BQ Newsletter
Geoff Hunton

Lift off for a new rail industry

Saturday 16 July 2011 6:00

Persuading Hitachi to come the North East has not only brought hundreds of new jobs but could also restore the region's reputation for train building, writes Brian Nicholls.

It was the helicopter flight that clinched the gravy train for County Durham and North East England – the £80m inward investment that could have gone to any one of 42 locations in Britain.

Geoff Hunton, a key figure in winning the Hitachi train manufacturing and assembly project for the region, remembers the day clearly within a five-year saga, the latter two years of which have also transformed him from a low-profile technical director to a local hero in the job-hungry stretch between Berwick and Northallerton.

His company, Merchant Place Developments, had earlier been asked in London by its agents if it would be interested in providing for a company needing a 350,000sq ft site with a skirting railway line. Only later did the name Hitachi emerge.

Merchant felt its site at Newton Aycliffe appropriate to what’s now referred to as the North East’s most significant inward investment since Nissan’s arrival in 1984 – a claim surely borne out by the presence of 1,500 representatives of more than 1,000 companies when an open day was held enabling Hitachi and potential suppliers to get to know each other. It is doubtful that any indoor venue in the region other than the XCel Centre at Newton Aycliffe could have coped. Hunton explains his firm’s role in gaining 500 jobs: “We put in our proposal to discover that 42 sites were being looked at throughout the UK.

In our presentations to Hitachi we tried to be professional and show exactly the benefits of the North East – the region, economy, people, the experience of the labour market and the site’s connectivity. This was vital. “They required among other things 1.1km of test track. I did a deal with Network Rail to lease land to put a test track in. That all came as part of the package.

“When Hitachi and their team came here – contenders were down to 12 then – we hired a helicopter because the only way to see the site clearly is from the air. Colleagues had pegged out the building outline below, so both the site and the connectivity could be seen.

“They could take in Newton Aycliffe as an industrial location, nearby Darlington as a centre of employment, motorway and express rail links, then up to Tyne and Wear. The helicopter even gave a view of Teesport. They could see almost the entire North East infrastructure.

“Touch of genius? Not really,” Hunton says modestly. “It was just about understanding what they were after.

“We took it stage by stage, through various routes until December 2009, when Hitachi brought it down to two sites – Newton Aycliffe and a site in North Wales. We worked on with Hitachi going through proposals, our costs and everything.

And we succeeded.” The Japanese had been told, too, that in setting up the UK’s first new train manufacturing operation for many decades in South Durham it would be setting up in the cradle of the world’s passenger railways. For here was the Stockton and Darlington railway. And here at Heighington station, beside the site, George Stephenson tested the famous Rocket.

“North East engineering was all part of the picture,” Hunton says with pride. While his accent is Yorkshire, from a railway standpoint he links his home city of York with the region further north. Besides hosting the National Railway Museum, York had a tradition of coach building. Hunton came from York to Newcastle, intending to stay two years. That was 32 years ago, and he’s stayed ever since.

“I was with the Government’s Property Services Agency and ended up as deputy director in the North East,” he explains. “So I’m not someone just parachuted in. I looked after government estate in the North East.“ His Yorkshire grit has been vital. Even after Newton Aycliffe was selected as the cradle of modern rolling stock, Britain’s change of government brought with it a “stop” card. Only in March did the project regain speed. Hunton warmly praises others who, like him, never despaired – particularly Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, and the determined teams from Durham County Council and the County Durham Development Company. Hunton says: “I like to think myself and my team brought this project. But in relation to decisions the Government was making at that the next stage to the North East. Two years hard work have gone into this, and the excellent contribution by the council and the development company cannot be underestimated.” His team indeed is small, three in London and six at modest offices in Brunswick Village, near Newcastle.

Large design and consultancy specialists work with them too. But the groundwork is done in the North East. And much has already gone on since Merchant Place pipped other developers in the area to buy – from the county council and the now lost Sedgefield Council and One North East – the preferred plot at Amazon Park. Hunton hopes a gallery of framed awards on a wall at his offices will eventually be joined by accolades for the Hitachi site.

Merchant Place has previously developed a headquarters for Avon Cosmetics in Northampton, and the Expro Subsea Excellence Centre at Ulverston in Cumbria, whose standard in sustainability helped win the title Best Industrial Building in the World. Hitachi people visited Subsea, where much of the quality of specification, design concept and architectural finishes will be adapted for them, though the Newton Aycliffe building will be three or four times bigger and different looking. Planning go-ahead is expected by the year end or soon after to get on site towards Q3 next year. Already the local economy is benefiting. One of the first phone calls expressing interest came from a local joiner whose team of three, he said, could tackle anything.

On presentation day, services of an on-site catering van, staffed, was among offers made. Such offers, no matter how small, are being considered “where the prices are right” – and that, says one Hitachi boss, will extend “from the local sandwich business to the guy with sophisticated computer programming machines”. Hitachi sees its £75m investment in a rolling stock plant here as a platform also to Europe, hence the value of Teesport and two airports nearby.

Hunton himself says he is simply and quietly “getting on with the task of developing in a difficult market”. His previous relatively low profile may stem from his preference to talk about done deals than potential ones. But this time he says: “The scale of Hitachi’s proposal and its positive potential impact on the region is such that we have been swept along globally by the interest.” Despite the temporary stalling at Westminster, Geoff Hunton says: “Across-party political support has been phenomenal, press support exceptional too.” Hunton, married for 42 years to Maureen and a resident of Dinnington near his Newcastle office, has had the assistance of elder son Philip, 32, a photographer and graphic designer, for his presentations.

Younger son Steven, 25, is an engineer with Sky TV so maybe he too has helped spread the good news. Colleagues praise Geoff Hunton’s eye for detail and team leadership. He leads by example and is hands-on, even to sending emails in the early hours, an associate says. In resolutely shouldering this project for the last two years, his determination may have had some roots in judo where, as a black belt, he learned early on how to wrong foot the opposition.

His architectural training and background as a chartered building surveyor shaped him otherwise. After his executive role in the Property Services Agency, he became an equity partner of the property consultancy Summers-Inman. On retiring from there, he turned to Merchant Place Developments, which privately funds and creates new developments, both speculative and pre-let.

The Merchant Portfolio value stands now at some £2bn, and there Hunton found his chance to implement his beliefs in delivering projects down a time-honoured route of value for money and high quality, on time and within budget. “Easy to say,” he agrees. “But development needs a particular focus to get it right.” He could easily get it right again.