Tagged: Edinburgh

5,000 join call for north of England to join Scotland

NEW BORDER ... how the 'new Scotland' could look - the new border is in red.

 

More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for the north of England to ‘secede from the UK and join Scotland’.

A total of 5,396 people have signed a petition on Change.org in support of the north of England joining Scotland and ‘regaining control over its own destiny’.

Despite being created a year ago, during the throes of the Scottish independence campaign, the petition attracted a number of signatures following the Conservative Party’s win in last week’s general election.

The petition states:

“The deliberations in Westminster are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the north of England.

 “The northern cities feel far greater affinity with their Scottish counterparts such as Glasgow and Edinburgh than with the ideologies of the London-centric south.

“The needs and challenges of the north cannot be understood by the endless parade of old Etonians lining the front benches of the House of Commons.

“We, the people of the north, demand that in the event that Scotland becomes independent, the border between England and the New Scotland be drawn along a line that runs between the River Dee and the mouth of The Humber.”

The border between a ‘new Scotland’ and England would see everywhere north of Sheffield joining the newly-created country.

One supporter added:

“I have more in common with the Scots, than the Etonian-led Southerners who do not care what happens in the North.”

Another pointed out that the petition could bring up the topic of increased Northern representation.

Despite being closed, the petition is still gathering signatures since last Thursday’s vote, partly thanks to the #TakeUsWithYouScotland hashtag on Twitter.

Source – Hartlepool Mail, 12 May 2015

Advertisements

Cleveland Police leave sorry note after raiding wrong Edinburgh flat

Police have been left red-faced after breaking down the door of the wrong home during an early-morning raid – leaving a handwritten note to apologise.

The botched operation, which took place at 7.30am on Wednesday, saw eight officers from the North East of England and Edinburgh storm a flat in Pennywell Road, in the Scottish capital, after the family there left for work.

But after drilling a hole in the front door to remove the lock and force entry into the home, it quickly became apparent that they had mixed up names and targeted the wrong person.

Incredibly, it is the second time confused officers have wrongly linked the family to a serious assault in the North East of England.

 Father-of-two Alistair McPhail said his son had been questioned by Police Scotland back in August in relation to the offence, but had been cleared after only 25 minutes when officers became convinced the 21-year-old insurance worker was innocent.

Mr McPhail, 52, said:

“It’s like the Keystone Cops. They were apparently there for four hours trying to gain entry.

“It’s ridiculous that they have time to do this. I told them, ‘Next time you fancy a jolly in Edinburgh go and see the Castle and leave my flat alone’.

“Is this how they do policing now?

“I’m not going to let this lie. I’m going to have to make a complaint. My son is going to have to because he has his career to worry about.

“I’m really sorry for the person who was assaulted, but that doesn’t justify them coming up and doing this.

“All I want is my door back to how it was – it’s all scratched and battered.

“I just want people to realise that you can be completely law abiding and go about your life, but there’s nothing to stop the police coming in your house anyway.”

After the unsuccessful operation, embarrassed officers left a handwritten note in the McPhails’ living room asking them to “please accept our sincere apologies for this inconvenience”.

The letter also listed 
telephone numbers to contact if the family wished to make a claim for the damage inflicted on their door.

A spokeswoman for Cleveland Police said:

“The officers acted upon the information that was available to them at the time. It wasn’t made apparent until today that the person at the address was unconnected to the investigation.

“Police officers from the Edinburgh area attended the address to support Cleveland officers who were carrying out the warrant.”

Source –  Hartlepool Mail, 04 Apr 2015

Virgin Trains and Stagecoach win East Coast mainline rail franchise

> Bit of a suprise… everyone seemed to expect the French bid to win.

Virgin Trains and Stagecoach have won the franchise to run the East Coast mainline rail route, it emerged this morning.

The controversial takeover has seen the firms promise to invest £140m in the route over eight years, and will pay the government £3.3bn for the contract.

Rail Minister Claire Perry is expected to be at Newcastle Central Station today and the franchise, which covers the route between London and Edinburgh, has been publicly run since 2009.

The anticipated move was lambasted by Labour MPs in the North East, after the publicly-run Directed Operated Railways brought the line back into profit.

Ahead of this morning’s decision, Dave Anderson, Blaydon’s Labour MP, said:

“This shows the real contempt that this coalition feels for the people of the North.

“We have seen continuing failures by private companies in running our line over the period since privatisation until the public sector stepped back in and stopped the rot and we have seen increased punctuality accompanied by increased usage by the travelling public which has delivered the best economic performance of any UK train service.

“This counts for nothing in the world of Conservative dogma. It shows, yet again, that this Government will ignore the wishes of anyone as it steams ahead with its ideological attack on the public sector in our country.”

East Coast paid a record £235m back to the Government in its final full year in public hands – up 12% on the previous year. Proof, unions believe, that a private sector deal is politically-motivated.

Grahame Morris, Easington MP, dismissed the privatisation of the line this week as “right wing Tory dogma”.

He said: “This public-run rail franchise has generated over a billion pounds for the Treasury.

“If this is what a publicly-run train operating franchise can deliver, at a time when every penny counts, we should be looking at ways to bring privately run railways back into public ownership not the other way round.

“This is right wing Tory dogma being put ahead of the best interests of the service, consideration for passengers and the public finances.

