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Delivering in some very big boots

24 September 2021

Judith Barker, Director of Programmes and Governance Judith Barker, Director of Programmes and Governance

Judith Barker, Director of Programmes and Governance at the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP), leads the delivery of the Government’s £265million Local Growth Fund (LGF) and £27.3million Getting Building Fund (GBF) programmes. Over the last seven years over 60 capital projects have been funded which, by 2030, will have delivered over 20,000 jobs, 10,000 new learners and enabled 10,000s of new homes.  

Judith, with her team and the support of SEMLEP’s Chief Executive, oversees the programme and has enjoyed attending amazing project visits since the LGF programme was first launched back in 2014/15. Due to the pandemic, most of these have been virtual but the team are now getting back out and Judith has been reminiscing about some of her most memorable project visits – with a few challenging footwear moments thrown into the mix…  

A few years ago, I attended an official ceremony of The Exchange in Aylesbury. This stunning public space features inspiring, thought-provoking sculptures and empowering statements that are threaded into the paving, tree grills and street furniture, highlighting Aylesbury Vale’s Paralympic history while creating a space for the future. It’s a mixed-use scheme creating business space beneath flats and apartments adjacent to the public space.  

The plans always had a ‘wow’ factor and the dignitaries and attendees agreed, talking about just how important this project was for the town, community, and the impact it would make. I was proud to have contributed to this scheme with £3.3m of LGF.

Although I do remember coming swiftly down to earth when I saw what I had to put on my feet when on-site.

Traditionally construction site PPE has been very much set up for men – with big feet. I had to wear the project’s boots to be health and safety compliant. The problem? Their very smallest pairs left were a size 8. I am a size 5. Lacing up the waders I walked up multiple floors. As the photos started clicking – the photographers were capturing the opening ceremony highlights – I remember struggling to regain my composure as I smiled for pictures. Some of those images remain on the SEMLEP website today! All part of our commitment to transparency with public money.

Big boots became a theme that year as more project visits followed and my small feet continued to be cajoled into far too big footwear.

When Northampton College started on-site with their Advanced Construction Engineering Centre in 2018, I was invited to join their ‘ground breaking’ ceremony, which again meant donning a hi-vis and posing for photos – this time with a spade in hand. Again, the challenge of footwear arose. As part of the media photocall, I remember digging a hole, making a speech while balanced on top of a small mound, wearing gigantic boots. I smiled, managed not to topple over and then went on to meet the most incredibly inspiring College students and staff.

Now open to students, the state-of-the-art Booth Lane Campus facility enables learners to develop the skills needed for the most up-to-date construction and engineering technologies. An amazing visit – and a project that continues to exceed all expectations with forecasts of learners immediately exceeded. I am looking forward to seeing the Digital Academy opening there in November, but since 2018, I have absolutely insisted on wearing my own boots.

Another project visit highlight – no footwear horrors to share on this one – was a trip to Catesby Tunnel (also an LGF funded project). This 1.7 mile long straight and flat former railway tunnel is being converted into an indoor, fully controllable vehicle testing facility and will include wind and simulated weather impact, aerodynamics and emissions.

Catesby Tunnel is now generating headlines across the globe, however, this story goes back to my very first visit, before the main tunnel work had even started. It was a beautiful day, but we were peering into a long dark cold tunnel and trying to imagine the transformation as JCBs opened up the space at the tunnel entrance.

The imagination and innovation of the private sector project developers alongside the technical challenges of this project never fails to take my breath away. A great example of how the private and public sector have worked effectively and openly together in the SEMLEP LGF programme.

Finally. another breath-taking visit was the official launch of The Hat District in Luton, the LGF funded project saw three Hat Factory buildings totally transformed and developed to create a network of creative and digital industry workspaces, near the railway station, in the town centre’s Cultural Quarter.

Remember the stunning film ‘Blinded By The Light’, a story about a Luton boy with a love of Bruce Springsteen? At the official opening of this project the writer, Luton born Sarfraz Manzoor (the inspiration behind the film), made one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. He talked about his life, his upbringing in Luton and how art and culture had not just moulded his life, it had also saved it.

Struggling to make sense of life as a teenage boy from a working-class British-Pakistani family, growing up in Luton in the 1980s and the racial and economic turbulence of those times, music and poetry changed everything for Sarfraz.

Witnessing this spectacular acrobatic opening event, with hundreds of guests remembering his words and excited about this town centre investment, I felt in every fibre of my being that SEMLEP had played key a part through our LGF funding – we were making a real difference, with the local leaders and their vision and determination.

Our SEMLEP funded projects don’t just create jobs and homes – they mould lives, they transform communities. What a wonderful job I have (although not always the footwear!).

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