Business Cornwall talks to the chief executive of the Cornwall Development Company, Suzanne Bond
We have had to wait a long time for the Cornwall Development Company (CDC) to appoint a chief executive. It had originally expected to have made an appointment in the autumn of 2009, but that fell through. It got even closer last summer, when it unveiled Homes and Communities director Colin Molton as its man, before he had a last minute change of heart.
But all good things come to those who wait, and CDC finally became third-time lucky when Suzanne Bond took up the reins last November.
And Bond certainly looks to have all the required skills and experience to help drive Duchy’s economy forward. A self-proclaimed economic development expert, she first started batting for Cornwall in 1990 as director of Cornwall’s Brussels office.
She returned to the UK in 1994 as deputy chief executive of the newly-formed West Country Development Corporation, before becoming executive director of the fledgling South West RDA in 1999, a position she held right up until her appointment at CDC.
Business Cornwall: Cornwall must have changed a lot since those early days in Brussels?
Suzanne Bond: When I first took the job in Brussels we were working on the end of one European programme and the beginning of a new one, so we had to do the economic strategy for Cornwall. But what we were talking about then compared to now is chalk and cheese, superfast broadband, energy from the sea, the universities – it’s a complete transformation.
BC: How long were you in Brussels for?
SB: Seven years, of which four were spent running the Brussels office. After that I did some work on a project with, what was, Coopers and Lybrand, looking at examples of best practice in economic development across Europe. It was in the days before people really knew and understood about public/private sector partnerships.
So I spent a month in different regions, Italy, Spain, and Holland, looking at that. They came up with the model that what you need is a public/private sector partnership with a shared vision, a set of common objectives, that harness the abilities and capacities of your locality, and that you stick to that vision with great tenacity, and then you get there.
And Limberg a region of Holland, where Maastricht is, became a template for how public and private sectors should work together. And, after that, everywhere in the UK was forming private and public sector partnerships.
There was one being established for Cornwall and Devon, called the Westcountry Development Corporation (WDC). I came back to the UK as deputy chief executive there. It involved all the local authorities, the TEC, the TUC and the private sector.
BC: This was still pre-RDA days?
SB: Yes, this was in 1994, the RDAs didn’t come about until 1999. In my last year at WDC, while serving as acting chief exec, I became involved in a campaign with the Western Morning News for a new deal for Cornwall and Devon, where we effectively came up with some evidence to suggest that Cornwall and Devon were the poorest treated parts of the country.
We came up with a suite of projects that we wanted, including the dualling of Goss Moor, an industrial site in the east of Cornwall called Broadmoor Farm, and more funding. This gave us a lot of profile – including a Minister with special responsibilities for Devon and Cornwall.
The General Election was May 97, the following month Richard Caborn, who was the new Minister for the Regions, came down to Exeter, and said to us “Cornwall hates Devon, Devon hates Cornwall, you both hate Bristol, and all of you hate London, but I don’t care, it’s going to be the South West region as a economic development entity”. And then I was invited a couple of weeks later to work on what an RDA should look like, based on the work we had done at the WDC.
BC: Was Richard Caborn right to put the South West all together like that?
SB: From my point of view it is more about what you do, rather than geography. It is a big region, possibly too big, but the way it was managed in the RDA is that it was effectively ‘sub-divided’, at operational level, with area directors.
On a smaller geographic level, we now have a Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) approved. It’s absolutely right that you can work at that level, but you still have to be outward looking. A lot of the things we need to work on require us working upstream with Devon and beyond.
Take the low carbon agenda as an example. If we think what skills are needed for the Wave Hub project and offshore renewable energy, for those technical skills we need to be looking up to North Devon where the Atlantic Array offshore wind farm will be built, up to Somerset where you have the new style of nuclear reactor being proposed; – similar skills, all across the region. Then there’s the composites and aerospace sector around Bristol. It would be the worst thing possible not to get as much support as we can from outside.
BC: Critics claim a Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP could be too inward looking.
SB: I think the days when Cornwall didn’t want to do things with anyone else and that it was all about Cornwall have changed. The culture has shifted. People understand that you can enhance the whole Cornwall and Isles of Scilly product, and still keep its distinctiveness and grow its economy, and that you can do that working with other partners.
BC: What are you feelings about the demise of the RDA? It had its critics, but it certainly wasn’t all bad.
SB: Any organisation will have good and bad. And I’ve been unequivocal with my staff here that the RDA model was a fascinating and useful one. I was a founding person of the RDAs, and the first employee of the South West RDA, and I know what things were like back in 1999.
We couldn’t articulate economic development in the same way as we can now. The first RES (regional economic strategy), which I was very responsible for so I’m sort of criticising myself, was more like an academic analysis in what you could do in economic development, because we hadn’t tried and tested it.
So what the RDA effectively did was have a bonfire of the quangos, collapsing, perhaps, seven organisations into one, enhancing its understanding and learning. It took a while, but slowly over time as the learning improved, it came together.