“The public-run East Coast Main Line franchise has consistently been the best performing franchise when it comes to passenger and staff satisfaction, fares and profitability.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 27 Nov 2014

Scottish Independence Referendum has Berwick braced for changes ahead

One week from polling day across the border, Berwick is braced for problems ahead if there is a Yes vote for Scottish independence.

With opinion polls indicating that next Thursday’s referendum is too close to call, the establishment of a separate sovereign state north of Lamberton has suddenly become a realistic prospect.

 Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith believes the result “could have profound consequences for Berwick and the Borders.”

But on a visit to the Berwick Advertiser office this week, Ayton-based Scottish government minister Paul Wheelhouse insisted cross-border ties would be largely unaffected by independence.

As media coverage intensifies and the referendum race enters the home straight, international journalists and TV news crews from around the world have been descending on Berwick in droves to gauge opinion in England’s most northerly town.

Business leaders in north Northumberland are waiting and watching with interest. Many of them fear for the future, but most are unwilling to comment publicly about potential problems independence would cause.

Sir Alan Beith, however, repeats Unionists warnings today about currency, border controls and cross-border public services.

There might be Scottish pounds after independence, but their value would fluctuate below or above that of the English pound,” he writes. “It really would be like changing holiday money, but on an everyday basis.”

He also warns that border checkpoints could not be ruled out if Scotland opts for independence.

If one of our two nations was in the EU and the other was not, border control would be necessary,” he writes.

“If the UK government had no confidence in the Scottish government’s immigration or security policy, border controls could become necessary.”

Sir Alan also believes cross-border public services would be put at risk.

He states: “It is quite difficult to overcome cross-border bureaucratic obstacles within a single state, but I believe it would be a lot more difficult across a boundary between two sovereign states.”

Mr Wheelhouse, acknowledges that cross-border concerns have been raised by voters on the Scottish side of the border. But the SNP politician, who says he often shops in Berwick, is confident existing arrangements between the Borders and Northumberland would be largely unaffected by independence.

We have a good story to tell in terms of those relations, and the continuing nature of an open border,” he said.

“Different tax arrangements are common place across Europe in terms of cross-border working and there have been no problems there.”

He also believes an independent Scotland would “hopefully” be able to continue the current relationship between the two health services on either side of the border.

But many members of the public in the Berwick area are unconvinced.

Andrew Martin, 46, from Tweedmouth, fears for Berwick’s economy.

“If Scotland gets its own tax raising powers and decides to set taxes at a lower rate or reduce its own VAT, goods and service would be cheaper just a few miles to the north,” he said.

Berwick has always been the communication hub for the north of Northumberland and the south east of the Scottish Borders. If things are different on either side of the border it causes a real issue.

“I don’t think the impact on north Northumberland has been properly explored.

“A Yes vote could benefit us on this side of the border. But a No vote and a new devolution plus arrangement could have a real impact.”

So Berwick would benefit from a Yes vote?

“It would really depend whether or not Scotland could raise the funds required to balance the books. If not, tax and VAT would go up. Alex Salmond looks towards Norway, but the have an income tax rate of 50% and a higher rate of VAT.”

Some small businesses in the Borders are understood to have already registered a new address in Northumberland to guard against the prospect of being entangled in red tape in the event of a Yes vote and the potential for economic problems in immediate aftermath.

But on the Northumberland side of the border, most business leaders are simply waiting and watching with interest.

Terence Pardoe is chief executive at Coastal Grains. Based at Belford, the co-operative stores and markets grain for members on both sides of the border.

We have no view on it until there is a vote one way or another and then have to see what transpires and how it may affect us,” he said.

If there is a Yes vote, there will have to be a period of re-organisation, and we do not yet know what will be involved in the transfer of centralisation. If there is a No vote, then the assumption is that nothing will change to affect the business.

“It would therefore be a waste of time planning something which we do not know how it will evolve.”

Very few business leaders are prepared to express their fears publicly. Indeed, one of the biggest employers in Berwick told the Advertiser this week that it was company policy not to comment about a “current political event”.

But the Scots who live in Berwick are happy to have their say.

Marion Black, 56, is a Scot who has lived in East Ord for 27 years. She would be undecided if she did have a vote. She also believes the potential implications for Berwick, if Scotland does opt for independence, have been exaggerated.

I don’t think much would change,” she said. “We’ve had stories like this before. When free personal care for the elderly and free tuition fees were introduced under devolution, people said there would be an influx of people moving from Berwick to Scotland and that house prices would up over the border. But it never happened. The impact won’t be as big as people say.

“In the short to medium term, I don’t think independence would have a big impact.

“I love Berwick and I love living in Berwick. People don’t always move or change their life solely for economic reasons.”

It’s nice in a way because I’m interested in the debate, but I don’t have the responsibility of making up my mind. My heart says yes, and my head says no. If I did live in Scotland I’d be torn.”

Stephen Hope was born in Edinburgh but now lives and works in Berwick. He is employed by his dad at the Sporran Gift Shop on Church Street, selling Scottish memorabilia to the tourists.

Independence could be bad for Berwick,” he said. “But it would depend on the strength of the currency Scotland chooses to use. If it is a weak currency, though, the Scots would come over the border to do their shopping, so that might benefit Berwick. it is hard to say. But if I was up there I’d definitely vote No.”

