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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Grim Up North?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

So, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange has just claimed in their report, Cities Unlimited, that cities in northern England, such as Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford, are "beyond revival"; once wealthy as shipping and industrial centres, they have now "lost much of their raison d'etre" and have "little prospect of offering their residents the standard of living to which they aspire." Their residents, the report claims, should move south to the leafy suburbs of expanding cities like Cambridge, Oxford and London.

Now I have the north-east in my genes and, though my formative years were spent as a Janus-faced character in the Midlands, as my photo map attests I have lived in in the North East for the past decade. And, like Liverpool MP Peter Kilfoyle who put up a staunch defence of his area on this morning's Today programme, my first instinct was to condemn the report's authors for treating people like pounds, to be moved around at whim.

Policy Exchange's argument that present policies have failed to improve "the quality of life for those people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not move" misses the point. People in the north fail to move not simply because of a poverty trap, but because in addition to money they value the sense of community cohesion that still exists here, in a way it does not generally, in my experience, in the south. Football teams, strong regional accents and a pride in landscape lend credence to the tourist development agency's slogan, Passionate People, Passionate Places. Many of my friends are highly skilled and mobile graduates, who could work for corporations in London but choose to remain in their branches in Leeds or Newcastle. I know families who still live in houses that their parents and grandparents occupied, and this is less a mark of the financial constraints that prevent them from moving, and more an indication of their desire to keep children and parents in close proximity, so that the latter can be cared for in old age rather than outsourced to the nearest home.

All these things I muttered at the radio as I tried not to choke on my cornflakes. But having just had a chance to scan through the original report, I realise that I was attacking a straw man. The report is so badly written and riddled with evidential holes that it effectively self-implodes anyway.

Just to focus on Sunderland, with which I am most familiar. The authors announce that "Sunderland suffers from poor economic geography. It is a long way from most places." Now a statement like this might be fine in the French oral exam of a ten year old ("I live in Sunderland. Sunderland is a city. It is a long way from most places."), but is unacceptable for a piece of allegedly rigorous research. It may be a long way from London, but London is not "most places" -Sunderland is, however, closer to Newcastle, Durham, Leeds, York and Edinburgh than the capital. It is also just an hour's drive from the Lake District, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales. Is it possible to reach further than Clapham in the same time from Parliament Square?

Their choice of evidence is as unsound as the language in which it is couched. Is Roy Keane's grumble that it's hard to attract decent footballers to the city really objective evidence of its economic poverty? Given that he made these comments before the start of a season in which most pundits predicted their relegation, could Keane not have been preparing to cover his own back? Could it not perhaps be due to the fact that Sunderland are not quite as good at football as Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham against which he compares his own club?

Admittedly, the authors do go on to consider a more reliable evidence base of economic statistics, and it is true that Sunderland is the poor relation of Newcastle when it comes to attracting skilled workers able to contribute to the knowledge economy. But are the report's authors not aware that Sunderland possesses a university which is a world-class centre in some creative industries, such as glass making? Have they not thought that the fact that Sunderland can claim to be founded in relation to one of the oldest sites of learning in Europe, Bede's monastery at Jarrow, might be a source of pride that compensates to a degree for any current shortcomings in its redevelopment? Do they see absolutely no reason for optimism in the fact that Sunderland hosts the most productive car plant (Nissan) in Europe?

I could go on, but I'd only start to rant. There is no doubt that the north does have real issues with economic development in comparison to the powerhouse of London. But there is also the human factor that these report's authors have failed to perceive, so bedazzled have they been by the bright lights of capital in the Capital. And it is this London focus that leads me to suspect an ulterior motive. Although the Conservatives have distanced themselves from the report, the Policy Exchange body was set up by Nicholas Bowles, who is now esconced in the City Hall as Boris Johnson's chief of staff. The report concludes that:
London also offers Britain a great opportunity and one that is almost unique in Europe: the opportunity to expand a global city capable of generating large numbers of high quality jobs. There is every reason to think that London is currently below its optimal size and if the capital expanded by attracting people from our regeneration cities, then it could transform their lives.
Policy Exchange may ultimately be aiming not so much to denigrate the northern cities, as to ensure that the regeneration gold sent to their chilly climes is relocated back where it belongs, to the cozy coffers of the capital.

I remain utterly unmagnetised by London. Every time I head for the city, I feel suffocated by the atmosphere, the pressure waves of urban heat and, more intensely, of people driving mentally and physically to make money, losing sense of the qualitative values of family life, leisure time, and living as part of a community. Like commuting on the tube or the M25, London offers a vicious circle in which if you will be left behind if you fail to join in the race. So it is always a relief to escape back to my home in the north, where I can live in a country cottage for rent of £45 a week, and where I am not afraid to ask my neighbour for a bag of sugar for fear of being stabbed. It's a good job for me, then, that the excellent railway system that connects Newcastle to London means I can nip to the capital within 3 hours, but be back within the day.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:49 am


Anonymous poor man said...

great! thanks for sharing!

3:08 am  

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