Face to Face with Thelma Sorensen

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Born and bred in Cornwall, you will not find many more tireless campaigners for the Cornish business sector than Thelma Sorensen.

As chairman of the influential Cornwall Business Partnership and also a key figure on the Economic Forum, Sorensen has an important role to play in the Duchy’s future prosperity.

She has been instrumental in forging closer relationships between the private and public sectors, ensuring that the voice of business is heard and understood in the public corridors of power.

Sorensen gives us her views of the economic situation in Cornwall, the projects that matter, and her hopes for its future.

A well known champion of the Cornish business scene, it clearly means a lot to you.

Absolutely. I was born into a small family horticulture business which, over the years, my brother and his family have grown into a successful potato merchant and logistics company. It’s an excellent example of an indigenous Cornish business, diversifying and thriving.

My first career was in insurance until my marriage to a Danish sea captain and for many years I also had a strong association with a large south east Cornwall construction company.

When my husband died, I had to think about my future and took a post graduate course in business management at Plymouth University which transformed my life at that time. Having gained that qualification, and with my keen interest in the built environment, I was appointed as the Regional Administration Officer for Devon and Cornwall of the Chartered Institute of Building.

That opened a whole new life for me, and construction is still my background. I now represent the Construction Industry Council South West on the Cornwall Business Partnership, a role I really value. I am also a member of the South West Women in Construction group.

I’m guessing it’s a male dominated industry?

In the main. There is still that glass ceiling for top management jobs, but we are now beginning to see women coming through and it gives me real pleasure to see them turning up on site in their company cars with their hard hats on!

Have you found any prejudices?

Never to me personally. I have always been treated with respect and friendliness and have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the industry.

The construction industry must be hard hit at the moment?

It has been affected to a certain extent. As I chair the Sites and Premises Group of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum, my attention has been more on the delivery of employment space. The credit crunch has had some negative impact, but not as much as you might expect. We now have a strong focus on the delivery of workspace in the Convergence programme and this will provide employment in the industry over the next few years. Planning is an issue, but I hope we might see a new approach in that area.

Is that because of the new unitary authority?

I think that will help. I have confidence that there will be a change of culture and a more flexible approach in the future. That is not to say that planning in Cornwall is bad, it isn’t, but there have been problems in the past. The delivery of speculative work space will be a challenge not made any easier by the imposition of the void building tax. This has already had some of the negative effect, we feared. We took the matter up strongly with Government but didn’t get very far. However, despite that, the Convergence Programme is still experiencing an appetite in Cornwall for speculative work space.

Is there a lack of quality office space in Cornwall?

Yes. Quite a lot was delivered through the Objective One Programme but not as much as we had hoped. However, driving through the county you can see real evidence of the capital build that did take place. This, of course, includes the big investment in the Combined Universities of Cornwall (CUC).

That must go down as one of Objective One’s greatest achievements?

Certainly. It was a massive step forward for Higher Education in Cornwall and the development of a knowledge based economy in Cornwall. It is absolutely vital if we want to have a forward looking business community.

As a governor of Cornwall College, I also have a personal interest in the improvement of the skills base of our workforce to meet the needs of the emerging technologies that we are looking to see develop here.

With all this going for us, I think Cornwall, with the help of Convergence and what was created in Objective One, is well placed to meet a lot of the economic pressures of the credit crunch.

Is the recession going to impact on what Convergence can achieve? Are we going to have to be more realistic, for example, over GDP growth targets?

I think the jury is out on that one. Before Objective One, we had very low economic base. Objective One was a great programme that raised our aspirations and Cornwall is now seen as a county to do business in, whereas, before, it was just perceived as just a holiday destination. Tourism is still vitally important to our economy and we now see real quality coming through in that sector. An increasing number of the hotels and facilities are on a par with the best you can find anywhere. Fifteen Restaurant, Eden, the Maritime Museum …

Do you have a view on the proposed Carlyon Bay development?

I do, and I have never hidden my own personal agenda on that. I think it would do a great deal for that part of Cornwall, and I actually spoke for the project at the public inquiry.

Do you think it will ever happen?

I hope that it does and I’m amazed at the tenacity of the people behind it to stay the course. It’s a well designed project and one that will provide many jobs in an area much in need of them.

Why do you think it hasn’t been able to progress? Is it a case of classic NIMBYism?

I think I’d rather pass on that one! I think there are genuine feelings that Cornwall is so beautiful that it has to be preserved as it is. That’s another issue of mine.