Source – Berwick Advertiser,  13 Sept 2014

“You would vote for independence too,” says North-East based Scot

With the Scottish independence referendum only days away, journalist and university lecturer Neil Macfarlane explains why he would vote yes. And why he thinks you would too

I’m a Scot who lives in the North-East. There are loads of us – chuck a paper aeroplane out your front window and you’ll probably hit one. I’ve lived happily here for years, but it won’t surprise those who know me that I would like Scotland to vote yes to independence next week.

I hope this happens because I don’t think the three main Westminster parties represent my politics any more. I like the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons, of universal education, and I worry about the future of the NHS and the welfare state.

I think it’s sensible to increase immigration to help reverse decades of emigration by Scots like me and my family. I feel uncomfortable about parties of all stripes blaming foreigners and the poor for all problems.

I think the UK government and media is too focused on London. I think many people in the North-East feel the same about these issues.

I don’t know for sure if an independent Scotland would be richer or poorer but I do think it would be governed by people with its interests at heart. I like England and English people very much and I don’t think Braveheart is a good film.

My generation (mid 30s) are among those most likely to vote Yes. The media often explain this away by pointing out we were impressionable teens when Braveheart was released. It’s a funny observation – comfortingly so for some – but not quite right. There’s a more crucial formative figure than William Wallace.
Margaret Thatcher came to power only months before I was born, and was Prime Minister for over a decade as I was growing up in Edinburgh. It didn’t make sense that this could happen when it seemed to me that everybody I knew voted against her.
I remember my dad ranting at the telly and the chants of “milk-snatcher” in the playground. I still remember the day the teacher announced her resignation. The entire class of 11-year-olds erupted in celebration, on their knees with clenched fists, or jumping on their chairs. No one complained about young people being disengaged with politics in those days – we didn’t have the choice.

Thatcher remains the longest serving Prime Minister of my lifetime, yet she was repeatedly rejected by the people of Scotland at the polls. When our teachers taught us about democracy, and how generations had fought and died to preserve it, something didn’t fit.

By the way, feel free to swap “Scotland” in the paragraph above for “Middlesbrough“, “Sedgefield“, Sunderland” or “Bishop Auckland“.

Pretty much all of this applies to the North-East, too. Sometimes people dismiss the independence movement by asking if there should also be separation for the North-East, for Manchester, or Liverpool.

Personally, I don’t see why not – if that’s what the people want. But the argument misunderstands what Scotland is. It is not a region of a country. It is its own country and always has been.

The United Kingdom only came into being 300 years ago as an agreement between two nations to form an alliance. Scotland was not conquered. Its remarkable achievements in science, philosophy, engineering, literature and statecraft had been established for centuries before 1707, and that spirit later combined with the same from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to make the union thrive.

This time last year most Scots liked the idea of the UK being a partnership of equals, and a sizable majority were happy enough to keep it that way. That has now changed.

The No campaign has been horrendously misjudged. Scots always believed they could be independent, but most doubted if they should. The Conservative-Labour-Lib Dem Better Together campaign then set about claiming that Scotland would collapse into disarray if left to its own devices. The campaign was dubbed “Project Fear” – by the No camp themselves.

Scots were told: You can’t keep the pound, you can’t stay in the EU, your aspirations are pipe dreams and we’ll rebuild Hadrian’s Wall to keep you out when it all goes wrong.

Their latest effort was billboards claiming: “Vote no if you love your children.” The polls are at 50:50, are they saying half the people in Scotland hate their kids? It’s so long since the Scots heard the positive case for the union, they’re beginning to suspect there isn’t one.

In the face of this onslaught, the Yes campaign has flourished. Grassroots activists have packed out town halls across the country making their case, bloggers have amassed followings to make newspaper editors cry with envy.

People who have never voted are being helped to register, and volunteers are putting on buses to give them a lift on polling day. Discussion on social media is dominated by funny, spiky, imaginative Yes voters.

There are touring arts festivals. Millions have been inspired by the idea that Scotland could become a fairer, more successful country, and by the promise of progressive policies that would never be offered by three Westminster parties all fighting over the same ground.

This isn’t petty nationalism. It is an inclusive movement. Every resident will be given a Scottish passport on day one of independence. One of the most high profile campaign groups is English Scots for Yes, who give away teabags branded: “Have a cuppa, vote yes.” There are groups for African Scots, Italian Scots,Polish Scots. I am proud of the fact I don’t get a vote but those who live in Scotland do, regardless of where they were born.

It’s even spreading beyond the border. A recent poll showed an even higher proportion of people in the North-East back Scottish independence. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have asked: “Can we come too?

The response to all of this has been a wishy-washy offer of more powers for the Scottish parliament, without saying exactly what those powers might be. This was George Osborne’s first intervention since he announced Scotland couldn’t keep the pound – a move which actually caused an increase in support for independence. At this point, the Chancellor could knock on every door in Scotland offering a free carwash, foot rub and £1000 cash and the polls would still rise for Yes.

While the SNP published a manifesto for Scotland’s future a year ago, Labour and the Tories are now trying to scramble a response with only days to go. Why not before now? Perhaps because they weren’t listening, because it’s too far away, because there are too few voters… because it was never a priority for them.

It’s a feeling the Scots, and we in the North-East, know all too well.