BC: There’s a lot of expertise at the RDA, is there a danger that expertise will now be lost?
SB: No – not if we work together to capture this expertise. The CDC has the hallmark of an organisation that has learned from the best and part of my role right now is to ensure that we learn everything we can from the RDA before it is wound up. I’ve been executive director at the RDA since
day one and I’ve worked across all parts of the agency so I can bring all of that experience to the job. I know some people are also looking at the physical assets of the RDA and what we can do with those.
BC: Who owns them, the Government I guess?
SB: Ultimately the RDA is a Government body.
BC: There has been talk of a fire sale of assets to raise much needed public money.
SB: The RDA, under the Business department’s (BIS) auspices, is in discussions with the Council how we should take this forward. My personal view is that it’s not important who owns them, but rather that the benefit of owning them is felt in Cornwall and not elsewhere.
But there’s a lot of intellectual property in the RDA, such as learning about marine renewables that led to the Wave Hub, and that’s where I’m concentrating my efforts on asset transfer at the moment. I’ve already, with the RDA’s agreement, had their sustainable resources team here for a whole day, with people from the Council and the CDC, making sure we know everything there is to know so we can build on that work. And similarly there will be other areas like innovation, research and development etc.
There are philosophical and ideological reasons why the RDA is going, but we need to keep the professionalism and learning and understanding, to keep growing the Cornish economy.
BC: Where will the old RDA powers and responsibilities be passed down to?
SB: Some will just disappear, which is why we have to create the future we want it to be. Some will go nationally, for example the innovation agenda will go back to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), and some physical assets work may go to the Home and Communities Agency (HCA), but a lot will just go. There have been worries about a brain drain, and it would have been a real risk if we hadn’t been doing what we can to maintain that level of expertise.
BC: Talking about the LEP generally, what will its role be going forward?
SB: The Government has been very clear in its description of what they should be, but the most important element is that the locality should design it itself. Of course it’s still early days in the formation of the LEP but the thinking is that it will lead on engagement with business, the low carbon economy, and will represent the business community.
BC: Detractors fear it could end up being an expensive talking shop and not have any real powers.
SB: The intention is that it’s a powerful, influential body. But it depends on what you mean by power. Sometimes the greatest power you can have is the power to influence Government, to make things happen in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly; sometimes it’s the power to control budgets.
I think the most important thing we need here is someone to represent the needs of business at the highest level, nationally and internationally, who has all the connections with governments, investment banks and the people who can effect change.
BC: What appealed to you most about the post at CDC?
SB: First of all, if this were an industry, I would probably be an industry expert in economic development companies by now! In a Brussels context, and national and sub-regional context, I have been doing this now for over 20 years.
I am also a Board member of the national tourism body VisitEngland, and have been for eight years, and so the whole tourism agenda is close to my heart. But fundamentally, this is Cornwall’s time, and that’s what attracted me.
At a time when the country has been hit by budget cuts, Cornwall still has Convergence running to 2015, with projects such as the
fastest rural broadband, Wave Hub, innovation centres, the continued development of the Combined Universities of Cornwall (CUC), and a real willingness to do things.
And this company is full of specialist people, totally committed to Cornwall. It’s a repository of everything that’s expert in economic development working on these projects, that’s what attracted me to it.
BC: So you do not feel hamstrung by public cutbacks?
SB: It’s a challenge. We’ve all got to do it. I think I’m a flexible, proactive type of person, and I’m immediately looking at other ways of doing things we need to do. Sometimes, to unlock the delivery of a project, it’s about making the right linkages between other projects and individuals. It’s not just about having purse strings to get it done.
In some ways, having too much money available can take the focus away. With VisitEngland I work with some of the biggest players in the world, and they say that they would run the UK’s publicly funded tourism assets at a tenth of the cost, because they don’t have the cushion of public sector funding.
Funding pots can sometimes make things less efficient, but can also limit creativity. Sometimes when you have to think differently, you can get more done.
BC: Do you see yourself as a private sector person, or public sector, or are these just tags?
SB: I don’t think I do view myself as one or the other, but I suppose the truth is I have worked in the public sector, but my roles have been about engagement with the front line of business. And my character, being who I am, I am willing and able to look at things in a different way. I don’t think I could work in the pure civil service. I just don’t think I could do it.
BC: One of the first things you said when taking the job was that early engagement with the private sector was a priority. How has that gone?
SB: So far, in these first few weeks, I’ve targeted those businesses of a certain size or sector that don’t fall into the natural public sector eligibility for engagement. And I’ve worked with a lot of the intermediaries. There are obviously a lot of things going on in the private sector at the moment with the advent of the LEP.
What I need to do, in concert with the LEP and other publicly funded bodies out there, is agree a proper system for engaging with business. Because there’s been so much public funding and business support in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, what has been lost is a little bit of the objective and coordination of it.
BC: It has taken a long time for CDC to fill your position, much longer than was anticipated. Have you had to play catch-up in a sense?
