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Harnessing Existing Skills to Forge Ahead Towards Net Zero

Net Zero

In an informative panel discussion at Mercure Darlington Kings Hotel, in November 2023, those at the heart of the renewable energy sector in the UK gathered together to discuss Darlington’s role in levelling up from a green perspective, and how it can lead the way in the journey towards Net Zero. 

Held in partnership with National Gas, the panel featured:

  • Corrine Barry/Chair – Director Net Zero, East Coast UK, RWE
  • Peter Gibson MP – Member of Parliament for Darlington
  • Jake Tudge – Corporate Affairs Director, National Gas

Investment as Opportunity to Level Up

Corrine Barry began the panel by referencing the government’s recent announcement that £960 million will be invested in clean energy supply chains across the UK, specifically focusing on offshore wind, electricity networks, nuclear, CCUS and hydrogen. Speaking about this financial investment, delivered through the Green Industries Growth Accelerator, Corrine asked what the panel thought it meant for constituents, supply chain opportunities and levelling up across the region. 

Peter Gibson MP responded, saying it was an incredibly exciting time for the region. He said the Tees Valley Mayor’s work has been key in restoring the area’s pride and raising their status. Alongside this, the number of new Conservative elected MPs in the area was fundamental as local people now have a part in influencing the community. 

“The politics of the region has changed because the elected members are from the community. The decision to plant the Darlington economic campus here came about because the Tories in the region were fighting for it.”

Investment in the area has seen people get more jobs at the heart of government, more businesses have been attracted to here, and supported the saving of the airport, and the creation of freeports.

Attractive location for energy businesses

Jake Tudge said that the area’s resources, both naturally and the workforce, makes Darlington an attractive area from a green perspective to receive investment. 

“One of the things we think about when we are going to position future infrastructure is where supply and demand will form. We think about where skills lie, where is rich in its skills base, and… where businesses will collectively support our ambitions.”

Jake also referenced that the Darlington area is incredibly well connected which is really helpful. 

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A National Example

Peter Gibson MP said other regions in the UK can learn from Darlingtons example. The infrastructure around the oil, gas and chemicals industry, and the skills that flow from that are vital. The area is also well economically interconnected.

Of specific importance, Peter said, was the creation of combined authority and Ben Howshams election in 2017. That interconnectedness of working and political cohesion with the surrounding areas, alongside the creation of Darlington as an economic zone where taxes don’t apply until leaving the area (known as freeports), has been an integral springboard to the areas success. 

In terms of suggestions for other regions, Peter said, it was key to play on the existing skills base and regional heritage of any given area. By thinking about what the skills base looks like in terms of jobs of the future, and signing up to a cohesive political strategy with all key members working together, areas can really make strides forward. 

“Businesses don’t want to come to areas that are being framed as unattractive.”

In terms of the east coast leading the green agenda, Peter said the area was a strong manufacturing nation that is also great at exporting its services across the continent. 

Local Skills, Government and Finance

An audience poll of the biggest enablers for Net Zero in the east coast, found local skills, government support and private finance at the top. The panel expanded on the importance of this trio of factors to aid the successful journey to Net Zero. 

Peter said:

“Government alone cannot level up. It’s about government investment being an enabler of local skills and leveraging that private finance to develop the jobs and skills out there.”

Jake Tudge added to this, saying that private finance will follow the government investing funds in skills development, especially when schemes are being offered that show certainty. This has already been proven through offshore wind schemes and private financial investment in the region. 

Labour Market Supply to Match Development

The importance of connecting with educational institutions and raising awareness about the job opportunities in the energy sector in the region, in order to satisfy growing job demand in was also explored by the panel. 

Peter said there was a challenge in terms of matching those available to work with the extensive skill set required. He said businesses need to share, ahead of time, the jobs they need personnel for, and that businesses, educational institutions and government need to work hand in hand to ensure this. 

Speaking about RWE and connecting with local schools, Corrine added that it is down to the businesses and organisations to bridge the gap of educating the schools and to talk to the children and show them they do not have to leave the region to have the life, job, and opportunities they desire. 

Corrine said:

“There is a lot of disparity in some regions and not every kid gets the same opportunities. At RWE we try to make sure that every person has the same opportunities irrespective of background. We need a diverse workforce.”

Jake added:

“If we don’t have the most diverse skills we are not going to solve the most complex problem – and that’s Net Zero!

Jake referred to the value of skills passports, and how there is a great transferability of skills across natural gas and hydrogen jobs which is important, when that shift inevitably comes to be a reality. He said a national framework is required to provide the hydrogen sector with a set of standards from a job perspective which businesses can align against. Also, there has to be greater coordination between the government, DFE, business and trade to say what their pipeline is and how can they ensure an international exchange of talent. 

north east skills

Planning Authorities Role  

The role of planning authorities to ease the process of new energy developments was also raised. Peter said that recent development in the Tees Valley is an example of how the removal of some red tape around planning processes had aided some projects’ smooth development. 

There are five local authorities in the Tees Valley, and it is imperative, Peter said, that they work together to ease possible delays. 

Jake said that, with the increase in energy related developments in recent years, it is important for support to be given to local authorities to help them understand the plans being submitted. He mentioned the Autumn Statement which proposes a number of new ideas for how planning permission will be delivered. 

With this in mind, a wider discussion around how to ease possible planning issues is key to ensure developments can progress without unnecessary hurdles. 

North East Skills

Bigger System Conversations

All panel participants agreed that collaborative working is vital in order to collectively move closer to the Net Zero goal. Alongside this cohesive working approach, all panellists felt that harnessing the existing skills base within the region, and working “hand in glove” with educational institutions to raise awareness about the opportunities in the green energy sector, was very important. 

Working in silos was warned against, and “bigger system conversations” around Net Zero and the workforce who will bring it into fruition, were deemed as the best way to move ahead. 

Watch the full video here:

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