The days when spinning wheels were working in full force at all five floors of Derby’s silk mills are long gone. Similarly gone are the times when steam locomotives were being serviced in the city's iconic dome-shaped Roundhouse building. Nevertheless, the fact that Derby, a city with a population of 230,000, located in England's East Midlands region, was at the heart of the industrial revolution is still visible in its many historical sites.
“In the 19th century, Derby was one of the homes of the railway industry, [involving] precision development, design and building trains. It transformed the world in terms of mobility,” says John Forkin, managing director at Marketing Derby, a public-private entity aiming to attract investments to the city.
“This place, full of cross-cutting and modern technologies, was the NASA of its time,” he says, while pointing at turntables and cranes gathered in the Roundhouse. The building still caters for local industries, albeit in a different way. After the city's revitalisation project, which cost about $75m and was completed in 2009, the Roundhouse became part of the campus of Derby College, the higher education institution offering apprenticeships and vocational courses.
Built to last
“We make things. Engines, trains, you name it. That is what we are good at and that is what makes us stand out,” says Paul Bayliss, the leader of Derby City Council. Investors seem to concur with Mr Bayliss. According to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets, in the past six months companies such as Assystem, a French engineering consultancy firm, and Trina Solar, a Chinese photovoltaic panels manufacturer, have decided to set up their operations in Derby, while automotive giants Toyota and Rolls-Royce are the biggest employers in the region.
“When it comes to advanced manufacturing it is really hard to start from scratch, and here in Derby we can find the right people, infrastructure and suppliers,” says Colin Smith, director of engineering and technology at Rolls-Royce. Mr Smith’s company is involved in schemes within the local region to ensure that there is a workforce that can cater for its more specialist needs. Rolls-Royce is in the final stages of opening its new apprentice academy and has been co-operating with the local educational institutions for a number of years.
Moreover, plans are under way to construct a global technology cluster on the site adjacent to Rolls-Royce’s plant. Although works on the high-tech campus stalled in the aftermath of the recession, in October 2011 Derby was awarded $63m from the UK’s Regional Growth Fund and the concept, which concentrates on bringing more blue-chip companies to the city, looks viable again.
Another new area being targeted in Derby is the games industry, and the city is home to the creators of the popular video game Tomb Raider.
Thanks to its advanced manufacturing and high-tech operations, Derby has one of the highest average salaries in the UK outside of London. Yet for many years, the city's residents earned their wages in Derby but shopped and dined in London, Nottingham or Manchester. “We were good at creating wealth, but not at retaining it in the city,” says Mr Forkin.
In 2005, various development projects were put in place around the city, and although the progress of some of these projects has slowed because of the financial crisis, the revived city centre, nicknamed Cathedral Quarter, and the Westfield shopping centre, which attracts on average 25 million visitors annually, have significantly changed Derby’s landscape. What has not changed, however, is the city's appetite to embrace and adopt the latest technologies.