successful and to keep its doors wide open for economic opportunity, we must re-double our efforts to: improve our town centres, localise supply chains, increase the amount of available commercial property, help more of our firms to internationalise, and do more to make ourselves environmentally sustainable.  We also need to think critically about Doncaster’s role in the future economy.  This includes evaluating how we might: lead in tech, benefit from the fourth industrial revolution and cultivate green businesses that will lead the way when it comes to tackling climate change.

As well as thinking big, we also need to make sure that Doncaster gets better at sweating the small stuff.  So whilst we should be proud of the Great Yorkshire Way, the job won’t be completely done until we have solved the bottlenecks at Junction 3 of the M18.  Similarly, whilst we are delighted to finally have the green light for Doncaster UTC, we will need to ensure that its focus on employability skills is emulated across our education system.  If we get the details right, then even more magic can happen.

Of course, it is not enough just to be business friendly.  To deliver for its employers, Doncaster must also be people friendly.  This is why I spend so much of my time working to address skills and also advocating passionately for our creative and cultural economy.  In this regard, I am delighted to see the increasing prominence of our arts sector within Doncaster’s plans and wholeheartedly applaud the creative people that are making things happen in this space.  Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of such varied activities as: Doncaster Culture Crawl, Doncaster Art Fair, Doncaster Fashion Week, Doncaster Creates, Delicious Doncaster and so much more quality stuff happening on our doorsteps.

This, combined with much activity on education and skills – led by partners including: the NHS Teaching Hospital, Partners in Learning, Doncaster College, Expect Youth and Doncaster Rovers Sports College – really is making Doncaster an attractive place to live, work, learn and play.

That said, if we are to be a truly successful place, we need to make Doncaster a great place for all of its people, not just for some of them.  You don’t need me to tell you that we live in polarising times and that community cohesion is far from a given.  Business thrives when communities thrive and vice versa.  Therefore, as a private sector, I believe it is our duty to have a strong moral compass and stand up for inclusion.  Great business is diverse business, and our best companies embrace and nurture talent wherever it comes from.  Part of the ‘act local’ agenda must, therefore, include: a focus on embracing the skills to be found within all of our communities, a commitment from industry to challenge intolerance, and an ongoing willingness of civic minded business leaders to ‘give back’ to the borough where they are building their success.

The Chamber recognises that Doncaster exists within the context of Yorkshire and the Northern Powerhouse.  Led by member sentiment, your Chamber advocated – and continues to advocate – for full regional devolution.  We believe that ambitious devolution at scale and with levels of resource commensurate with our aspirations, is absolutely paramount to success in a post-Brexit climate.  We have never fallen into the trap, however, of pretending this is a binary debate between Yorkshire and South Yorkshire devolution.  It is therefore good to see the impasse broken on devolution to the Sheffield City Region, particularly if this can be a stepping stone to even bigger and better things.

It is also pleasing to see new leadership in the Sheffield City Region – including the Elected Mayor Dan Jarvis, LEP Chairman James Muir and re-appointed Vice Chairman Nigel Brewster – regularly and sincerely conveying the “open for business”’ mantra.  In recent years, this message has felt a little drowned out by endless debate about resources and governance.  Also, to be a little challenging, I would contend that the lack of a sub-regional devolution deal has been used – perhaps a little too frequently – as an excuse for a lack of progress on some of the key issues affecting our private sector.  I know there are many in the room that are still to be convinced that the city region is the right spatial area for ambitious policy making and implementation.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are emerging into a new world now and it is therefore incumbent on us all to be good partners and to try.

I believe it is the role of progressive business organisations to roll up their sleeves and to say to partners “what can we take care of for the team?”  In Doncaster this has resulted in the Chamber leading the lobbying work for Doncaster UTC, us massively enhancing our business support and international trade offer, and us taking significant risks to build new platforms that enable our business and education communities to work together to promote work readiness.  Being “open for business” should lead to “doing business”.  I therefore look forwards to learning more from city regional partners about how they want to work more closely with Doncaster and its business community in the near future.  This Chamber looks forward to working with the new guard at pace, with rigour and to meet our shared ambition to drive continued success across the region.

