Durham County Council’s new chief executive is taking over the region’s largest local authority at a time of enormous challenge, but John Hewitt is relishing the opportunities that lie ahead. He talks to PETER BARRON

HAVING grown up in a working-class part of County Durham, John Hewitt has vivid childhood memories of standing outside the dole office with his dad and sensing the hardship facing local families.

Frank Hewitt was a hard-working man. He’d started out as a miner before going into manufacturing with the likes of Patons and Baldwins, and Rothmans, but he’d found himself being made redundant, along with many others.

“It was a cold, winter’s day, in Ferryhill, and I remember us standing in a queue with lots of other men,” says John, whose family home was in nearby Chilton.

As well as raising children, his mother, Mary, worked at Patons and Baldwins, and was a cleaner at the Metal Drum factory. Despite the financial struggles, John and his sister, Caroline, enjoyed “a fantastic childhood”.

“My parents always wanted to work, but when there were no jobs, the dole was the only alternative,” he explains.

It is a memory that resonates strongly as he takes over as Durham County Council chief executive at a momentous time of challenge, change, and opportunity.

“For me, all roads lead back to employment – it’s about helping to create good quality jobs for the people of the county where I was raised,” he says.

John started his career as an accountant with Sedgefield Borough Council, then held senior positions with Durham Constabulary, and County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service before moving to South Tyneside Council as corporate director for business and resources.

He joined Durham County Council in 2016 and, as corporate director of resources, has overseen the council’s financial management of the pandemic, as well as other key projects.

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His appointment as chief executive comes at a critical time: the pandemic has pushed communities to the limit; and Brexit has cast a huge cloud of uncertainty. But John has been inspired by the “tireless” response of county council staff, the surge of community spirit, and the strength of partnerships.

“The way the county has come together has been second to none,” says John. “An emergency either brings out the worst or the best – and it brought out the best in County Durham. It was fantastic to see how quickly our staff responded and adapted to new ways of working. Our public health teams have been outstanding throughout – working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic”

He has fulsome praise too for the “outstanding” role played by staff, elected members, partners and volunteers making up the county’s Area Action Partnerships.

“They’ve really proved their worth in highlighting where resources needed to be directed – they’re the glue that binds everything together at the grass roots,” he says.

“Across the county, the focus has been on outcomes for people and businesses – it was never about the council, but doing the best for everyone out there.”

An example was the national praise the authority received as one of the country’s most efficient authorities at distributing the Government’s business support grants. By October, more than £104m had been paid to around 9,500 businesses to help them through the crisis.

Meanwhile, Business Durham, the county council’s inward investment arm, continued to provide financial support to help businesses to expand. In addition, crucial work continued throughout the pandemic on key development sites – including Integra 61 at Bowburn; Jade Business Park, at Seaham; Forrest Park, at Aycliffe; NetPark, at Sedgefield; and Aykley Heads, in Durham City.

Despite the challenges of Covid, delays were minimised, and the momentum was underlined in August when Sumitomo Electric Wiring Services became the first tenant at Jade Business Park.

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Another significant milestone was the opening of Horden station – at the height of the pandemic – as Durham’s first new station for 80 years.

“The focus has been on retaining jobs and skills in the county, while creating new employment opportunities. The challenge now is to build on those foundations,” says John.

“County Durham was in a great position before the pandemic and, with a fair wind, those key strategic sites will still bring in more jobs. It’s crucial to instill confidence, so it’s full steam ahead.”

Other priorities for 2021 will include progressing a £75m capital programme to build 500 affordable homes over five years, and the new chief executive has also passionately backed calls for people to ‘shop local’ in 2021.

John has, of course, inherited huge uncertainties. Coronavirus restrictions continue, the direction for central government funding for councils is unclear – and then there’s Brexit.

“Brexit will present massive challenges whatever shape it takes. It’s a national policy but people will look for local leadership, and we must be ahead of the curve,” he insists.

“We have a strong track record in financial planning, and making difficult decisions, so that’ll stand us in good stead. The hope is that austerity is over for local government, and we’ll lobby central government for a really close working relationship.”

The future is underpinned by a bold County Durham Plan, incorporating a vision to create more than 32,000 jobs and 25,000 new homes by 2035.

And, if John has an overriding ambition for his tenure as chief executive, it is to lead the creation of “cradle to the grave” opportunities for local people, “so they are born in the county, educated in the county, go to a world-class university in the county, and find good quality jobs in the county”.

“I feel really privileged to be in a position to make a difference in the place where I grew up and, if we all pull together, the sky’s the limit for County Durham,” he says.