But it can be developed in sustainable fashion can’t it? No one’s talking of concreting Cornwall over?

Absolutely. And we’ve many talented designers and architects in Cornwall who have done some excellent work across the County without destroying the environment.

Is Carlyon Bay, though, sending out negative messages to other potential investors? It is all private money behind the scheme isn’t it?

Yes it is, which is quite unusual in that it is not looking for any public sector contribution. A major step forward for inward investment. I still think there will be ways of delivering it.

And what about the airport. The Cornwall Business Partnership has been a vocal supporter.

We have. In the beginning of the debate, we stood up and said we wanted the civilian airport, not the Joint Combat Aircraft which was being proposed by the MOD. We congratulate Cornwall Council, the County Council as it was back then, in taking it forward.

This must also be a sensitive area, though, balancing the need for an airport with the green agenda?

Every effort will be made to ‘green’ the airport. The business community sees it as a real asset and a vital means of overcoming the peripherality we have suffered from for years.

The Cornwall Business Partnership continues to give its support and we have just responded in the affirmative to an inquiry from the Office of Fair Trading on the importance of Newquay Airport to the local economy.

And that’s what the Cornwall Business Partnership does. It speaks for the private sector to the public sector. It was set up in 2000 to provide that private sector voice and a conduit of information, into Objective One and to champion that programme out to the business community. We intend to continue that in the Convergence programme by, working closely with the RDA and Cornwall Council. Difficult choices will be made, and we will support those difficult choices if they are in the best interests of Cornwall.

Difficult choices have already been made, with RDA cutbacks leaving out the Falmouth Docks project, for example.

Falmouth is still a great port with tremendous potential, and the recent improvement to the railway line between Truro and Falmouth is another building brick in that potential.

Cornish businesses are traditionally resilient and we must not forget, they are basically SMEs.

You think SMEs are more resilient in times of recession?

Yes I do. Our businesses, as in the past, will look at the market, seek the opportunities and take what steps are needed until better times come again.

I would like to see more inward investment, perhaps not by bigger companies, but smaller knowledge based businesses which we have seen set up over the last few years, the majority driven by the Act Now project.

That was another big success.

A fantastic success and fully supported by the Cornish Business Partnership, and the Objective One Business Task Force. The Task Force was represented on most of the steering groups and public private sector partnerships of the Objective One programme – Finance Cornwall, Act Now etc. This representation will continue via the CBP in Convergence.

So the Cornwall Business Partnership, what sort of influence does it have?

I think it has significant influence. We have seats on the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum and the Convergence Programme Monitoring Committee. I personally represent the CBP on the Convergence Endorsement Advisory Group.

What sort of businesses do you have on board?

A wide range representing most of the business community in Cornwall. This includes such member organisations as the FSB, which has played a leading role in what we do and has been very supportive over the years.

Is the Cornish Business Partnership representative of the private sector?

We have tried to make it as representative as possible. Members range from the AgriFood Council to the Construction Industry. In effect, we are a group of people who cover most of the business activity in Cornwall.

Do you think the private sector has a strong enough voice in the way Cornwall is run?

Traditionally it has not been very strong, because most of the businesses in Cornwall are SMES whose time has to be concentrated on running their business. This has led to a very strong Public Sector.

That must be a problem, businessmen complaining that the private sector doesn’t have a big enough say, but that they’re too busy themselves to get involved?

Yes, and that’s why the CBP is so important. Such activity is very time consuming, and people have to put their businesses first. But a lot of businesses are now seeing the benefits of talking to and working with the public sector. There has been a real shift in that approach over the past few years.

But isn’t the public sector almost perceived as the big baddie in all of this?

I think perceptions are changing over that. I know this is particularly true in the construction industry, where real partnerships are being developed. I was very involved with the Pool Innovation Centre for example, bringing the private and public sector together on that was very satisfying.

Again, that was many years in the making.

Not that many!

But it’s always good to see work start.

It is. But we must also make sure that those buildings which do go up are good enough for Cornwall. That is always the main driver for me as is the need to raise the wage levels for people in the County.

That’s a tough job isn’t it? Especially with house prices in Cornwall being higher than average.

We do need to deliver more affordable housing in Cornwall, and that is one of our biggest challenges.

Is there still a problem with people not being able to afford to stay in Cornwall?

I think most people who want to stay in Cornwall make every effort to stay in Cornwall. We have to create the high growth businesses with the higher paid jobs to keep them here.