Source –  Northern Echo, 11 Sept 2014

Poll suggests people are relaxed about Scottish Independence…but want more power for the regions

A vote will take place later this month that will affect everyone in the UK – but only a tenth of us will actually get the chance to go to the polls.

Whether the Scottish Independence referendum results in a yes or a no vote – and the latest reports are that the vote could still go either way – the decision taken by 5.2m Scots will have implications for the other 58m people who live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

After trailing for most of the concern, the SNP appears to be gaining momentum ahead of the vote on September 18. A yes vote would make the North East a border region for the first time in hundreds of years, and even a vote to retain the union is likely to be so close that it will be followed by calls for greater devolution to the nations of the UK.

Any move in that direction would inevitably result in new calls to consider the essential contradiction of the devolution agenda followed by the Labour Government of the late 1990s: giving the Scottish and Welsh, and later the Northern Irish, the power to run their own affairs, but still having English matters decided by MPs from the UK as a whole.

The Scottish independence debate has also revived calls for greater power to be devolved from Whitehall to the regions. The North East decisively voted against a regional assembly in a referendum held in 2004 but all the main political parties will go into the next election promising to give more powers to the different corners of England.

In the latest poll run by Other Lines of Enquiry North, using their in-house Panelbase service, they asked people both in the North East and nationally for their thoughts on Scottish independence, whether England needs the same devolved powers as the other home nations and whether the regions should have more say over their affairs.

When asked whether people were worried about the impact of a yes vote in the Scottish Independence referendum, our respondents seem fairly relaxed:

57% of people nationally and 54% in the North East were not worried and only 33% both nationally and locally were concerned.

(Interestingly, the 18-24 age group – those thought to be most in favour of independence in Scotland – were the most concerned, while the next age group up (25-34) were the most relaxed.)

The strongest vote of the three questions in our poll came when people were asked: “Do you think England should be given the same devolved powers as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

Here 60% of people nationally and 58% of people in the North East voted yes, compared to only 14% nationally and 13% locally voting no.

Such strength of feeling suggests a problem for the Government after the Scottish referendum. Even a no vote is likely to result in more devolved powers going to Edinburgh, but that would increase the calls from English activists for Scottish MPs to lose the power they currently have to pass legislation affecting England.

Finally, we asked people whether the regions of Britain should be given more devolved powers from Whitehall. Both Labour and the Conservatives have made great play in recent months of boosting the North, though cynics have suggested that all political parties are good at promising more to the regions when elections approach and less keen when the people in Whitehall is them.

Nationally 46% of people want more devolution to the regions, beating the 26% who don’t.

But this final question is the one where a significant gap emerges between our national and local respondents: in the North East the call for more local powers was much stronger, with 55% in favour of greater local accountability and only 17% against.

The  poll also showed a big divergence in different age groups, with younger people in the North East almost exclusively in favour of the region getting more power from Whitehall while opposition grew among older people from the North East who responded to the poll.

Source –  Newcastle Journal, 04 Sept 2014

Shortlist of firms bidding to run region’s rail services branded as “same old greedy companies”

The shortlist of train firms bidding to run the region’s rail services have been announced by the Government – with unions immediately descriving the operators as the “same old greedy companies”.

Three companies have been shortlisted to run the Northern franchise, while three companies are being considered for the TransPennine Express franchise.

All the operators companies have successfully passed the pre-qualification stage, and will now be asked to develop their plans for the franchises before they receive the Government’s Invitation to Tender in December.

Officials say that bidders will be expected to show how they will make the most of the government’s £1billion investment programme for the rail network in the north of England, which aims to provide faster and more reliable journeys, more capacity, better trains and improved connections for passengers across the region.

The shortlisted bidders to run the two franchises are:

Northern

• Abellio Northern Ltd

• Arriva Rail North Limited

• Govia Northern Limited

TransPennine Express

• First Trans Pennine Express Limited

• Keolis Go-Ahead Limited

 • Stagecoach Trans Pennine Express Trains Limited

Rail Minister Claire Perry said: “The north is undergoing a real rail renaissance, and we will be asking these companies to come up with innovative and ambitious proposals that will ensure a truly world-class rail network for the region.

“Building a railway that is fit for the 21st century is a vital part of our long term economic plan, connecting businesses and communities, generating jobs and boosting growth, and we need strong private sector partners to help us achieve this ambition.”

The new operator will also be expected to work closely with Rail North, which represents the region’s local authorities, to ensure local rail users will have more influence in how their train services are run.

Sir Richard Leese, for Rail North, said: “The companies on the shortlists demonstrate the interest there is in meeting Rail North’s desire to see the railway acting as an economic driver in the north of England.

“We look forward to working with the bidders to deliver strong franchises for passengers, which reflect the aims and objectives of our Long Term Rail Strategy and the predicted growth in patronage.”

The franchise is expected to run for a period of around 7 to 9 years, with the provision for an extension of one year at the discretion of the DfT.

An announcement about the successful bidder is expected in autumn 2015, with the contract expected to start in February 2016.

One of the shortlisted companies, Stagecoach, said the TPE rail franchise was a key part of the North of England’s infrastructure, supporting economic growth and connecting communities –  and the company was delighted to have been shortlisted by the Department for Transport.

A spokesmand added: “Stagecoach has played a leading role in transforming rail travel in Britain over the past two decades, bringing new ideas and putting customers at the heart of the railway.

