Developing a Stronger Voice in the North East – Working for Everyone?

On Tuesday 28th January, NISR Director Professor Mark Shucksmith  gave the following presentation at The January Conference: Developing a Stronger Voice for the NE, held at the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne. The conference, supported by the Community Foundation, ippr north, Millfield House Foundation, Northern Rock Foundation and the Webb Memorial Trust, was focused around issues of citizen action and community organising in the NE. This presentation offered some context for those discussions.

What can the people of the North East themselves do to ensure that the region’s best days lie ahead, and not in the past? At a time when the region faces severe cutbacks in its public services and public investment, while the balance of the national economy shifts ever further toward the south-east (whatever is said about rebalancing), can we think of new ways forward?

We often dwell on the challenges facing the NE region, and these are well-known. Ed Cox recently identified these as an incomplete transition from the NE’s industrial past; polarisation in the labour market; and the policy bias towards the south made worse by our lack of financial autonomy. Certainly our economy is in transition, and there are skills mismatches between our past strengths and the growth activities which hold out hope for our future. Worklessness, low pay, insecure jobs and low educational attainment all contribute to unacceptable levels of poverty and health inequality. These make the North-East particularly vulnerable to unprecedented public-sector cutbacks and the Coalition Government’s austerity policies.

In the face of these challenges the North East lacks a coherent voice to speak to Government and to articulate and pursue a vision for the future. Some draw comparison with London, with strong leadership from Boris Johnson or previously Ken Livingstone, but Scotland also has strong leadership and governance from Alex Salmond, the Scottish Parliament and good cooperation between central and local government through the mechanism of the single outcome agreement. In Manchester, as in many European regions, a combined authority promotes broader regional interests while some of our own council leaders seem disinclined to work together.

Yet we damage ourselves by viewing the North East mainly in terms of these ‘deficits’: our region also has important assets and our challenge must be to build on these resources. An OECD study of the region identified our universities as major assets with the potential to contribute more to the prosperity and wellbeing of the region – Science Central is an example of this. The North East is currently the only region of England with a trade surplus, largely due to the success of Nissan of course, but this is something to emulate and extend. Our culture-led regeneration has been highly successful and widely admired, with iconic projects such as the Angel of the North, the Sage, the Baltic and the Millenium Bridge amongst others. We are surrounded by fantastic countryside.  Despite the incidence of poor health, the region has excellent health facilities, pioneering world-leading medical advances. Our legacy of manufacturing skills can help the region make the most of new opportunities in renewables, the sub-sea oil and gas sector, digital innovation and pharmaceuticals, among other emerging fields.  The Adonis review has drawn together an inventory of these assets and proposed a strategy based upon these.

Another advantage could be our proximity to Scotland. Again there is a tendency to see a stronger Scotland as a threat to the NE, but this is really an opportunity for this region. We may be far from London, but we are close to Edinburgh, with shared values and historic ties which bind us together. Research shows that the NE would benefit hugely from a Hi Speed train link between ourselves and Edinburgh and Glasgow, never mind London and the south. We have significant potential synergies with Aberdeen as the centre of the North Sea oil industry, and many other linkages which could be made more of. Whatever the result of the Scottish independence referendum, this is a time of opportunity for us to forge stronger links with our northern neighbours.

In short, the North East has many possibilities and real potential to thrive into the future. But this will require leadership and concerted action. The national government’s policies have been highly damaging to the North East in this respect, with impacts including a loss of ‘voice’ for the NE, a loss of strategic thinking, a loss of analytical capacity (NERIP) and a loss of coherence and clarity, quite apart from the loss of financial resources. On the plus side, we have the incentive of the City Deal on offer if the Combined Authority comes to fruition, the prospect of the LEP having some resources to work with, and the hope that our leaders will work together to a greater extent than in the past.

In this context, there is much to be said for a North East Citizens’ Forum if this is a means of developing a new movement for change driven by the people of the North East. I look forward to hearing more about this from next week’s conference and learning about the experiences of this approach in other cities in England.


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