Are we on the road to Net Zero? North East business leaders give their answer

As part of The Northern Echo's Level Up campaign calling for more investment and jobs, we brought together a panel of business leaders at Cummins to establish how far along the road we are towards Net Zero, and what needs to happen between now and 2050 to make it possible. The panel - made up of Level Up partners in our campaign - was: Jonathan Atkinson, Executive Director, Product Strategy Leader at Cummins

NikTurner, Executive Director at Believe Housing Matthew Williamson, Head of Hydrogen UK, bp Ben Houchen, Tees Valley Mayor

Peter Snaith, Partner at Womble Bond Dickinson Heather Orton, Project Development Team Lead at Durham County Council  And our special guest for a Q&A with Ben Houchen was Matthew Taylor, Director of the Darlington Economic Campus.



As our host  for the day - and just hours before he helped welcome Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng to the site - Jonathan Atkinson told us Cummins was proud of the progress it was making.

"There is a high level commitment to destination zero and we're all proud to be a part of that, so our roadmap as a company is clearly laid out. If I look more locally what's happening in Darlington, in our part of the business, I spent time last week in Germany at IAA, the major industry show for  trucks and there are a whole range of technologies coming into our industry. Read more: First BUSINESSiQ awards will be held at Ramside Hall next April

"So there are still a lot more diesel trucks in front of us, but we're seeing fuel cell in the market, a lot of battery electric coming to the market. And we're also investing in hydrogen combustion engines, which could be a very important technology in this transition. "We're at a little bit of an inflection point for the industry, we know we need to decarbonise, but it's relatively hard because the mission of a lot of the vehicles that we sell into is tough.

They travel a long way and we need to make these solutions commercially viable for the industry and for the end users. The Northern Echo: Jonathan Atkinson leads the discussionJonathan Atkinson leads the discussion "If we're selling a powertrain, someone's putting that into a truck, somebody's selling the truck, the end user of that truck still has to be able to make money and run their business.

So we're at a point in the industry now where there is an inflection, there's going to be new power coming in. And we've got to work hard to find the right mix of short and long term solutions for that path to decarbonisation. "We're spending tens of millions of pounds every year bringing the next products to market.

That's great for the region,  great for creating high quality jobs and it makes us a very sustainable site in the Cummins network." One of the main roles of our Level Up campaign is to bring as wide a range of voices to our events, so believe housing being alongside bp and Cummins is the perfect mix.

believe housing


NikTurner, Executive Director at believe, says skills was a common thread across the region: "Our principal product is a home and we have 8,000 of those right across the Durham area principally. But providing a home for someone in our community means so much more than that, so we are heavily investing in how we support skills and education because if someone wants to rent our home, we want them to be prosperous, or they have good jobs within the local community not have to travel further afield.

The Northern Echo: Nik Turner of believe housingNik Turner of believe housing "Also, by the very nature of investing in our homes and building new homes, we have to look at how we do business with the supply chain, with contractors and sub-contractors. Are we doing business with local suppliers?

Where are we getting our products from? Where are we getting our new tech from? That's one of the big things that we're pushing on.

We don't just want to get our solar panels from China, we want to get them from the North East. "We also have an interesting problem in that our product is something that someone is emotionally invested in. It's not an iPhone or a car that people have for a set amount of time and then dispose of it - families live in them for hundreds of years.

"So a product that 100 years ago was cutting edge technology is still in existence and doesn't work right now. So we have this real difficult quandary of how do you retrofit fit it for now and then for 2050? It certainly keeps us busy."



Matthew Williamson has the title of Head of Hydrogen UK for bp.

So is hydrogen the big answer here - if homes, factories and vehicles all used hydrogen, would we be nearer the end of the road to Net Zero? "I'm not here today to say that hydrogen is the answer for everything, but it does reach the parts that other low carbon solutions can't reach," he told the audience. "If you've got a big industrial plant, and you can capture the CO2 directly, that's a great answer.

And that's what we'll do with the Northern Endurance project - transport and store the CO2 emitted from Teesside and Humberside, stored safely in similar reservoirs to where we've been getting oil and gas out. The Northern Echo: Matthew Williamson on the panelMatthew Williamson on the panel "But that's not a solution for everybody, so if you've got high temperature heating requirements, where you can't capture CO2, hydrogen is a great way to replace that need for natural gas, and all you're emitting is water rather than CO2 so there's another decarbonisation benefit there.

"It's also great that we're here today with Cummins, because heavy duty trucks are this little boy's dream - we'd love to be a truck driver. But hydrogen is a great answer for trucks, because hydrogen is very light, so a lot of energy into not much mass. So if you put it on a truck, you're not adding an extra load, so you get no loss of efficiency from the truck.

"Also, you can cram a lot of energy into one load so the truck doesn't need to stop. It's not like a battery where you need to charge every so often, hydrogen can run all day and it hasn't got any CO2 emissions at the point of use. So hydrogen is the answer in a lot of places.

"I should mention the airport as well, so we are going to get hydrogen into aeroplanes, maybe not directly as hydrogen, although that can be an answer, but in making sustainable aviation fuel. "We also shouldn't deny the impact that successful local government has with national government in making these things happen. So Ben Houchen gets London to listen, and BP as a multinational company paying a huge amount tax in the UK, we get listened to in a slightly different way.

I think putting those together, people believe in Teesside as the place to do low carbon and a place to do hydrogen."

Combined Authority


Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has been at the centre of the transformation of our region into a green energy hub that is attracting global attention and investment. He told the Level Up audience the changes needed a long-term view: "I think people often underestimate the time that these things take to plan. The blue hydrogen project with BP or the NZT projects don't happen overnight.