“We look forward to engaging with local people and other stakeholders to develop a package of ambitious and robust proposals that will improve services and deliver better value for money to passengers and taxpayers.”

Mick Cash, RMT Acting General Secretary, criticised the Government for releasing ths hortliost just horus after a consultation process into the future of the services closed.

Mr Cash added that the shortlist contained “the same old greedy companies looking to hitch yet another ride on the rail privatisation gravy train purely in the interests of private profit”. 

He said: “It makes a mockery of the consultation that this list of the greedy and the incompetent has been drawn up by the Government before the consultation responses have even been opened and before these companies even know what it is that they are bidding for.

“RMT said from the off that the consultation was wholly bogus, this morning’s outrageous manoeuvring has proved that conclusively and RMT will use every tool at our disposal to expose this racket for what it is.”

Both franchises are due to be awarded by October 2015 and as they develop their bids each of the bidders will need to set out how they will capitalise on the biggest programme of rail modernisation ever.

The Government says that than £1billion will be spent on the rail network in the north over the next five years.

The potential operators will need to demonstrate how they will use these projects to increase capacity in order to tackle crowding and meet future passenger demand; provide faster and more frequent services; and upgrade rolling stock, including proposals to replace Pacer trains on the Northern franchise. Bidders will also need to improve customer service and passenger satisfaction.

The Northern and TransPennine Express franchises carried more than 110 million passengers last year, covering inter-urban, commuter and rural routes. The franchises connect passengers travelling into and between the key strategic cities of Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle, and onwards to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

A public consultation into the future of rail services in the north closed on Monday and responses will be taken into account as the franchise proposals are developed further ahead of the Invitations to Tender in December.

Source – Northern Echo, 19 Aug 2014

UK Government ‘In Denial’ Over Food Banks And Welfare Reforms, Say MSPs

The Welfare Reform Committee in Holyrood has accused the UK Government of being “in denial” over the link between welfare reforms and increasing demand on food banks.

Committee members visited a number of food banks across Scotland and took written evidence from providers including Trussell Trust, Oxfam Scotland and the British Red Cross, as part of an inquiry into the supposed link between benefit changes and food bank usage.

The committee also commissioned research from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.

 According to the Trussell Trust, the demand for food banks has increased by 400% since the UK Government began their relentless attack on social security benefits.

The committee raised concerned that the increased use of benefit sanctions against some of the poorest sections of society is behind the startling rise in food bank usage.

In the year leading up to September 2013, official Government figures show that nearly 900,000 Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants had their benefit payments cut or stopped completely – the highest figure since JSA was introduced.

22,840 sick and disabled people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were also sanctioned during this period.

This, in part, has led to MSPs arguing that it is “insulting to suggest” that there is “no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform”, as suggested by Tory employment minister Esther McVey in a letter to the Scottish Government.

McVey recently postponed a meeting with the committee to discuss the impact of welfare reform in Scotland. This resulted in Labour MSP Ken Macintosh accusing the UK Government of deliberately trying to “avoid answering questions” about the “significant and negative impact the welfare changes have had on some of our most vulnerable”.

Scottish Labour MSP and convener of the committee, Michael McMahon said:

The UK Government can no longer ignore the evidence that their welfare reforms are having a real impact on people’s ability to feed themselves.

“There can be no place for this in a modern, prosperous nation, just as there should be no need for food banks.

“Our evidence showed some low paid workers need to access food banks.

“This makes it even more insulting for them to insist that people using food banks are anything other than in desperate need of help. Help the welfare system should be providing, not charities.

“Allowing this Dickensian model of welfare to take root is simply unacceptable. Ignoring the problem cannot be part of the solution.”

The committee’s Deputy convener and SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn, said:

All our committee members visited food banks across Scotland.

“We were impressed by the professional and respectful way that the volunteers dealt with people who came to them, often in their hour of greatest need.”

Hepburn said that the UK Government needed to “own up to the role it is playing in causing the increase in demand and stop pretending this is simply all about people looking for something for nothing”, and that any such suggestion “insults the vulnerable members of our society using food banks and the volunteers that run them”.

Hepburn slammed the government’s welfare changes for “pushing people to the brink – and often beyond”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) dismissed the report as not being “based on solid evidence, but on the opinions of those interviewed”, adding:

The truth is that employment is going up, benefits are being paid to claimants more quickly and independent experts tell us that there are fewer people struggling with their food bills compared with a few years ago.

“The Trussell Trust and other foodbanks agree that increased awareness has helped to explain their recent growth.

“We spend £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system provides a safety net that supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed.

“Our reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities by promoting work and helping people to lift themselves out of poverty.”

> Said the DWP spokesperson, as their nose grew another metre…

Source – Welfare News Service,  02 June 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/uk-government-denial-food-banks-welfare-reforms-say-msps/

North East England: Britain’s Detroit?

Until seven years ago, there was a secret room at Darlington station. Just off one of the platforms, between the standard-class waiting room and a cleaners’ storeroom, and set back behind three successive doors, it was small and plain: a desk, a grimy extractor fan and two windows made opaque to passing travellers by reflective material.

Tony Blair used this room when he was prime minister. His constituency, Sedgefield in County Durham, was a short drive away. When he needed to get to London, 260 miles south, he and his entourage would often catch the fast Darlington train, which can take less than two and a half hours.

