Guest blog: Five reflections from an evaluator on three linked projects in Cornwall
It is five years ago this month that I was invited to tender for the evaluation of the Marine-i project in Cornwall (with an astonishingly short deadline, as I recall; some things never change!).
I won it, and the lead role evaluating the successor programme three years later, then (with Biggar Economics) a further evaluation of Celtic Sea Power’s project to accelerate the development of floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea.
Here are five reflections on some of the themes that run through all three projects – themes, I suggest, which have much wider relevance.
First, there is the question of an area’s image – what other people say about you when your back is turned. Think “Cornwall” and, because you’re an economic development professional, you will think “Objective 1 status”; i.e. work to be done.
You probably have in mind an economy dominated by tourism, maybe some residual fishing offering a quaint backdrop as you eat your pasty on the quayside, and the legacy of tin-mining and china clay some way back.
You probably will not think of high tech companies like Falmouth-based Feritech, a precision engineering company in the marine sector, just over 10 years old, which won the King’s Award for Exports in April and was bought by a Swedish multi-national a month later.
The marine tech sector in Cornwall is booming, and though employment numbers are relatively modest yet these are good jobs, well-paid technical and professional jobs – which is exactly what Cornwall needs. But the “image” story has yet to catch up.
What will transform Cornwall’s image (I hope) is the advent of floating offshore wind. We know the technology works; it has been tried and tested in the Kincardine windfarm off the east coast of Scotland. What everyone is waiting for is the announcement by The Crown Estate that it has started the leasing round for 4GB of offshore floating wind in the Celtic Sea.
That will be huge for Cornwall (and Devon, and Pembrokeshire, and beyond). A huge opportunity for inward investment, jobs and prosperity.
My second reflection, closely linked, is on the value of focus. It is easy enough to include a shortlist of favoured sectors in your plans, but quite a bit harder to hold firm through the many pressures of bidding for funds. Both Marine-i (which supported research development and innovation in SMEs in the marine sector) and the Cornwall Floating Offshore Wind Accelerator did exactly that, and it is central to their success.
Both teams (which overlapped a good deal and worked closely together) developed and deployed real expertise and earned an enviable reputation amongst businesses and others for being essential contacts. That is enormously valuable. And part of the reason it is so valuable is that we are talking (as too often) about short-life finding which inevitably comes to an end; the very last thing you want is for members of your carefully-built expert team to have an end-of-project party and move on to the next job.
Which leads me to reflection three: multi-member partnerships are tough to build, and often tough to maintain, but magic when they work. With another hat on I work with a maths teacher who hates me saying “2 + 2 = 5”, but that is exactly what we get with a great partnership; together they do things that no partner on their own can do.
The Marine-i project brought together six partners: Exeter and Plymouth universities, Cornwall Council, the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, Cornwall College and the Cornwall Marine Network; a complex mix of different types of organisation, local and national, with differing pressures and priorities. The FLOW project, coordinated by Cornwall Council subsidiary Celtic Sea Power, brought together the first four of the Marine-i partners.
It was the Marine-i team which learned a vital lesson, later adopted by the Cornwall FLOW Accelerator: do not allocate targets to each partner, but share them, so that achieving them becomes a joint endeavour.
Fourth: ERDF is a poor way to fund research, development and innovation. The output-focused mentality behind ERDF works just fine if you are clearing an old coal mine, building a light industrial estate in its place and running some training courses; it is all predictable (bar some difficulties round unexpected land contamination).
R&D is not. If you knew what you were going to find when you began your trials it would not be R&D. So to expect the same certainty in your outputs is perverse and unhelpful (Shared Prosperity Fund managers please take note).
Fifth: leadership matters. We hear again and again about the pressure for short-term action, so all credit to Cornwall Council for committing to underwriting the funding of the Celtic Sea Power team for the next three years.
We are talking a team of 18 professionals here, plus the funds to do and publish good work explaining the floating offshore wind opportunity in detail – not the sort of decision you can make by slyly re-directing a bit of underspend.
Short life funding, whether ERDF (RIP) or Shared Prosperity Fund, really doesn’t cut it when you get an opportunity as big as Floating Offshore Wind in the Celtic Sea. Somebody – some organisation – needs to be bold enough to take a lead when an opportunity as potentially transformative as this comes up.
It would be naïve to think that floating offshore wind will be the answer to all Cornwall’s problems, but there is most certainly something very promising here blowin’ in the wind.
Iain Mackinnon MBE is Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership.