CITIES seldom stand still. They constantly evolve with the macro-economic landscape, the vagaries of architecture, and the plans of developers and town halls. But every now and then a significant period of transformation comes along, with profound effects on the city and its inhabitants.
Manchester had one of those in the 1990s, as the city seemed locked in a downward cycle in the wake of deindustrialisation. But towards the end of that decade, the city began its reinvention, the first steps on the road to the thriving hub of economic activity it is today. Much of that can be put down to one man: Sir Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of Manchester City Council from 1998 until March this year.
It’s fair to say that, since the oil price started to decline in 2014, Aberdeen has gone through a similar period of reflection. While the oil and gas industry undoubtedly remains the city’s most important source of economic activity, the last few years have highlighted the importance of a more diversified economy and the need to support some of its less famous sectors. What better time, then, to hear about Sir Howard’s experience and what Aberdeen can learn from it.
As well as the “Granite City”, Aberdeen has long been known as the “oil capital of Europe” and other variations on that moniker. The UKCS will remain crucial to the city’s fortunes for decades to come, but it’s time to put Aberdeen on the map for other things too. Organisations, such as Opportunity North East, have been established to do exactly that, while the City Region Deal has been a watershed moment in bringing the public and private sectors together.
Of course, we can’t, and shouldn’t, discount our past. Aberdeen is a centre of excellence for oil and gas – it’s now home to the recently established Oil and Gas Technology Centre, the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre, and a host of other incubators and accelerators for the energy sector. It is also where we develop some of the most skilled oil and gas workers in the world. These are capabilities and skills we can export to other hubs of energy activity.
That said, beyond oil and gas, there are clear opportunities for the North East in other markets. BrewDog is just one example of a major success story coming out of the region, while we also have a rich agricultural heritage too. There is, therefore, a bedrock for a thriving food and drink industry already in place.
Hospitality and leisure are other sectors in which Aberdeen, and the wider region, has the opportunity to make a greater name for itself. The multi-million-pound investment in Aberdeen Harbour is just one of a range of new initiatives that will support that ambition, enabling larger cruise ships to come into the area. Aberdeen Airport’s expansion and the new Aberdeen Exhibition Centre will also go some way to building the city’s reputation in this growth area for the entire Scottish economy.
What’s perhaps most encouraging to see is that this is already happening. The Great Aberdeen Run taking place later this month is just one example of an exciting new event, bringing people into the city. The Aberdeen Tour Series, held for the first time in May this year, is another. It’s hard to imagine these events taking place five or ten years ago.
While those two examples are small steps in the right direction, there are no limits to what Aberdeen can achieve. As a firm, it’s an ambition we’re looking to mirror. We have continued to invest in the city: the number of graduates we take on this year will be our highest ever, while our Brightstart scheme for school leavers has been a notable success. And, as the energy sector has continued to grapple with sustained low oil prices, we’ve invested in initiatives such as our annual collaboration survey with Oil and Gas UK.
Aberdeen is embarking on great change. Manchester, led by Sir Howard, has been there and done it, and the lessons he has to share will be invaluable as we seek opportunities which will create an even brighter future for our city.
An Evening with Sir Howard Bernstein will be held on August 31 at the International School of Aberdeen Educational Trust.