More usefully still, many other key New Labour figures took the same line, among them Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and David Miliband. Altogether, the north-east of England, which contains about a 25th of the UK population, was represented by “a third of Blair’s first cabinet“, noted the veteran anatomist of British power networks, Anthony Sampson, in 2004. (Sampson was himself born in County Durham.) Rarely before had our remotest and often poorest region been such a hub of political influence.

> Of course it could be argued that their only real interest in the region was that it provided safe Labour seats – Mandelson got elected in Hartlepool ! Atriumph of blind devotion over common sense if ever there was one.

When Blair arrived early or his train arrived late, it was felt by Whitehall that the increasingly controversial premier could not just stand on a platform, waiting. Hence the secret room. Now, it is just the station manager’s office. The building around it has gone back to being a market town station with flaking paint and a fragile roof, where isolated passenger footsteps echo in the long middle-of-the-day lull and trains for Scotland and the south of England rattle through without stopping. No current cabinet minister has a north-east seat – only two of its MPs are Tories. Labour’s power base is now in London, Yorkshire and the north-west.

Since the Blair era, the area has slipped in other ways. Between 2007 and 2012, unemployment rose faster than in any other UK region, to more than 10%, the highest in the country. Throughout 2013, as joblessness receded in most of the UK, in the north-east it carried on rising. This year, it has begun to fall a little but remains the worst in the nation.

> And how much of that fall can be attributed to sanctions ? Quite a chunk, I’d guess.

Since 2007, the area’s contribution to national economic growth, measured as gross value added, has shrunk from an already weak 3% in the Blair years to barely 2%. The Northern Rock building society, with roots in the region going back a century and a half, has suffered a humiliating meltdown. The north-east has been, and will probably continue to be, especially harshly treated by the coalition’s spending cuts.

According to the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, a typical council in the region will lose £665 in government funding per inhabitant between 2010 and 2018, the biggest national fall. Meanwhile, public sector employment in the region – the highest in England at more than one job in five – has been falling since 2009, a year before the coalition took office.

At Newcastle United, one of the north-east’s disproportionate number of fiercely followed, rarely successful football clubs, the recent sponsorship of the team shirt tells a similarly dispiriting story: Northern Rock from 2003-2011; Virgin Money, Northern Rock’s current, Edinburgh-based owners, from 2012- 2013; this season, the payday loan company Wonga.

Between 2011 and 2012, child poverty rates in Middlesbrough and Newcastle Central rose to 40% and 38% respectively.

For as long as anyone alive will remember, this has been a ‘problem region’: a special case, a sick man,” wrote the Newcastle-born novelist Richard T Kelly in a 2011 essay, What’s Left For The North-East?

In recent years, some rightwingers have begun to throw up their hands. “It is at least as hard to buck geography as it is to buck the market,” said the influential Tory thinktank Policy Exchange in 2008. “It is time to stop pretending that there is a bright future for Sunderland.”

And last year the Tory peer Lord Howell suggested the region had “large uninhabited and desolate areas… where there’s plenty of room for fracking“. Weeks later, the Economist described Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as part of “Britain’s rust belt“; “Despite dollops of public money and years of heroic effort… [these] former industrial heartlands are quietly decaying.

The magazine concluded with an unlikely but ominous comparison: “The Cotswolds were the industrial engines of their day. One reason they are now so pretty is that, centuries ago, huge numbers of people fled them.”

From Darlington, an old and scuzzy two-carriage train chugs east along a branch line towards Middlesbrough. Along the way, it stops at Thornaby-on-Tees, an ex-industrial town beside the river Tees. From the 1840s until the 1980s, the Head Wrightson ironworks here made everything from parts for bridges to parts for nuclear power stations; then foreign competition closed it.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher visited the site and took a much-photographed walk across a yellowing wasteland of weeds and factory remnants, wearing an inappropriate smart suit but looking unusually pensive. Shortly afterwards, her government, seeking to soften its reputation as the hammer of the north, created the Teesside Development Corporation, and the wasteland was turned into the Teesdale Business Park, a US-style landscape of corporate lawns, car parks and low office blocks.

The blocks are still there, neat and anonymous except for the corporate logos: Barclaycard, the NHS, the privatised services firm Serco. The car parks are full of mid-range vehicles. For three decades, the north-east has been a centre for modestly paid clerical work, such as call centres and the “back office” administrative processes of companies based elsewhere. But at the Teesdale Business Park, “To Let” is the most common logo; some are so old, they have rotted and snapped off.

As with Thornaby, Middlesbrough is a flat riverside town that once grew fast because of iron foundries: from only 25 inhabitants in 1801 to 165,000 in the 1960s. The Victorian centre was built to a grid pattern, like a US boom town, with docks just to the north for exporting iron and coal.

But in 1980 the docks closed, the population began to fall, and a void opened between the town and the river. It is still there, starting a few yards from the town centre; a great windswept triangle of rubble and rust, boarded-up houses, Dickensian wall fragments and roads to nowhere. Derelict waterfront warehouses stand in the distance. A middle-aged security man in a peeling wood cabin guards them. “There’s lots of steel cable in those sheds,” he says. “And lots of people try to steal it.” When asked how long it has been so run-down, he shrugs and says without emotion: “As long as I can remember.

