Profile: why Humber man Dr Ian Kelly works in the ‘twilight zone’

If the Humber Bridge is the steel-and-concrete embodiment of the region’s cross-river, bi-county links, then Dr Ian Kelly is perhaps its human equivalent.

Dr Ian Kelly, chief executive of Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce, Beverley Road, Hull.

As chief executive of Hull & Humber Chamber of Commerce and co-creator of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), he has spent the best part of his working life criss-crossing the water, working for the economic development of the fourth-largest trading estuary in Europe.

Born and bred in Lincolnshire (Grimsby), he’s a member of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and considers the pinnacle of his career to be when the Cleethorpes Chronicle described him as a “man of the Humber”.

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But Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are not the only “worlds” he straddles.

“I live in what I would call the ‘twilight zone’ between business and politics, which is a very interesting place to be,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“It’s what helps me get up in the morning and enjoy a fascinating area, which makes a bit of a difference to a part of the world I love. Because the Chamber’s not-for-profit, sadly I don’t get any of the reserves that we’ve built over my time, so I won’t be a rich man, but I am satisfied that we’ve made a difference.”

Dr Kelly has been chief executive of Hull and Humber Chamber and its seven subsidiaries since 1995 and organised the merger of Hull and the other four local Chambers in the Humber region in 1999.

“When I started, 26 years ago, I was the youngest Chamber chief executive in Britain,” he says. “I’m not the oldest yet, but I am the Father of the House [i.e. the longest serving].”

During that time, the Chamber has launched a training company offering apprenticeships and employment opportunities, and an Acorn Fund, which has created over 4,700 jobs in 16 years, and over £180m worth of GDP growth.

Perhaps most unusually, it has set up the British Caribbean Chamber, which is the only British bilateral Chamber of Commerce not in London.

In 2011, Dr Kelly was at the helm when the Chamber was asked by the Secretary of State to establish the Humber LEP, which in turn was awarded the largest enterprise zones in the UK on both banks of the Humber.

These were instrumental in attracting inward investment by Siemens UK, which has built a huge wind-turbine manufacturing facility there, and Ørsted plc, which runs the world’s biggest offshore wind farm off the Yorkshire coast. Together with Associated British Ports (ABP), they have since developed the Humber as a world-leading area for offshore renewable energy.

“We’ve done interesting things, innovative things, and I’d like to think we’ve been on the side of the angels in helping welcome prosperity in our part of the world,” he says.

But last year, some of Dr Kelly’s work to unify the economy of the Humber began to unravel when the Government decided that no local authority would be allowed any longer to straddle more than one LEP area, which many did.

This meant that North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire, the two non-Yorkshire components of the Humber LEP (and of the now-defunct Humberside) had to choose which way to jump, and, after years of feeling sidelined by their counterparts north of the river, they opted to turn their attention south and join a Greater Lincolnshire LEP, breaking up the entity that Dr Kelly counts as one of his proudest achievements.

It must have been a huge disappointment, but he appears phlegmatic.

“By that stage, in the nicest sense, it was Chris Haskins’ problem,” he says. Lord Haskins was chair of the LEP until he stepped down in May last year.

“He had a bit of a ‘tin ear’, to be honest, to the South Bank, who had legitimate concerns about getting their share of investment jobs and LEP cash. So whilst we can still go ahead positively, we could have perhaps gone even faster forward had the South Bank’s concerns not been ignored or bypassed.”

He adds: “I’m a man for wanting to bring people together rather than divide the Humber, because I think that’s what generates wealth and prosperity for our part of the world.”

But when one door closes, another opens, and last month the Humber and Greater Lincolnshire LEPs joined forces in a public-private consortium that bid successfully for Freeport status for the Humber, already home to the UK’s busiest port complex.

As a Brexiteer, Dr Kelly is not as worried as some about the effects on port traffic of leaving the EU, which may surprise many. After all, Hull’s very purpose through the centuries has been European in nature, as the gateway to the northern mainland. Won’t Brexit see the Humber “drift away” from its traditional trading partners?

“There’s some truth to that argument in logistic terms. But with Ørsted, Siemens and others, we’re building a cluster of world-class businesses, and that cutting-edge capability is something we can take right around the world, and not just in terms of freight traffic into Europe, although that is important for some companies – I don’t deny that.” With or without Brexit, that cluster of renewable energy companies will remain crucial to the Humber’s economy, and Dr Kelly is passionate about it.

“If we get it wrong, we will be the first to know, in terms of rising sea levels,” he says.

“This is a part of the world I love, and I hope that it can do its part in being a beacon of light for tackling climate change, which anyone who is a father like I am, with three daughters, needs to worry about for future generations.”

He is equally eager to win investment into the transport infrastructure, and he speaks for many on his patch when he says: “I think they [the Government] would have had less problems politically if they’d started with HS3 [the proposed east-west high-speed line] and worked their way down to London.”

Evidently 26 years is not enough; Dr Kelly has no desire to exit the Chamber just yet, and he says he’s encouraged that there is “clearly a job to do still at a pan-Humber level,” as evidenced by the Freeport.

“In the twilight zone between business and politics, if it goes wrong, it can be a big problem, as we’ve seen in recent years,” he says. “But if you get it right, it can also be a huge opportunity.”