Has the brain drain slowed down? And has the CUC helped that?

Yes. CUC has had a tremendous influence on that and the position is much better now than it was only a few years ago. Unlocking Cornish Potential has also been a real winner. But we need to market Cornwall properly and be consistent in our messages. We must be able to deliver on our promises.

Is this marketing to the rest of Britain?

I think we can go beyond the UK. We’re now operating in a global village and Cornwall has a great deal to offer.

Going back to the airport for a second, is this another reason why it is so important?It is absolutely vital. Having no airport, would rule out much inward investment. There also has to be commercial development wrapped around the airport. The airport has to be financially viable and I would, personally, love to see a five star international business hotel there. We have a great offer to those coming here on business and the airport will be a real gateway to Cornwall.

And the expansion would include links to European hubs?

Yes it would be great for the future of the airport if we could get links into Heathrow and European hubs. Heathrow is a major hub but, as slots there are like gold dust, getting in there must still be seen as work in progress. The recent service to the City Airport has been a great addition and I think the airport has every chance of success despite the current slowdown of aviation use. I understand, Newquay is standing up very well against the best airports in England.

The Cornwall Business Partnership was involved with Objective One, and now Convergence. How seamless has it been?

The process has gone well so far and we’ll be shortly appointing someone to liaise closely with Convergence. We worked with the Partnership Office during Objective One and will continue to do so albeit on a different basis. Cornwall Business Partnership members are continuing to play an active role in Convergence and are beginning to take their places on various Convergence related groups. We are also empowered to bring in private sector experts to advise on projects as they are being brought forward for endorsement.

Convergence is more strategic in its outlook, which must suit you more?

Objection One has been unfairly criticised for having taken a scatter gun approach, but if small businesses recognised all the benefits it has brought to them – skills, broadband etc – they might feel that Objective One has done more for them than they realise.

Convergence is focused on bigger, more visible, transformational projects – Wave Hub, the airport, CUC, high speed broadband and the low carbon economy. A significant part will also be the delivery of speculative work space.

What differences will we see in approach, do you think, from the Cornwall Development Company to Cornwall Enterprise?

There will be a difference but we’re still waiting for the final picture to emerge. The new chief executive has still to be appointed. But I’m confident in the appointments that have been made so far and that a new approach will be adopted.

There has to be a very clear definition as to what the public sector provides and what the private sector provides. These are issues which need to be overcome. But we do need public sector money to provide the right environment for businesses to grow.

In the end, the Cornwall Development Company will be judged on delivery.

Is public sector money always spent wisely?

That’s a challenge isn’t it? I think in the main, in Cornwall, yes. We will have to make sure that there is perhaps a stronger focus with Convergence. I think the potential lack of match funding will focus the mind tremendously.

Can it be difficult seeing the wood from the trees? Are there sometimes companies just looking for a public sector handout?

I think that perception has changed. We have a more positive approach now and have raised the aspirations of companies in Cornwall to think beyond needing grant funding. This was clear at the recent Cornwall Business Awards. To me, the job will be done when Cornish businesses no longer need to look to grant funding to succeed.

And some projects may be lousy ideas!

Probably but only the projects which will add value to Cornwall plc can be allowed to go forward.

And what is appropriate for Cornwall. What’s the blueprint, the perfect project?

The development of a low carbon, renewable energy economy which will lead the field and remove our energy dependency on the rest of the country.

We hear a lot about the knowledge economy being the future, and also many definitions as to what the knowledge economy actually means. What’s your take on it?

I thought Tim Light gave a very good summing up of the knowledge economy in a recent edition of Business Cornwall. The knowledge economy means different things to different people and I’m still waiting for the definition I can really subscribe to.

Do you think there can be a lack of aspiration and ambition from some Cornish companies, maybe too content to lie on the beach, lacking the drive of, say, London companies?

Maybe it might have been in the past, but not so much now. There is aspiration out there, and it has risen tremendously in recent years. Broadband and the CUC, have helped drive these dynamic companies forward. We are now a ‘can do’ county.

Finally, you’re also a strong supporter of the Isles of Scilly.

Who wouldn’t be?

Do you think it gets forgotten about a little when discussing Cornwall affairs?

I don’t think the Isles of Scilly would let us forget about them. I think it’s a wonderful community out there and I greatly admire their tenacity. It’s really vital that they get the new ship to the Islands to maintain their connectivity and I passionately support this project.