Developing tourism in Northumberland – a place-led approach
Northumberland Council wanted a joined-up tourism service. The challenge was to create it within the new unitary structure, while tapping into existing expertise at sub-regional and regional level. They are achieving this through local partnerships and a place-led approach.
Key lessons for other councils
- Develop a cross-disciplinary approach to planning and delivery: it needs to be strongly embedded within a council's ways of working.
- Develop a culture of working in partnership on tourism and build on existing good practice.
- Change takes place as a series of big steps, rarely as a single leap.
- Budget cutbacks in the public sector are challenging but can provide opportunities for lateral thinking and trying out new and different solutions to delivering services.
Northumberland is the least populated county in England. The upland areas of the North Pennines and Cheviot Hills are among the most remote places in the country. Their quality is reflected in National Park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designations.
The Northumberland coast is an area of outstanding beauty, characterised by its dramatic views, sandy beaches and iconic castles. The county is more built up where the land is flatter and within the influence of Tyneside. About 310,000 people live in Northumberland but no single settlement has more than 36,500 residents.
Local government in Northumberland changed in April 2009. Instead of six district or borough councils and the county council, it is now a unitary authority. One council is now responsible for delivering all council services.
Who is involved?
The place approach for Northumberland is led by small area-based teams that look at community needs linked to place. These teams connect up with county organisations responsible for culture, leisure and tourism activity as needed.
Northumberland Tourism Partnership (NTP) provides expert advice and helps link together local ideas and connects them to countywide tourism priorities. NTP is one of four well-developed tourism partnerships in the North East. It was formed in April 2006 as a limited company, with a public-private sector board.
NTP works with a wide range of partners, including One North East, the Northumberland Strategic Partnership (NSP), Business Link, Learning Skills Council, Northumberland National Park, the AONBs and the Northumberland Council.
The problems and how we tackled them
The visitor economy is one of Northumberland's most important economic sectors, worth £710 million and employing more than 15,000 people (2007). Over the last 30 years, jobs in tourism, leisure and retail have partly replaced those in the deep coal-mining industry and the agricultural sector. Eighty-one per cent of the county's businesses employ fewer than 10 staff.
Northumberland uses the ArkLeisure model to segment its visitor markets. Currently the county attracts predominantly ‘functionals' and ‘traditionals' and some ‘cosmopolitans' and ‘discoverers'.
Marketing activity is continuing to look after the more numerous, price-sensitive ‘functionals'. But the product development priority is to attract visitors from the higher-spending, quality conscious ‘cosmopolitans' and ‘discoverers' segments. That includes creating, attracting and developing new products and experiences that will appeal to these markets.
This growth provides a powerful driver for continuing to prioritise and support tourism. Tourism is strongly embedded in the new local partnership approach to delivering local authority services. This new way of working is part of the restructuring of Northumberland as a unitary authority in April 2009. It is a place-led approach.
The council wanted a joined-up tourism service at a place level. The challenge was to deliver it while continuing to tap into tourism expertise at a sub-regional and regional level. The new unitary authority provided an opportunity to develop new ways of working that respond to the community and the needs of the place. The council deliver this through local partnerships and the approach is set out in the corporate plan.
Silos of professional skills have been replaced by multi-skilled area teams that comprise four groups: Place, Performance, People and Adult services. Tourism sits with Leisure and Culture in the Place group.
Outcomes and impacts
It is early days for the new structure: it takes time to bed down new ways of working. However, the formation of the new unitary authority is encouraging people to think differently about using resources effectively through partnerships. This is further fuelled by challenging budget cutbacks in the public sector. It has already delivered new ways of working together within tourism and spurred creative solutions to projects.
The council is at the stage of generating new relationships but there are already examples of how these relationships are bringing clarity to responsibilities and delivering effective partnership.
Tourism Information Centres (TICs)
A review of the Northumberland TIC network identified that some of the outlets had the potential to become self-sustaining. The review recommended that to achieve their commercial potential, provide integration with marketing activities and increase the focus on meeting visitor needs, all the TICs should transfer to Northumberland Tourism Partnership (NTP).
The organisation is well placed, as the tourism marketing organisation for Northumberland, to develop the commercial potential of these TICs. This includes looking at their contribution to customer relationship management (CRM). e-Business in tourism is a trend and driver for change. Nearly 40 per cent of tourism accommodation bookings are now made online, a threefold rise in two years (2006-2008).
Effective communication between culture and tourism partners
The new overarching NSP board and executive for the county are supported by four thematic partnerships. Each partnership prepares and delivers a three year action plan. The four partnerships are:
- Stronger Communities
- Place Shaping
- Economic Prosperity
- Health, Care and Wellbeing.
They replace the previous arrangement of six boards which included tourism and culture.
This arrangement potentially left tourism and culture without a joint forum to agree policy. So the previous Tourism and Culture board has been retained as an advisory sub-group reporting to all four partnerships on tourism and culture matters.
The membership of the sub-group includes representatives from the regional tourism and cultural organisations so they bring a wider than Northumberland perspective to the thinking. A representative of the Tourism and Culture sub-group sits on each of the NSP partnerships. This approach delivers a cross-cutting role for tourism and culture within Northumberland and connects the county with broader regional policy.
It is an approach that builds on the good practice of cross-boundary working between key agencies on other tourism initiatives. For example, Hadrian's Wall Heritage Ltd – a partnership between Northumberland, Tyneside and Cumbria partners.
Northumberland Corporate Plan, LAA and Service Plans – on the Northumberland Council website
24 September 2014