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40 years of the IED: Neil Robertson


In the latest of a series of articles featuring influential IED people and projects from our proud history dating back to 1983, we hear from Neil Robertson, Chair of the IED between 2008-10, and member of the ‘National Council’ from 2004-16.

In late 1977 I was transferred within the Planning Department here in Cornwall from working on the economy section of the Structure Plan into a small team dealing with “Industrial Development”.

The work for me back then was partly about infrastructure and also the developing area of inward investment, both here and overseas where the UK was proudly shouting about what a great base we had for North American companies, and others, to operate here within the EU! It was an exciting time as the breadth and depth of economic development (ED) increased and the need to work closely with others, to learn and benefit from that, was paramount. 

This is where I first came across the IED, via its local branch network which had participation in events by both public and private sector employers. This was at a time when ED was felt to be really important, helped for example by the Clinton campaign adopting the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” as the answer to much that needed doing. The variety of work undertaken across our area (the South West) was substantial, and as well as improving my awareness of what could be done, the network of contacts made at these events was so useful.

Similarly the IED’s own quarterly magazine was a really helpful learning experience, as described so well in the reflections of Tony Jackson. I looked forward to reading through it and circulating it to team members, drawing attention to what I thought were relevant items. 

It was probably Alan Bruce or Colin Lomax who suggested I attend a national conference of the IED. That first one (of many) was the “famous” one in Nottingham, referred to by Mike Jessop, memories of which are the Scottish devolution issue, winning the “word bingo” at our table for the after-dinner speech, and finding the format of some learned deliveries and some local visits/experiences very helpful and well worth the time invested.

I always came away from the IED’s conferences knowing I had learnt from it – including the need to read road signs rather than just follow guidance! That was the Manchester conference, when four of us travelled together from Cornwall with the driver at the time being guided through the city centre by he who had previously worked there. We realised we had gone wrong when the pavements rose up to window height – we had driven into the tram-only area!

So my early encounters with the IED were all about a warm and embracing learning support structure, at a time when ED was developing fast. Having always been keen to play my part I was encouraged, probably by those same two individuals, to stand for election to the National Council – I think that was about 2004 – where I “served” for 12 years. Whilst meetings in London or Derby were a long way from Truro, trains offered hours of work time in both directions! 

Someone in those early days described the meetings as a bit like a WI meeting, with interesting chats after which work was undertaken by Stephanie Wakefield and a few others. The Education Trust had been set up in 1988 as a separate company to lead the learning and training side of things, as described by Tony Jackson in his reflections, and in 2007 Stephanie decided to focus on this area of work.

This led to the IED itself establishing how future management and administrative support should be provided and as Vice-Chair at the time, and Chair when it all became active, I became very engaged in reviewing how we operate. This involved detailed review of budgets which included the decision to switch to a non-paper based journal. It was also time to review our ‘Memorandum and Articles of Association’ to reflect significant changes to our constitution.

So it was that much of my time as Chair I was “tied to the kitchen sink” – working with John Lockett and the Board to be clear what changes we were going to make – and so did not get “out and about” as much as I had thought I would.  Apart from a promotional photograph, I never got to wear the Chain of Office we had back then; I wonder what happened to that? 

I also looked to position us as a major player e.g. by being one of 10 lead partners/signatories to the Skills Action Partnership. Led by Bob Kerslake of the then Housing and Communities Agency (HCA), this was basically aimed at getting the professional bodies to work together, recognise CPD activities etc., but perhaps because the HCA then became something else, nobody “picked up the reins” to enable this to become effective.

This was a very difficult time. The worldwide banking crisis led to the recession which our elected representatives decided to tackle by severely reducing public sector spending. This hit the IED hard at the time – the ability for people to take time for branch events, to spend two days at a conference, to go on courses to develop skills and learning, was severely reduced.  

I remember a colleague being told they could only attend an event if they did it in their own time and at their own expense! The switch away from a paper-based journal was not the only change needed.

My last few years on the Board continued my love for skills development and included leading a group that worked with Skills for Justice to develop National Occupational Standards for the role of EDO in local government. It did also involve sitting on then chairing the Education Trust as it worked its way forward in dealing with the dwindling numbers engaging in paid-for learning. Having tidied things up we, in 2015, decided to close and pass the role, and remaining funds, back to the IED itself.

And then it was off to The Brunswick for more real ale! (I had to put that in to keep Keith Burge’s images alive).