County Durham will soon host the North-East’s biggest business park on a site with a fascinating and proud history. Peter Barron assesses the remarkable growth of Aycliffe Business Park

There was a time, not so long ago, when Kerina Clark had to explain where Aycliffe was to people outside the North-East...but not anymore.

Kerina, pictured below, moved to the County Durham new town when she was 14 and, over the years, has been perfectly placed to witness the extraordinary growth of Aycliffe Business Park.

With major expansions underway through the Forrest Park and Merchant Park developments, it is now on track to become the biggest business park in the North-East. As chair of the Aycliffe Business Park Community, Kerina has marvelled at every piece of the spectacular jigsaw being fitted into place.

“What we have seen over the past eight years or so is astonishing – the park has changed beyond recognition,” she says.

“You don’t have to tell people where Aycliffe is now because everyone knows – we are well and truly on the map.”

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Of course, much of that international recognition is down to the arrival in 2015 of Hitachi Rail Europe’s £82m factory, which triumphantly brought train building back to County Durham, the birthplace of the railways.

But it is the growing mix of businesses – from major ‘tier one’ companies to one-man bands – that make Aycliffe Business Park such a vibrant, modern enterprise hub.

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Today the business park hosts more than 500 progressive companies, employing 10,000 people in very different circumstances to those who laboured on the site in the dark days of the Second World War, when the task was to make bombs and bullets.

The group of buildings established over 867 acres 80 years ago became known as Royal Ordnance Factory 59 and it swarmed with 17,000 employees dedicated to doing their bit for the war effort.

After the war, the ordnance buildings were used for manufacturing, but it is only in recent years – under the strategic vision of Durham County Council and its economic development arm, Business Durham – that Aycliffe Business Park has really exploded into life.

As well as Hitachi, it is home to some of the county’s most high-profile businesses – including Husqvarna, Gestamp Tallent, 3M, INOVYN and PWS. But while manufacturing and engineering remain the backbone of Aycliffe Business Park, it has been enriched by a wide variety of small and medium-sized enterprises from the service and leisure sectors.

Kerina, who is also finance director of the Xcel Centre, which opened on the park in December 2009, recalls the moment she fully appreciated the site had evolved into a business community in the truest sense.

Business Durham had attempted to gather a group of business leaders from the park to explore the idea of putting together an application for a Business Improvement District.

However, what it clearly demonstrated was that the tenants didn’t know each other – cohesion was sadly lacking.

Kerina and a group of others put posters up around the site promoting a launch event with the message: “You don’t want to miss this.”

The result was that representatives of more than 100 businesses turned up and Aycliffe Business Park Community (ABPC) was born. Since then ABPC has nurtured relationships at the site.

Meetings held at different locations every other month attract healthy numbers. Kerina uses the analogy when the tide comes into the harbour, all the boats rise together to explain the sense of togetherness.

“People really see the value of being part of something special and it’s so gratifying to see it,” she adds. “I’ve just been speaking to a company which moved here a few years ago. It came because it wanted to be part of the business park community and now it’s opening larger offices.”

Having been the ‘new kids on the block’ 11 years ago, Kerina has seen the Xcel Centre go from being on the edge of the business park to the heart of it because of the pace of development.

“When we were developing the Xcel Centre we chose Aycliffe Business Park because the transport links couldn’t be much better – whether it’s road, rail or air. I love what we’ve become,” she says.

Sarah Slaven, Interim Managing Director at Business Durham, also points to the momentum around the park as businesses become ambassadors for the site.

She goes on to point out that while there are a number of active business networking groups across the county, the Aycliffe Business Park Community is the only one with its own board, led by the private sector.

“That is a measure of the maturity, confidence and sense of community on the business park – that they have taken such an important extra step,” she says.

As relative newcomers to Aycliffe Business Park, business partners Julie Sowerby and Sarah Monk, who run Avec Partnership, say they have no regrets whatsoever about moving to offices in Parsons Court three years ago.

The company, which provides support services for hundreds of schools between Northumberland and the East Riding, now employs 40 people, having recently become part of national service providers the Education Personnel Management (EPM) group, which has led to them taking on more staff. Avec Partnership moved to Aycliffe from Lingfield Point, in Darlington.

