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Bit of a chat

The musings of BQ's backroom boy, Frank Tock

Frank Tock

Big is creepily beautiful

I’ve just driven without pre-tuition a 25 ton, six-wheel articulated Volvo dumper. That may not turn you on. For me, it’s a schoolboy ambition achieved. Amok, so to speak, 55 metres down in Marsden Quarry at Whitburn, I had misgivings at one point trundling up a 60º incline of loose aggregate that it could be the end of a beautiful dream. But no, we reached the top without mishap, I reassured that Richard Rutherford sat behind, poised to pounce on controls if things did go wrong.

Richard, from Hexham, has been instructing in heavy construction and demolition vehicles for 13 years. He never turns a hair when one visiting novice after another climbs into the cab to test their skill on days when Owen Pugh Group opens its quarry and facilities to key stakeholders.

He’s equally sanguine when trainees of the group, for which he also works, clamber aboard. Group chairman John Dickson, present chairman also of the Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association (North East), is stressing the sector’s need to infuse an ageing workforce with young entrants, ready for an eventual recovery in infrastructure work.

“Only by engaging young people early can our industry attract talent and enthusiasm and build a skilled workforce of the future,” he tells me. Indeed, his group recently linked with the Institution of Civil Engineers and Northern Counties Builders’ Federation to raise young people’s awareness. Their Discovery Day for 14 and 15-year-olds made headway. Pat Gibson, who teaches at St Hild’s Church of England School, Hartlepool (specialising in engineering) said afterwards: “Getting out of the classroom and into a working environment with a chance to speak to industry professionals sparked their enthusiasm and creativity.”

And George Hodgson, who teaches at the Joseph Swan Academy in Gateshead, said: “Pupils have said to me they didn’t realise such a wide range of jobs was available to them.” I’d say some mums and dads, too, ought to give this much modernised industry some thought for any of their offspring seeking job guidance. John Dickson’s colleague at CECA (NE), regional director Douglas Kell, stresses at every public opportunity all that the industry can offer thinkers and doers alike. It’s a helpful industry too, I learned from Liam Corbett. Liam, 20, studied at a Teesside training centre after leaving Manor College of Technology in home town Hartlepool. But the centre couldn’t find him a sponsor or an employer. C&A Pumps at Bowburn learned of his disappointment and gave him work experience. Now Liam has been named the North East’s Most Promising Apprentice in civil engineering and construction by CECA (NE).

Alan Roberts at C&A Pumps tells me: “We soon decided we should employ him. We estimate that in ability and maturity he’s 12 to 18 months ahead of other apprentices for the same time scale.”

Two's company

Having worked hard for it, Newbiggin and Stockton deserve to be “Portas pilots”, getting state funding and expert advice from retail guru Mary Portas to help regenerate their high streets. Their own suggestions put them among 12 successful bids out of 371 places competing. It’s less than a £100,000 average each gets – enough, though, to encourage.

Newbiggin deserves to be aloft; didn’t John Braine get the aptly named idea for his novel Room at the Top there? Seriously, though, it’s in an area of Northumberland that has been really badly hit by recession and its aftermath, and was low waged even before. A favourite seaside resort among Victorians, its fortunes plunged in 1967 with the closure of its coalmine, and 36% of its shop premises have been vacant recently. But also recently its beach has received TLC and its transformed maritime centre is a little gem of a visitors’ attraction.

Champions of the recovering resort, like Crystal Hinds the maritime manager and Norma Thompson, who chairs Newbiggin Traders’ Association, now want improved transport to make it easier for shoppers to visit the high street from outlying areas. Stockton had been highlighted nationally as one of the worst places in the country for empty shops. But the local council already has a £20m revival plan under way for its famous high street and surrounds over the next five years.

I just hope neither Portas pilot suffers the fate of Morpeth – shopping improved beyond recognition only to have its town centre torn apart by prolonged, trade-damaging roadworks. Incidentally, why did the Government need a marketing consultant like Mary Queen of Shops to rescue our high streets? Couldn’t those on the front line, local chambers of trade, give the answers? Or wouldn’t they have been listened to? Is the Government too proud to draw on local expertise? Or is it because chambers are often associated with carping rather than creating? Either way, other towns with troubled high streets unlucky enough not to feature in a second batch of 15 pilots to be announced shortly should watch and learn.


Timing is everything when it comes to promoting your business, just ask Ernst & Young. On Saturday The Telegraph reported on court claims that senior figures at the accountant alledgedly "covered up allegations" that the firm bribed a judge to obtain a favourable result in a tax trial. Two days later the company issues a press release on its latest study into - you guessed it - bribery. As much as three quarters of middle managers in Yorkshire, for example, have never heard of the UK Bribery Act the report lamented. The results indicate a lack of preparation by many organisations, it warned. It will be interesting to see what the results of the firms current legal wrangle indicate.

Diversification in the XXXtreme

For many an entrepreneur, the ability to find a new use for an old product is what keeps them well-heeled and king or queen of their own growing empire. Fair play, then, to the science business which issued a press statement this week to champion its eureeka moment - the relaunch of its technological anti-incontinence device as a sex toy. Talk about penetrating new markets.

Seventh pylon

If George Best was known as The Fifth Beatle, it wouldn´t have been unfair to
refer to now retired Black Sheep head brewer Paul Ambler as The Seventh
Python. He delighted in all of a brewer´s eccentricities (they´re a rare breed), coupled with an acute sense of humour marinated in an encyclopaedic knowledge of Monty Python´s Flying Circus. For example, to mark the 30th anniversary of television´s most anarchic comedy series in 1999, he developed Monty Python´s Holy Grale, which he claimed had been “Tempered Over Burning Witches”. At the time he said: “It has a very, very pronounced hop flavour and citrus character, with more hops than a killer rabbit.” He also claimed Python Terry Jones, who owned the Penrhos Court Brewery in Herefordshire, was the driving force behind
the anniversary beer. “At first, we didn´t have a name for it, so I just called it
Mr Creosote´s Ale. You know, he had one too many wafer-thin mints...”

A trifling sum

There are some companies out there for whom the loss of £230,000 would
probably be a death knell. But Leeds marketing agency Brass is not one of them. In March Kay Fearnley, the company’s former accounts clerk, was convicted of stealing that amount of money from the firm over the course of the nine years she worked there to fund her gambling habit. But almost immediately the company issued a statement saying such a loss “does not affect our financial position, and nor will it affect us adversely in the future.” There is obviously more money in marketing than a lot of people – including some marketing agencies themselves – like to make out.