People who haven’t visited Sunderland recently may have been surprised by Thursday’s news that Nissan is investing £ 1 billion in a futuristic electric vehicle hub in the city.
Sunderland, known for its history in heavy industry and shipbuilding, is overshadowed by its industrial past and may not be the first place that springs to mind when envisioning the future of manufacturing. But it should be, according to Patrick Melia, executive director of Sunderland City Council. “It is a city in transformation,” he said.
Between the council and the national government, £ 100 million is being invested in a high-tech manufacturing park adjacent to the Nissan plant, which prior to the Japanese automaker’s announcement was expected to generate between £ 500 million and £ 600 million. investment from the private sector. With £ 423 million from Nissan and £ 450 million from battery maker Envision, this goal has already been smashed.
“We need to be facilitators as a local authority. We don’t always have a lot of cash to invest, but what we do have is experience and we know how to bring business to Sunderland and benefit the Northeast region in general, ”said Melia.
The Brexit effect, which some of the rest happily wished for in the exit-voting Sunderland, has not materialized here. Although there is still uncertainty about food production due to a shortage of factory, agricultural and transport workers – problems that exist across the UK – Sunderland appears to have escaped virtually unscathed.
Despite this, challenges remain, with unemployment higher than the national average and significantly lower wages, at a time when the city suffers from higher rates of Covid-19 infections than the country as a whole.
Already struggling before the pandemic hit, Sunderland ranked among the top 20 local authorities in Britain for job deprivation, according to government figures.
The percentage of the workforce claiming unemployment benefits had skyrocketed to 7.3% in May this year, compared with an average of 6% in the UK. And despite progress in recent months as lockdown measures were gradually relaxed across the country, roughly a tenth of the local workforce is still on leave.
And yet Sunderland has ambitious plans. In 2023, the city will host its Future Living Expo, showcasing the 5G-enabled and renewable energy “houses of the future,” 1,000 of which are currently planned for Sunderland, built outside the city and assembled in four new neighborhoods. in the north of the city center.
“They will be the most sustainable and the smartest houses in the UK when we build them,” said Melia. “So we are on a transformation journey and you need things like [Nissan’s investment] to shore up all of that. “
In 2019, financial services company Legal & General pledged £ 100 million to the city’s regeneration efforts, with the goal of creating a Grade A office space in “Riverside Sunderland”, an “urban neighborhood” north of the city on the river. Wear.
Work on the project will begin next month, at the site of the former Vaux Breweries, which closed in 1999. The site has been empty for two decades, in part due to numerous planning lines for Tesco, which had attempted to build a superstore there. until it was bought by the city council in 2011.
Legal & General CEO Nigel Wilson, himself a native of the Northeast, said “massive changes” were taking place in the region in response to the emergence of green technology and the rise of renewables. The company’s investment in Sunderland was to seize a genuine opportunity, he said, one that was lost at the turn of the millennium, when the UK failed to support startup tech companies and lost ground to the US and China.
He said, “We lost the ship. However, this next wave of technology is coming incredibly fast. “
Legal & General has invested £ 22 billion of pension funds in projects such as urban regeneration, clean energy and transport infrastructure across the UK. “We have been saying this for many, many years and we have been practicing it for many, many years. But now it has become popular and fashionable. “
Wilson said business had been the catalyst for change in Sunderland, but believed the government had supported it as well.
“For many things, [the private sector] You can do it, and then there are certain things the government has to prime the bomb on, to be frank. “
With taxpayers’ money backing the investment in Nissan, the government’s “leveling” rhetoric now has a tone of reality here. The amounts committed are small but symbolic, suggesting that the interventionist approach that characterized postwar industrial policy is in vogue.
Within the city, companies still have a strong attachment to their own territory, determined to resist what is often described as the “magnetic pull” of the southeast.
In Keel Square, across the street from the Vaux Breweries site, is Hays Travel’s new £ 6.4 million head office, a Sunderland success story.
Founded by John Hays in 1980, the company has grown to be the UK’s largest independent travel agency, with a staff of 500 at the Sunderland head office and 7,000 in the rest of the UK. He made headlines most recently when he bought Thomas Cook’s retail division after the Christmas giant went bankrupt in 2019.
Dame Irene Hays, owner and president of the company, said she and her late husband John, who died suddenly last November, never considered moving the business elsewhere.
“For 41 years we have attributed our success to the loyalty, commitment, skills and flexibility of the thousands of lovely people we have been able to employ and develop in this area,” he said.
Sunderland was an attractive place to relocate, he said, because of its “beautiful coastline and thriving cultural scene,” which meant the company had been able to recruit a “diverse and adaptable workforce.”
Part of that cultural scene is the Sunderland Empire, the largest theater in the region and the only one that can host the biggest touring shows in the West End.
It directly employs more than 100 people and, with 300,000 visitors in a typical year, supports many more hospitality jobs in the city. The Empire has been closed for more than a year, with almost all of its staff without permission, but the box office is open and reservations are already being accepted for the winter season pantomimes.
Theater director Marie Nixon said the optimism felt by the city council and businesses was translating into a thriving cultural sector, even though it had been hit hard by the pandemic. While it remains to be seen what the long-lasting effects of the shutdown will be, Sunderland is “creating more opportunities than ever” for artistic types who might have left the city for the brighter lights of Newcastle, Leeds or further south.
“I feel really optimistic,” Nixon said. “I think we only need what everyone needs and that is a certainty.”