The town’s population is around 138,000. To a visitor, the long, straight streets of the town centre seem eerily empty of pedestrians. At the sizable railway station, the weekday rush hour sometimes barely exists: at 8.30 on a Friday morning, I counted fewer than a dozen other people on the platforms. The station cafe had not bothered to open.

If things carry on as they are now,” says Alex Niven, a leftwing writer from Northumberland, “in five years the situation will get somewhere like Detroit.” Several other authorities in the north-east that I interviewed invoked the long-imploding American city, unprompted.

He left the area 10 years ago, aged 18, and now lives in London. “Almost all my friends from school live in London now. When you go back to the north-east, the landscape’s kind of crumbling. There is this sort of sadness. It feels like a people who’ve been weakened, who’ve just been cut loose.”

Geography does not help. “The north-east is at the far corner of the country, but it is separated by more than just miles,” writes Harry Pearson, born near Middlesbrough, in his 1994 book The Far Corner.

There is the wilderness of the Pennines to the west, the emptiness of the North York Moors to the south, and to the north, the Scottish border… Sometimes the north-east [seems] more like an island than a region.”

It is an island that the HS2 rail project is not currently intended to reach. Meanwhile, the prospect of Scottish independence and the near-certainty of more Scottish devolution threatens to marginalise the region further. “Scotland can already do more to attract inward investment than we can,” says Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central. “More power for Scotland, in that sense, would not be a benefit for us.”

Pinned to a board in her constituency office is a list of Newcastle food banks. Outside, contrastingly, the grand city centre streets are much busier than in Middlesbrough, full of prosperously dressed people and big branches of the same upmarket chainstores as in richer places.

“Newcastle is the economic capital of the north-east,” she says, “but the centre, especially, is not representative of the region.” A few minutes’ walk farther out, cheap cafes offer soup of the day for a pound, and other scruffy businesses have long ceased to offer anything. “Every time I see a building boarded up,” Onwurah says, “it strikes fear into my heart.”

Onwurah grew up on a Newcastle council estate in the 60s and 70s. It was then a smoky, clattering centre for shipbuilding and other heavy industry, but these were in terminal decline. In 1984, she left to study electrical engineering, then worked away from Newcastle for a quarter of a century, until she was elected as MP in 2010. In the interim, the city reshaped its economy around tourism and nightlife, as an internationally hyped “party city“; around sport, with the 90s resurgence of Newcastle United; and around culture, with the opening in Gateshead of the Baltic art gallery in 2002 and the Sage music centre in 2004.

It was a very heady time,” says Niven, who supports Newcastle United and as a teenager often travelled into the city from rural Northumberland. “The north-east has a brash, confident side. There’s also often a sense of slumbering potential, that one day a messiah or a revival will come.”

In the 90s and noughties, optimism was most concrete along the river Tyne, which separates Gateshead and Newcastle. Decaying canyons of quayside buildings filled with flash new bars, expensive flats, high-end office space and public art. It was easy to visit Newcastle – which I often did then – and think it was becoming a swaggering, economically self-sufficient provincial city, such as those you find in less centralised countries: another Marseille or Hamburg.

The quaysides are slightly less uplifting now. On the Newcastle side, several bars have shut down. Bridge Court, an enormous, empty office block, has a plaque that reads, “The foundation stone was laid by Mr Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, on 22 September 1994“; another sign says, “Demolition. Keep Out“.

Niven sees the north-east’s revival under the Blair government as “largely superficial. In the long term, it didn’t lead to better jobs and infrastructure. You can’t base the revival of a region on nightlife and football.

Onwurah, whose grandfather worked in the shipyards and whose mother grew up on the quayside, is less scathing: “Labour did a lot in the north-east, to stop the concentration of economic power elsewhere getting much worse, but we didn’t overcome the underlying issue. We haven’t got the previous sources of economic growth. And we haven’t got enough skills and entrepreneurs.” A successful region, she says, has a “critical mass” economically. “If you don’t have critical mass, to attract people and investment, you go into decline. We’re on the edge of that.” She holds up her hands and makes a flat, wobbling gesture: “We’re teetering.

In Middlesbrough, the riverside wasteland has been earmarked for regeneration – as a new area called Middlehaven – for almost 30 years. Recessions, anxious developers and the town’s wider economic struggles have confined most construction to the area’s fringe. Yet there is one exception: an incongruous silvery curve of a building in the centre of the emptiness. Middlesbrough College opened in 2008; it houses engineering workshops, training kitchens, hair and beauty salons, and other vocational course facilities for 16- to 18-year-olds. In 2011, it was rated “good with outstanding features” by Ofsted. Walking down the college’s bright and warm internal street, seconds after being out in the dereliction, and seeing students at work in the glass-walled rooms or rushing back and forth, it seems absurd to think that Middlesbrough does not have a long-term future. But in the window of the in-house Jobs Shop, only half a dozen positions are offered. One is at a local seaside care home for the elderly: the successful applicant will earn £107.20 for a 40-hour week.

Further education is one of the north-east’s few growth industries. “Without it, I dread to think what some of the cities would be doing,” says Andy Pike, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies. “A lot of people want to come and study in the north-east” – academic standards are high, living costs low and the nightlife boisterous. But, Pike adds, “We have a problem with graduate retention: not as many stay as could do. It’s a thin labour market. The people who stay typically will not end up in graduate jobs. And then local non-graduates will be bumped out of the labour market altogether.”