The pressure is on to get our local and regional partnership right because, frankly, it does not look like we are going to get much help from the centre in the short-term.  Every day the news brings more indecision and paralysis on Brexit and everyday it feels as though I can count the politicians acting in the national interest – rather than party or self-interest – on fewer and fewer fingers.  It is unacceptable, our country and our business communities deserve better.  Doncaster businesses need clarity on Brexit policy and they need plain English responses to the dozens of unanswered questions put to them by the Chamber network about the practical – and economically critical – facts of doing business in either a deal or no deal scenario.

This, of course, is before we even get to the domestic business environment.  The long list of issues that are not being grappled with because of Brexit uncertainty and political one-upmanship is utterly galling.  The list includes: indecision on key infrastructure projects such as Heathrow and HS2, a dearth of funding for the Further Education sector and inconsequential reform for the apprenticeship levy, no fundamental review of arcane business rates, no support for beleaguered town centre retailers…  the list goes on and on and on.  You would not choose to run your businesses with your heads buried in the sand whilst continuing to kick the can down the road on big decisions, so how is it remotely acceptable to run our country in such a way?

We did ask a number of Junior Ministers to join us at this conference to engage constructively on these critical issues.  This was a view to sensibly airing our frustrations whilst also articulating the increased value that Doncaster could add to UK plc if we were given the tools to do the job.  Sadly, this year – as with previous years – around half a dozen Ministers declined to come and speak to you.  This is despite Doncaster being one of the top five growing economies in the UK.  I doubt that we would have suffered from this lack of engagement if Doncaster was a city.

For this, and many other good reasons, I think it is about time that we re-fired the starting gun on going for City Status.  Doncaster is punching above its weight and setting city standards, so let’s get the badge to go with it!  It is my conviction that securing City Status will cement Doncaster’s reputation as a place of national and international significance.  It will also send a powerful message that we are not the kind of place that will be placated with derisory crumbs from the table – such as the recently announced and highly cynical Stronger Towns Fund – but that we are, instead, an investment ready proposition that is ready to do business with Government, entrepreneurs, and the wider world.

It is important to air our very real concerns about the macro-economy and the national policy framework.  We should, however, not become preoccupied by issues that are not in our gift to resolve.  Doncaster has changed demonstrably this last decade.  We have seen some of that change in our skyline but, more importantly, we have seen a change in peoples’ mind sets.  We no longer see ourselves as a problem to be solved or define ourselves by the things we don’t have.  Instead, we define ourselves by our assets and our appetite for excellence.

We have achieved this change as a result of meaningful collaboration and partnership working.  Partnerships between employers and their workers.  Partnerships between Doncaster and the wider world.  Partnerships between the public and private sector.  Partnerships between good people who are united by shared values and a desire to make a difference.  With that in mind, I need to pay tribute to one person who has made a remarkable difference to Doncaster and who has been a real friend to our business communities.  At the end of June, Jo Miller leaves Doncaster for a new life in New Zealand.  In the seven years that Jo has served Doncaster she has encouraged new ways of working, created new opportunities and utilised her massive black book of contacts for the benefit of our borough.  Jo and I enjoy a robust relationship and neither of us is afraid to hold each other to account.  However, we both recognise that it is fundamentally in the interests of the business community for the Chamber and the Council to work closely together.

So when Jo called me one evening to say that she was moving on, the biggest compliment I could give her was to say that – as a result of the partnerships she has helped to create – we will all thrive without her.  However, that is not to say that we won’t miss Jo’s warmth, good humour and determination to never accept second best for Doncaster’s people.  Can I therefore ask all of you to join me in thanking Jo for her enormous contribution to Doncaster and in wishing her and her family all the best for the future?

Right, that’s enough pontificating from me.  We now need to ‘crack on’ with the rest of the conference and enjoy some great debate about how we can ‘think global’ and ‘act local’.  Please engage with the conversation and enjoy the morning.  Together we will continue to make Doncaster a great city to do business.

(Thursday 16 May)


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