Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2003 10:31 UK

Enterprise against the odds

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online business reporter

In the latest in a series on the North-South economic divide, BBC News Online looks at a pioneering attempt to plant the seeds of entrepreneurship in one of the UK's most deprived areas.

Elliott Patterson is one of life's optimists.

As a small business adviser in Easington, County Durham, he has to be.

Easington Colliery
Easington Colliery is not a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity
The former coal mining area, best known as the setting for the film Billy Elliott, is hardly a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

Unemployment remains relatively high and the area currently has the highest level of long-term illness and general poor health in the UK, and the worst life expectancy at birth.

It also has the lowest percentage of people with degrees or professional qualifications, at 9%.

And despite having a population of close to 100,000, the collection of former mining villages only has one high street bank.

"There are more barriers in Easington certainly, but we still have people who want to do things. There is still a spirit of entrepreneurship," Mr Patterson tells BBC News Online.

Left behind

Mr Patterson works for BizFizz, a pilot project set up just over a year ago by the government's small business service, to plant the seeds of entrepreneurship in areas of high unemployment.

The other pilot areas are Jarrow, on Tyneside, Thetford, in East Anglia, which has been hit by business closures, and Tuxford, in the East Midlands, another former mining area.

It's not aiming too high and failing, but aiming too low and succeeding that we need to avoid
Elliott Patterson
Business start-up coach

These are all places which, for one reason or another, have historically low levels of enterprise.

Easington's problem is that it has traditionally relied on one employer.

These days, with the mines gone, the young, fit and ambitious tend to leave the area as soon as they can.

Those left behind take low-paid service sector jobs or remain on benefits.

'Making it work'

In many cases, Mr Patterson says, becoming self-employed is not the fulfilment of a long-held entrepreneurial dream, but their last option in life.

"I have had people come in with ideas, who have been laughed out of the other business advice agencies. They have told me that.

"They say, 'They won't touch me with a bargepole. They think the idea is mad. Do you think it could work?'

"My answer always is, 'Yes it could work. Let's find a way to make it work'."

Mother-of-two Cheryl Oliver is a case in point.

'Going brilliantly'

She returned to Easington two years ago, for family reasons, but was unable to find work as a chiropodist.

She decided to start her own clinic, but says she would never have had the confidence to do it without expert guidance.

Nobody in my family has ever run a business, or been involved with a business, so this was totally new to me
Cheryl Oliver
Small businesswoman

"Nobody in my family has ever run a business, or been involved with a business, so this was totally new to me.

"I think I would have been totally in the dark if I'd have done it alone. I probably wouldn't have succeeded," she tells BBC News Online.

BizFizz helped her carry out market research, secure a grant, buy stock and find premises.

"It's the best thing I've ever done. It's going brilliantly. I am busy all the time.

"I have reached the stage where I am thinking about taking staff on," she tells BBC News Online.

Kate Welch, of Easington Action Team for Jobs, who works with Mr Patterson, says part of Easington's problem is a lack of confidence engendered by decades of high unemployment.

"If what you see around you is not people going off to university, not starting their own business, then you tend to think in a limited fashion, your horizons are much lower," she says.

"We have young people in this area who have never been to Newcastle, which is only 10 miles away.

"Part of what we do is try to make them see there is a big, wide world out there," she says.

Long way to go?

Even in what is now a relatively buoyant jobs market, few youngsters bother to stay on at school, she says.

Easington Colliery
Easington Colliery's semi-rural setting hides real poverty
With three generations of unemployed people in some households, it is still seen as a waste of time.

Higher paid vacancies remain unfilled because suitable candidates lack the confidence to apply for them.

Mrs Welch claims the Easington action team has helped create 3,000 jobs since it was set up three years ago.

But she admits it still has a long way to go to shift the ingrained attitudes holding the area back.

Realising potential

It would be easy to write off BizFizz and similar projects as tinkering at the economic margins.

Even Elliott Patterson admits he is unlikely to discover the next Richard Branson, or create hundreds of manufacturing jobs.

His role is to enable individuals to realise their potential and give some self-confidence back to the area, he argues.

"It's not aiming too high and failing, but aiming too low and succeeding that we need to avoid.

"It's about raising horizons and raising aspirations," he says.

Cheryl Oliver would, no doubt, agree.

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