City needs the ambition to match our top companies

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Last Wednesday, I attended an extraordinary event at the ever-wonderful Morley Hayes hotel.

Ostensibly it was a breakfast - hosted by the Derby Telegraph and Champions (UK) plc – celebrating the Top 200 companies in Derbyshire.

The University of Derby Business School had compiled a league table following what sounded like some serious number crunching revealing an economy worth £14.9 billion.

There was no great surprise to see that Rolls-Royce sat comfortably in the number one slot.

For over 100 years, Rolls-Royce has been synonymous with Derby and today the city hosts the world HQ of the Aerospace, Corporate and Nuclear activities of this £3bn turnover engineering behemoth.

I’ve occasionally heard it commented that we make too much of Rolls-Royce but believe me, when we are promoting the city to inward investors, saying that we are home to one of the world’s greatest business names – up there with the Amazons, Apples and Googles – quickly gets investor attention and respect.

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On almost any such conversation, Rolls-Royce opens the batting. There isn’t a city in the UK – and I include London, Birmingham and Manchester – that wouldn’t give their back teeth to host what we have here in Derby.   

Needless to say, Rolls-Royce was joined in the top of the charts by the likes of Bombardier and Toyota and a few other familiar names – Bowmer and Kirkland, East Midlands Trains and Pattonair, for example – but, I was equally fascinated by the inclusion of clearly brilliant companies, that are far from being household names, operating all across the county.

Companies such as Eco-Bat, Eoth, Fannin and Senad are not names that trip off the tongue but they, and many others, are crucial to creating a balanced economic eco-system in Derbyshire.

And I say Derbyshire, as this list covered postcodes from DE1 to DE74 and of course the SK and S40 codes you get in the northwest and northeast of the county respectively.

It was good and right to celebrate, but what made the event extraordinary in my view, were the comments made from the stage by the three keynote speakers, Steve Hall from the Derby Telegraph, the University of Derby’s boss Kath Mitchell and most especially, David Williams.

David’s day job is Chairman of Geldards, a well-respected law firm with operations in Derby, Cardiff, Nottingham and London. That’s a big enough job in itself but David was speaking with some of his other hats – Chairman of the Derby Renaissance Board and the Derby-Nottingham Metro Growth Board, as well as being Deputy Chairman of the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership.

His comments were an impassioned plea – directed at local authorities and in particular to their politicians - to engage and listen to the concerns of business.

The focus of his observation was very much Derby and the need for the city to raise its aspirations and to be open and welcoming for business, views endorsed by Steve and Kath.

The core business reality is competition and to survive and thrive, companies – such as the 200 in the list – need to continue to attract and retain talent. A key component in this is the concept of place – in other words, is the place in which we are located sufficiently attractive to the talent that we need in order to compete?

David’s fear was that, despite the fantastic work undertaken over the past ten years or so in attracting investment, the city was in danger of losing momentum, at the same time as when our competitors were stepping up their game.

His frustrations reflect an emerging wider agitation in the business community, frustrated at what is increasingly looking like an anti-development planning process, as well as the apparent lack of progress on high profile regeneration and development schemes, such as the Friar Gate Goods Yard, Becketwell, DRI and Assembly Rooms – all standing empty for 50, 11, 7 and 5 years respectively.

There may be good news on the first three of these, as business-led investments finally look like emerging in the new year, but the focus is now on the embarrassing debacle that is the Assembly Rooms.

I don’t need to rehearse the story in this column. I’ve written before on how it should never have been closed but, that now it is, we should listen to the experts who tell us that it is not fit for purpose and needs replacing.

A few weeks ago, at the Derby Renaissance Board, business patience finally snapped. Hearing that Derby City Council is about to spend £20m plus on reopening the loss-making Assembly Rooms, as opposed to building a new profit-making performance venue, at twice the size for twice the price, was simply too much.

It was a genuinely passionate debate with a rare consensus that the refurbishment was ‘underwhelming’, would create a ‘village hall’, fit for ‘a market town, not a city’ and fundamentally will not attract the performances required. A delegation from the DRB will soon be meeting the City Leader to express these concerns.      

Which brings me back to the top 200 at the beginning of this piece.

Derby and Derbyshire is a hub for many fantastic businesses but we must not take them for granted and, more than that, we need to do all we can to ensure we shape a place that has the ambition and aspiration to support their enterprise.