“We were anxious about leaving Darlington, but location is critical for us and the transport connections from the business park are first-class, including being so close to the A1,” says Julie. “Car parking was another big factor for us and there’s plenty of it here.

“There’s also a really professional feel about the business park – you just feel part of something, so it’s been a brilliant move for us.”

Just as Aycliffe Business Park is heading to be the number one business park in the North-East, Avec has aspirations to become part of the UK’s leading provider of support services for schools.

For Durham County Council leader, Cllr Simon Henig, the lesson in all of this is to think big – and that’s exactly what the unitary authority has done across the county.

“We worked very hard to get Hitachi to Aycliffe and that has been the catalyst for other developments,” he says.

They have included the opening of the region’s first University Technical College a year later. Cllr Henig sees the UTC as an exciting symbol of the progress South Durham has made.

“The first UTC in the North-East was opened in Aycliffe and it is still one of only two in the region – that speaks volumes,” he says.

“All strong economies need a mix of businesses of all sizes and that’s exactly what Aycliffe Business Park has now got. Aycliffe Business Park is at the heart of a thriving County Durham economy and our aim is to encourage further growth with the Forrest Park and Merchant Park developments leading the way.”

All the signs point to Aycliffe’s place on the map becoming even more pronounced in the years ahead.

Forrest Park
Approved by Durham County Council last summer, this 55-hectare site to the south east of Aycliffe is forecast to create 3,200 jobs over the next 15 years. The £140m business park will see the creation of 1.75m sq.ft of business, industrial, warehouse and trading units, as well as a 60-bed hotel, public house, restaurant and retail space.

Infrastructure work to improve access to the site has already been completed. The development will extend Aycliffe Business Park to become the largest in the North-East and has the potential to boost County Durham’s economy by almost half a billion pounds over the next 20 years. Euro Garages has recently been confirmed as developer of the front plot on the site, creating 35 full and part-time jobs.

Merchant Park

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This £90m project is situated over 65 acres at junction 59 of the A1. Merchant Park has development plots remaining, extending to 35 acres, an allocation which will accommodate a new building of up to 312,000sq.ft.

Durham County Council has agreed to a 30-year head-lease, subject to planning permission, on Merchant Anglo’s Station Place phase of the Merchant Park scheme to enable the developer to secure £5m investment. The 2.5-acre site, which adjoins the RICS Award-winning Hitachi Rail Europe plant, has the potential to deliver 50,000sq.ft in terraced buildings ranging from 3,500sq.ft to 5,000sq.ft.

Some of the companies at Aycliffe Business Park

3M

International technology company 3M makes industrial facial protection masks.

Crafter’s Companion Ltd

Crafter’s Companion Ltd is a global craft retailer, supplying products to more than 30 countries worldwide.

Ebac

Electrical goods manufacturer Ebac is the only British company to produce washing machines, dehumidifiers and water coolers in the UK.

Hitachi Rail Europe

A leading UK rail manufacturer which opened its Newton Aycliffe Manufacturing Facility in 2015.

Gestamp

Gestamp is an international group dedicated to the design, development and manufacture of metal automotive components.

Husqvarna

Husqvarna produces electric and robotic garden equipment and is part of the global Husqvarna group. II-VI II-VI Incorporated is a global leader in engineered materials, optoelectronic components and optical systems.

INEOS

INEOS Enterprises Compounds Business at Newton Aycliffe is the largest single plant for the manufacture of PVC compounds in Europe.

INOVYN

The INOVYN operations at Newton Aycliffe Site focus on the production of a range of PVC grades.

PWS

PWS is a market leader in the design and supply of kitchen components and work surfaces to manufacturers, retailers and installers.

Roman Limited

Roman designs and manufactures shower enclosures, bath screens, wetroom panels, walk-ins, shower trays and accessories.

Stiller

Stiller is a family-owned business, established in 1954, with a wealth of experience in the transport, distribution and warehousing sectors.

Tekmar

Tekmar is a market-leading provider of subsea cable, umbilical and flexible pipe protection system used in the offshore wind, oil and gas sector.

To find out more about developments and companies in County Durham visit aycliffebusinesspark.co.uk