"They've been going on for years and years and years, but we are at this point like Cummins in that things which have been in planning for a number of years now are actually starting to happen. When you go back to right at the beginning - being able to configure the land, having control of large parcels of land that allow you to be able to have proper discussions with businesses who may need 50 acres or 100 acres. The Northern Echo: Ben Houchen makes a pointBen Houchen makes a point

"It then goes through to remediation, but it also goes through to the thing that I think, Matt, and the wider Net Zero team separate to BP always get underestimated on is that one of the reasons we are the UK Centre for Net Zero at the moment is because of the NZT projects. "Having that as an anchor and being able to plan around that means SeAH is now saying to us 'we don't want to put gas into our factory, we want to talk about hydrogen because we hear what BP are doing'. "So a lot of what's happened over the last few years is about trying to sell the vision, because we've got this spotlight on Teesside that we've had for a long, long time.

So how do we keep it there for as long as possible, trying to get as much out of that until the circus moves on to something else. "But we also need to be a convener between businesses, because one of the things that I think often happens, especially in these times, is that businesses are very focused on delivering their business plan. And often we're the ones as a trusted partner who can see a bigger picture of what's going on.

"So with the BP green hydrogen project they need electrolysers - and Cummins have an electrolyser business. They're a fantastic, Darlington-based businesses, so is there anything we can do to make sure that the electrolyser business in Darlington can help with the green hydrogen project at Teesworks, which is going to put hydrogen into the SeAH factory that's also going to go into the carbon capture project and go into the North Sea. It's about configuring all of that.

"I don't think it's hyperbole to say that there is no reason that Teesside couldn't become synonymous with Net Zero in the same way that Silicon Valley is for it and social media. That is the opportunity that we're on the cusp of as these projects start to get delivered over the coming months." The North East has been front and centre in the ongoing levelling up of social and economic progress across the region, and transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson has advised on many of the significant projects that took flight this year.

Womble Bond Dickinson


Partner Peter Snaith said the once-in-a-generation changes that were coming our way would be worth witing for.

He said: "People are wanting to see signs and say 'what's happening, there's no new news'. But behind the scenes, there's a lot of new news, but it's confidential for good reasons, and if it wasn't confidential, it probably wouldn't happen. "The point is that there are a lot of people who are working together to make things happen, and it's coming here because the cluster has been here for decades and there are only a few like it in the UK or in Europe.

"So it needs the sort of support which we're talking about here in terms of hydrogen and in terms of carbon capture and storage. There needs to be hydrogen, there needs to be more renewables, there needs to be carbon capture and storage because the window is now and  things will be happening. We were delighted to be supporting SeAH and what they're doing and we know there is more good news like that in the background.

People have to have a bit of faith and wait to see what comes through." The Northern Echo: Peter Snaith and Heather OrtonPeter Snaith and Heather Orton Womble Bond Dickinson has invested heavily in new offices at The Spark, part of the new Helix development in Newcastle - and one of the greenest developments in the region.

Peter said it had helped them change the way they work. "There's a general push now from next generations of employees who want to be seen not to just be doing good at what we do in terms of professional services, they want to know that they're being responsible in everything we do. And when you look into that building, we now have lawyers having next to no paper in the office, which is pretty astonishing.

But it makes a difference and has made us change the way we operate. For instance, we had 180 car parking spaces in the old office, and now we've got 30, which is a bit of a challenge, but we have to be doing what we need to make a difference."

Durham County Council


For Durham County Council, Project Development Team Lead Heather Orton said a climate emergency response plan provided the framework they were working to. "The plan sets out targets for 2030 and 2045 in terms of what we're doing actively as a council to retrofit buildings, changing our fleets, encouraging more wider infrastructure, but then also working with the business community in terms of the county as a whole.

"We're in the process of finalising our economic strategy, setting our plans for growth and Net Zero is integral to that as we look at the right locations for enabling business growth and getting those rooted in those places in the county. Places like NetPark, where we have a plan for infrastructure to enable growth. "We've got other projects that we're working on like Seaham Garden Village in the north of the county, where we're working with the coal authority and Karbon Homes to look at an innovation hub and how we can use mine water to create a more sustainable housing development.

"On other housing sites, it's been a particularly challenge around nutrient neutrality as well as the Low Carbon agenda, but that is an additional opportunity to look at other sort of nature-based solutions, supporting this growth agenda as well."



As an exclusive bonus for all of our Level Up partners, our live events include a Q&A session with someone particularly influential in the region. This time we spoke to Matthew Taylor, Director of the Darlington Economic Campus, who joined Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen for an hour-long discussion with BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes. Matthew spoke about the reaction of his staff to the move and how it had affected the way the offices operate.

"The new building will be ready towards the end of 2025. That's bricks and mortar and a statement of a long-term commitment with close to 2,000 really good Civil Service jobs," he said.

Matthew said local recruits were changing the way the Treasury worked: "There are lots of brilliant stories - we have someone with the Police and Crime Commissioner who currently works on investment zones, someone in Housing who currently works on financial services policy. "There are a lot of brilliant stories and it's great to see them bring their diverse professional backgrounds to the campus. Having that diversity of viewpoints is going to make us a better organisation because the values they bring to us will be different.

The Northern Echo: Matthew Taylor with Ben HouchenMatthew Taylor with Ben Houchen "These people wanted a job in the Civil Service and didn't think they could pursue that in the North East. But this opportunity has come up and they have grabbed it with both hands.

"That's a really positive experience and we're gaining from it in terms of commitment." Ben Houchen said the whole Treasury project could have gone to Leeds, Manchester or even Birmingham. "The idea would have been unthinkable at one stage that the most important department in government has a proper office here - not a back office.

That should lead to hopefully professional services businesses wanting to open offices nearby as well."

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