SB: We had an outstanding interim chief executive here. The company is about delivery, and he’s been very focused on delivery and he’s still working here on an interim basis. So, it’s been working.
BC: So you didn’t find a rudderless ship when you arrived.
SB: Absolutely not. We’ve just been successful in our Investors in People, and there’s been a lot of anonymous feedback from staff, very pleased with how it went on before but delighted now to have a permanent chief executive. And I have talked to all the staff and have got to know their skill sets and how we can build on them. I have lots of ideas how to spread best practice across the company.
The main thing, perhaps, has been the perception externally not to have had a permanent chief executive. People who do not deal with us regularly may not have seen us as a serious organisation. But now I’m very confident we can change that. BC: What do you see as your initial priorities?
SB: Some of the projects I inherited still need to be delivered, like the incredibly important work around Newquay Airport. And with the business engagement I’ve had, every single person I’ve spoken to has said the airport is critical.
BC: You don’t think its importance is overplayed?
SB: No, I don’t think so. I know a lot of small businesses who also work in London or the south east, so having that access is critical for the work of their business. And from a personal perspective, if I have a board meeting in London, being able to go there and back in a day is important.
And the work CDC does on the airport is to ensure it is a sound proposition for those businesses and industry growing up around it. And while I can’t say too much at the moment, there is some really serious, exciting prospects of serious investment from some heavy hitters that will enable the airport to flourish. This could bring hundreds of jobs in and ensure the airport as an entity will continue to flourish.
BC: Do you think the Council is the right body to own it? There have been suggestions from some councillors themselves that it should be sold to help the public coffers?
SB: Across the country there are airports that are owned by councils that work really well and those that don’t work really well. It has to be a decision for the Council what they do with the airport. But whoever owns it, making it a serious, viable economic entity is the critical thing, and we will work with whoever owns it to help make sure that happens.
But putting the airport aside for the moment, the RDA holds the ring in terms of strategic understanding of those ERDF Convergence funded projects and how they work together. A priority for me is to ensure, in terms of project delivery, it all links together. That the Wave Hub and the renewable energy park planned for Hayle, link in with Pool Innovation Centre which in turn links in with Tremough Innovation Centre, and the Environmental and Sustainability Institute and the whole of the CUC.
All of this is going to create business and put us on the world stage and help us leap frog other regions. This is one of the reasons I say ‘it is Cornwall’s time’. Not only has it defined itself as to what it’s going to be, but it’s also privileged to have some funding during a period when other areas do not. That’s why with the LEP, if it can bring the business community together to work with people like our organisation, we all drive that focus and we can achieve that.
BC: But there are squabbles over the LEP aren’t there?
SB: Whenever there is a period of change, of flux, it is inevitable there is going to be a jockeying for position. It is not unique to Cornwall. And I think what many people are saying is that it is time for businesses to come together, to be focused. It is one Cornwall business community as well. The cost of not getting this right is huge.
BC: How important is private sector inward investment in all of this?
SB: In terms of the world we’re going into, it has to be a mixture of inward investment and indigenous growth, because some of the technologies don’t exist in Cornwall and are only nascent in other parts of the country or in Europe.
So we need to have a balance, we need to make sure the skills we have in local communities can grow new businesses and help existing businesses grow. Skills can often be overlooked. We know the low carbon and environmental technology sector has the potential to grow by a factor of millions over the next 20 years, and we need to grow the skills of our people so they can lead the way in that.
It’s not really a role for the CDC per se, but many businesses I’ve spoken to want us to get more into young person’s skills, to encourage a sense of real entrepreneurship, so people become more self directed and are able to adapt to change.
It’s not just about what you learn at school, but how you apply what you learn, so there might be a role for us in concert with some of the colleges and universities in that agenda.
BC: And with all the public sector redundancies, ‘entrepreneurship’ is even more important.
SB: That’s part of the culture of Cornwall. When you talk about entrepreneurship, there’s a slight difference between people who want to start up a business to make a living, to those who want to transform their company and make it a leader in its field, and I think in this county we need both types.
BC: There’s sometimes a criticism that businesses are not aspirational enough in Cornwall and that people are just here for the lifestyle in a beautiful part of the world.
SB: This doesn’t just happen in Cornwall; it can happen in other parts of the south west and beyond, too. But beauty never hurt business! That used to be a strapline for the south of France for their inward investment.
It’s about showing the way, growing the business and still having quality of life. A lot of people here are quite edgy and quirky and have a pizzazz. What you need is to get the people with savvy to turn around to those people with pizzazz, and say we’re going to turn your product into something that is really out there, that you can market and you can still preserve your quality of life.
That has to be the new model of the economy. Cornwall is never going to become a ‘City of London’ in terms of work, work, work and never doing anything else, but we can encourage people to do what they do, at a time it suits them. And that’s what superfast broadband will be able to do, people working in a different pattern with lots of new business models.
This article appears in the February issue of Business Cornwall magazine