MORE than 600 jobs are leaving South Tyneside after an expanding energy company confirmed it is closing its borough base and moving north of the Tyne.
Utilitywise employs 640 employees at Long Row, Market Dock, South Shields, but is now about to relocate them to larger premises at Cobalt Business Park in North Tyneside.
Its boss admits to having a “heavy heart” over the decision to move north of the river this summer and is refusing to rule out an eventual return to the borough.
The aim now is to increase its workforce of 800 to 1,400 by 2016 – but the departure of one of the fastest-growing companies in the region is a huge blow to South Tyneside’s economy.
Geoff Thompson, its borough-born chief executive officer, believes the decision is in the best long-term interests of the company, set up to help businesses get more value out of their energy and water contracts.
And he’s convinced that South Tynesiders will continue to benefit from his business’s growth plans, as 100 borough residents are currently employed by the company, though they now face longer journeys to and from work.
South Tyneside Council bosses made determined efforts to persuade Mr Thompson and his firm to stay put, but to no avail.
In an effort to address Utilitywise’s expansion demands, an offer was made to move some staff into the former BT building at Rolling Mill in Jarrow for three or four years.
The plan was for a purpose-built facility to be constructed on brownfield land near the former Middle Docks, opposite South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court.
That was an offer Mr Thompson found “very compelling”, but he eventually decided there was too big a risk of the development failing to go ahead.
Now, it has emerged that a major Newcastle company has expressed an interest in moving into the Long Row facility once all Utilitywise staff have left – a process expected to be completed by the end of October.
Mr Thompson, of Whitburn, says he would never discount the possibility of a return to the borough if a suitable site becomes available. He said: “What I want to stress is that this is not a question of us in any way turning our back on South Shields or on South Tyneside. That is not the case.
“We worked closely with council leader Iain Malcolm, chief executive Martin Swales and the executive officers to find a solution. They did their utmost to keep us in the borough. In the end, with a heavy heart we decided that we needed to move.
“From a business perspective, it would have been difficult to work from two sites three or four miles apart.
“We would like to thank South Tyneside Council for its support over the years.
“We continue to employ more than 100 people from South Tyneside, representing around 17 per cent of our UK workforce, and we remain committed to the North East.”
Mr Thompson also denied online reports that the company had been given support grants by the council when it moved into the Long Row building.
Council leader Iain Malcolm refused to comment on Utilitywise’s departure, but Coun John Anglin, the authority’s lead member for regeneration and economy, said: “We are, of course, disappointed that Utilitywise will be relocating outside the borough, but we wish the company the best of luck with its ambitious growth plans.
“South Tynesiders currently make up a significant proportion of the company’s workface, and we hope that this will continue in line with its expansion plans.”