Mark Lane talks to Bernicia’s John Johnston, the incoming chairman of the North East England Chamber of Commerce Northumberland Area Committee, about how increased self-autonomy can be used to the advantage of the county
It is a time of notable change in Northumberland. In the past few months, legislation has been passed which will see the creation of a new authority covering Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, as well as an elected mayor.
While not everyone has supported the devolution agenda, there is no doubt that shifts towards self-autonomy for this part of the world offer a wealth of opportunity for the area and its business community. Indeed, for many, change cannot come soon enough.
One person who has been watching this shift towards devolution closely is John Johnston, chief executive officer with housing association, Bernicia, and the incoming chairman of the North East England Chamber of Commerce Northumberland Area Committee. Devolution will unquestionably have an impact on the work of the organisation John heads up given its scale and strategic importance in the area.
Bernicia owns and manages 14,000 properties, primarily for rent, across the North East and is developing new homes across a range of property types and tenures. It provides housing and property-related services for single people, couples, families and older people, and care and support for those with additional requirements.
While predominantly a social landlord, it also has successful commercial trading subsidiaries that provide high quality block and facilities management, estate agency, private rented and open spaces management.
“As a group therefore we build, rent, sell and manage homes, provide estate and facilities management and care and support services to over 60,000 customers,” John explains.
“We employ over 550 people, and will be investing over £200m in new and existing homes and communities over the next five years.”
John and his team recognise they have a broader role beyond that of providing housing in the region, and being a prominent member of the North East England Chamber enables them to make their voices heard in the ongoing debate about the future direction of the region.
John adds: “We want to help develop and deliver the strategic vision for the North East and being an active member of the Chamber is wholly consistent with this aim.”
So what about the issue of devolution? How does John see this impacting the work of Bernicia? He says: “I am a great supporter of the devolved authority as I passionately believe that from this we will have a real chance to make a significant difference for communities.
“What has impressed me is the wholehearted support of the three authorities to work together. As in most devolution deals it is hoped that the funding and scale of the deal will increase over time but it is important that the three members work together, as they obviously are, to deliver early wins.
“The focus on economic growth, transport, education, skills and training issues appear to be the correct ones and addressing those of housing, closing inequality gaps, poverty and championing equality and diversity are extremely welcome.”
Some commentators have claimed that Northumberland’s rural nature places it at a disadvantage to other parts of the North East, and the fact that it also lacks a major city – a Sunderland or Newcastle – also holds it back in terms of economic development.
While accepting these issues bring challenges, John says he prefers to “concentrate on the many advantages that the county’s rural and urban make- up offers”.
He says: “Wherever you are in Northumberland you are a relatively short journey away from a stunning coastline and Northumberland castles country, and within easy reach of a number of vibrant towns or the Newcastle city region with all advantages of a major city.
“We have land and opportunities to aid business growth, a willingness to develop the skills that employers of the future require and our communities have demonstrated how hard-working and dedicated they are.”
John also claims Northumberland has much to offer the business community, pointing out the area’s ambitious industrial growth plans linked to the energy and offshore, health and life science, digital and manufacturing sectors.
He adds: “We have a number of substantial towns, including Ashington, Berwick, Blyth and Hexham that have huge potential and we have a stunning and well-connected rural landscape from which to grow our tourism economy.
“There are plans already in place to improve transport, including re- establishing passenger rail travel via the Northumberland to Newcastle line, with the aim to have the first passenger trains running by 2022.”