On Tuesday I gave a welcome address at the Intelligent Transport Society’s ‘Smart Environments Interest Group’, chaired by my eminent colleague Professor Margaret Bell, which held its meeting here for the first time (they are normally held in London).
We were delighted by how many people came from industry and academia, including Graham Pendlebury, Director of Greener Transport at the UK government’s Department for Transport, who gave the opening Keynote address.
It was particularly gratifying that so many delegates from afar had made it to Newcastle the same morning on public transport – mainly by train and then Metro. The remainder of the event was, I gather, a great success, and forms another highlight of our launch year of Sustainability research here at Newcastle University.
Still glowing from the buzz at that event, I was saddened (though not surprised) to read in the Journal later that morning that government is now spending almost three times as much per capita on transport in London (£774 per annum) than in the North East (£255).
While there is still plenty of scope to extend the Metro, promote greater use of bus networks integrated with it, and ease congestion in some hot spots (the stretch of the A1 near my house is now the third most congested trunk route in Britain …!), national government tells us to tighten the belt and wean ourselves off public funding – whilst doing the very opposite in the South East … as usual!
It doesn’t stop there, either. Roundly castigated for being ‘too dependent’ on the public sector, the North East has been told it must swallow the medicine of the highest national rates of unemployment (yet again) as public sector jobs here are slashed.
32,000 public sector jobs have been eliminated in our region in the last year, and our youth now face unemployment on an unprecedented scale. This would be hard enough to swallow were it not that figures show that public sector jobs in the Tory heartlands of the South East have grown by exactly the same figure – 32,000 – over the last year …. (Journal 7th Nov).
So the public sector jobs removed from the North East are simply redistributed from the public purse to the over-heated, over-populated, unsustainable concrete jungle of the South East. Plus ça change.
To the extent the North East had a higher proportion of public sector jobs than other regions, this was itself a result of generations of discriminatory national government policy: our industries were first nationalised then destroyed, and the erstwhile National Coal Board was allowed to hoard potential industrial development land right till the last pits shut, to make sure that their workforce didn’t go off to cleaner, safer jobs in factories.
We also saw enlightened policies in the 1970s locating civil service posts in the regions, with the DSS Longbenton being a major development. This to some extent helped compensate for the other disastrous policies, but we are now somehow to blame for this.
The final event of my working day helped to put much of this into perspective, as Professor Tim Jackson from the University of Surry delivered a masterly public lecture to a packed audience in the Curtis Auditorium entitled Where is the new economy? Prosperity, work and sustainability ‘after the crisis’.
This lecture is available to watch on the University website and I strongly recommend it to you. Amongst the many points Professor Jackson made were that the traditional economic focus on GDP growth by any means – and in recent years those means have principally been eye-watering public and private debt to support futile excessive consumption and a housing bubble – is not the only way to organise an economy.
It is also possible to think of new ways in which employment and sustainable lifestyles are factored in alongside economic viability. We’ve a long way to go to make any of this a reality here, but I can’t help feeling that this sort of approach is far more compatible with the principles of Enough for all forever than the ongoing transfer of public wealth from the North East to the South East of our country.