Behind the Policies That Help to Shape Our Environment; Hugh Williams Has Helped to Shape Modern Birmingham and Is Now Planning on Doing the Same for Turkey. Ross Reyburn Talks to Him about His Career
Byline: Ross Reyburn
A former leather factory in Albert Street looks an unlikely headquarters for a firm spreading the European Union message in Turkey.
But since Hugh Williams co-founded Ecotec 25 years ago, the firm has enjoyed a long and successful association with the European Union.
Back in 1983, there were just six staff when the company started life in its original office in Steelhouse Lane. Today Ecotec has 250 staff and a pounds 29 million turnover providing policy advice to the public, private and voluntary sectors.
Its success story as one of Europe's largest companies specialising in applied economics and social science includes playing an important role in the groundwork responsible for Birmingham's renaissance in recent decades as well as a long list of EU projects including currently running the EU's communications programme in Turkey.
The son of a bank inspector, Hugh Williams was born in Surrey and obtained his engineering degree at Cambridge University. He was at Churchill College not long after it was founded in 1960 and this had its advantages as far as his social life outside the college was concerned.
"We had a gate that was locked at night but we were the only college without walls," he remembers.
After leaving Cambridge he worked as a structural engineers with Roberts Construction and ARUP helping build steelworks in southern Africa and returning to Britain to work on projects that included the Arts & Commerce Department at the University of Birmingham - "a bloody great concrete tower".
In 1968-70, Williams was abroad again working as a research assistant at the University of Illinois to fund his master degrees in engineering and economic during the protest era against the Vietnam War. "Four students were killed at Ohio University and this led to a strike on our campus lasting several months," he said.
It was in the United States his career path shifted beyond straight engineering work and it was an interview in Birmingham on his return to England that changed his life.
What drew him to the city was an advert for a researcher to work with the cumbersomelytitled Joint Unit for Research on the Urban Environment (JURUE) that had been created at the University of Aston.
He said: "The reason the unit was significant was this was the time of the real industrial structural change in this country. The Labour government was starting to close steelworks, the coal mining industry was contracting.
"I think this was probably the first time people realised that there was going to be a major industrial change in lots of different parts of the country and hence you had to do something about it rather than just letting it happen.
"We started off looking at how you could regenerate the economies and communities in places where these closures were taking place."
One of the first JURUE tasks was producing projects and policies using the available finance to redevelop the Bilston area after the town was decimated by the closure of the town steelworks in the mid-1970s.
"That unit was significant because at that time it was working on these issues which were new," says Hugh.
"This led to the provision of a mixture of housing and newer industrial areas. Nowadays regeneration organisations like the Black Country Development Corporation have become fairly standard but this was a new approach at the time."
At Aston University, Hugh was also examining what proved ultimately to be the staggering impact the National Exhibition Centre had on the local environment generating jobs and the local economy.
In 1983, Hugh together with Frank Joyce and four other JURUE colleagues created their own private company Ecotec. The "TEC" in the unusual name is slightly misleading because developing technology was not in the firm's brief.
The founders created their new venture so they could specialise full-time in applied economics and social science in the public sector without the distractions of teaching commitments. …