In north-east England, green shoots are beginning to emerge after decades of economic decline. From the Tyne’s former coal heartlands to the Humber, local communities are poised for a green revolution, sparked by plans to build the world’s largest offshore windfarm at Dogger Bank in the North Sea.
Paul O’Neill, a manager at the County Hotel in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, believes the offshore wind industry could “change the reputation” of the region.
“This city was built on coal money. And there’s still this idea in the south that everything up here is grim with coal,” said O’Neill, the son of a miner who worked in the Throckley pits just outside Newcastle. “This could be a new revolution for the north-east,” he says.
The rush to invest billions of pounds in the UK’s offshore wind industry has put the region in line for a green jobs windfall. A recent flurry of government grants to support offshore wind manufacturing companies in the Humber and Newcastle is expected to create – or save – almost 2,500 jobs.
On Monday, the Siemens Gamesa turbine factory in Hull, which supplies blades to projects including the Hornsea Two windfarm off the Yorkshire coast, announced it was adding 200 jobs as it doubles in size after an investment of £186m.
The wind industry believes that within the next five years, jobs in the offshore sector could swell from 26,000 to almost 70,000, most of which will be based in communities in north-east England, Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as East Anglia and Scotland.
“Anything that creates jobs in the north-east is something to be excited about,” said Dawn Houlihan, a taxi driver in the Newcastle area for the past 21 years. “Newcastle is a proud city. We like to do a good job, people take pride in their work. And we can match anything they can do down south.”
The growth of a renewable energy industry is one of the few economic green shoots for a region more familiar with the terminal decline of most industries since the 1980s. Today, Dogger Bank’s giant turbines point to a way to build on the community’s strong industrial heritage for a green economic future.
At the Port of Tyne, which supports 12,000 jobs, hundreds of acres of land on either side of the river have been cleared to make room for the green energy companies, including Dogger Bank’s operations and maintenance base. Where coal yards once stood, space stands ready for the manufacturers that will help to build a renewable energy hub.
“This was a derelict bit of land before,” said Matt Beeton, the port’s chief executive, from a construction site near the river. Work has just begun building the Dogger Bank base there that will directly employ about 200 people once complete.
Equinor was one of the first major companies to join the port’s green revolution when it chose the deep waters of the Tyne for Dogger Bank’s operations and maintenance base in May last year, and its presence has already attracted a rush of supply chain companies to join it.
“Since we signed that agreement I don’t think we’ve ever been so busy with companies wanting to be part of the port,” Beeton said. “Getting an anchor tenant like Equinor is the start of a new cluster and a new generation of people who will come to work here.
“For some in this community their fathers have worked here, their mothers have worked here, their grandparents have worked here,” he added. “They’ve seen coal disappear, they’ve seen shipbuilding disappear. So the buzz around here now is fantastic – people can see a future and the region has so much to offer again.”
The promise of a bright, green economic future for the north-east is a large part of why offshore wind has enjoyed near-universal acceptance by local communities. The industry offers hope to a new generation of young people and a green economic reboot for North Sea veterans.
Steve Nicholson worked on the North Sea’s oil and gas rigs for almost 20 years from the mid-80s, where he bore witness to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and multiple oil market downturns. A visa issue prevented him taking an oil rig job overseas in 2011, forcing him to accept a job in offshore wind, where at the time “the pay was rubbish, and the rota was rubbish”.
“But I took a chance on it, and I’ve mostly been in renewables since,” he said. “In the last 10 years I’ve never been out of work; it’s been so consistent I’ve never considered a U-turn back into oil and gas.”
For Tom Nightingale, a community liaison officer for Equinor and a former oil industry executive, helping communities near the Dogger Bank project reap the benefit of the region’s shift from fossil fuels to green energy is a full-time job.
This often involves speaking with local service firms to let them know what offshore windfarms will need in the future and how they could adapt their businesses to meet this need.
But it also means encouraging science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) education within schools and universities, and helping pay for retraining opportunities at local learning centres to help workers with oil and gas expertise transfer their skills to the green economy.
Dogger Bank plans to invest about £1m to put Stem at the heart of 142 schools in the East Riding of Yorkshire and north-east England, which could support more than 25,000 young people. The fund will include 50 scholarships to help students cover the cost of further education qualifications while studying Stem subjects, and mentoring specifically for girls studying Stem.
“A lot of young people might have a parent who worked in the North Sea and they’re switching on to the fact that the future of offshore work – which they know and are familiar with – might be working on a wind turbine rather than an oil rig,” Nightingale said.
Charlotte Sinnet, a science teacher and careers counsellor at Harton Academy in South Shields, predicted that the growing interest in Stem would accelerate due to major local projects such as Dogger Bank and the growing concern of many young people over the climate crisis.
“It’s going to have a massive and very positive effect on the students,” she said. “A lot of young people are more environmentally conscious, and having this opportunity on their doorstep is something that will motivate them. It’s created a bit of a buzz in the area.”
The £1m investment also includes a fund to support small local organisations and community projects to the value of up to £500. It’s a small sum that can go a long way, according to Joyce Hollingsworth and her husband, Cliff.
The couple, who are regulars at Beeford Bowling Club, applied for funds to undertake maintenance work at the clubhouse when they were unable to carry out their usual fundraising activities during the Covid-19 pandemic and welcome members back when restrictions were lifted last year.
“It was very gratefully received. It really was,” Joyce said, adding that other local sports clubs and community groups in the area were applying for grants, too.
“Really, people are all for it because of the environment,” Cliff said. “And it’s good for the youngsters that are getting jobs and things like that. Yeah, we’re proud.”