> But the influx of students also puts a strain on rented accommodation. Certainly in Sunderland (which seems to be ignored in this article) its noticable that streets near to the university appear to becoming student-only ghettos – private landlords presumably looking to maximise profits by packing them in.

In the north-east, the increasingly de-skilled, low-paid labour market of Britain under the coalition is at its meanest. Full-time wages are the lowest of any UK region.

In 2007, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or Mima, cheekily echoing New York’s Moma gallery, opened on a redeveloped square in the town centre. It looks the part: slick, glassy exterior; high-ceilinged interior; dozens of attentive young staff in Mima T-shirts. It offers an ambitious programme of community events and exhibitions – currently, Art And Optimism In 1950s Britain. Yet a gallery cannot make a town centre vibrant by itself. On Thursday evenings, it opens late, but on the Thursday I visited I saw four other visitors in half an hour.

Since the 1930s, governments have tested regeneration projects in the region. Edward Twiddy is one of the latest reformers to be despatched from London. Since 2012, he has been head of the North-East Local Enterprise Partnership (Nelep), a typically optimistic coalition creation, which aims to get business and local councils – almost all Labour – to work together for the area’s economic benefit.

Twiddy previously worked at the Treasury and for the Foreign Office in Iraq. He is slight and cerebral-looking, and speaks mostly in fluent Whitehall jargon. “The region’s still going through some fairly big structural changes,” he tells me. “The north-east was over-specialised – in coal, for example. Nowadays, people need to be able to approach life differently. You’ve got to be able to travel, to be competitive… Economic activity will move [away] if you cannot convince the market that yours is the right place to work.” But even Twiddy is off: he is set to leave Nelep for Atom, a new digital bank to be based “in the north-east“.

I ask how many staff Nelep has. Twiddy pauses: “The core is four. Then there are people doing discrete pieces of work for us, people loaned to us, people I’ve scrabbled around for, got a few pennies for… There are about 11 or 12 of us in all.” Nelep replaced One North-East, a regional development agency created by the Blair government that had 400 staff.

Yet there is a more economically independent side to the region. A few miles east of the centre of Newcastle, a side road leads steeply downhill to a half-hidden stretch of the Tyne. In the early 1980s, the quays here were a rotting ladder of derelict docks and slipways. Then two local property developers, Freddy and Bruce Shepherd, began to buy the land, clean it up, reuse the old cranes and rent out the quaysides: first to companies involved in North Sea oil, then to others involved in undersea cable-laying and offshore wind power.

Shepherd Offshore now stretches along the Tyne for miles. In its riverside boardroom, with giant reels of cable as tall as tugboats looming outside the windows, Twiddy makes the introductions over coffee served in Versace mugs. The Shepherds are heavyset men with fierce handshakes and slightly loose tongues. “We are the raggy end of the couch up here in the north-east,” Bruce says. Freddy interjects: “We get nothing easy. Not off the government. Without us, there would be nothing here but two abandoned shipyards.”Up and down the river, we’re close knit,” Bruce says. “There are more than 2,500 jobs. We’re a manufacturing base. We train people. But we’re forgotten down here.”

How many jobs were there in the days of the shipyards? “Six and a half thousand,” Freddy says. “I was an apprentice in the shipyard here. You’re never going to get back to those numbers.”

Bruce offers a tour of the quay in his spotless Range Rover. As we drive, he points out other cars parked nose to tail at the roadside: “There’s never enough parking. The number of people working here keeps growing.” We leave the road and enter a muddy construction site, scheduled to house a new national research centre for offshore and undersea technology, a collaboration between the Shepherds, Newcastle city council and Newcastle University. Bruce ploughs through puddles, his property developer’s patter in full flow, then stops his spattered Range Rover at a fence that faces the famous old Swan Hunter shipyard. It is still a wasteland, but new developments are encroaching from all directions.

Another sign of entropy reversed would be to attract more southerners; not just to study but to work. Twiddy is one. Tony Trapp is another. Raised in London, he has been one of the area’s handful of legendary entrepreneurs since the 70s. Then, he helped invent an undersea plough for laying seabed pipes and cables by driving a specially adapted tractor up and down a beach in Northumberland. Several companies and clever products later, he now runs Osbit Power, which makes self-stabilising gangways to connect offshore wind turbines to maintenance vessels.

The enterprise is based in a previously derelict hotel in sweeping Northumberland countryside. Behind its unkempt walls, purposeful-looking young employees cluster at desks or in front of whiteboards, while Trapp, a creased man of 68 with a murmuring voice but an intoxicating can-do aura, briefs them and holds court. “I’ve always based my businesses on clever graduates,” he says later. “I’ve taken on hundreds, some from Newcastle University, from Northumbria University. For offshore engineering, the north-east is the best place in Europe.

But in other ways he sees the local economy as still underpowered. “Persuading clever people from the south to come here is quite hard. It’s not just the image they have of the north-east – it does have the worst statistics, in health, in booze… If you look at many CEOs of big companies here, they don’t live up here. They live in Surrey, London. It’s insulting, in a way.” For a second, he looks his age. “I don’t have the solution to the north-east.”

It is not Twiddy’s job to voice such doubts. Instead, he takes me to the coast, not far from where Trapp tested his undersea plough. It is a brilliant blue day, and the often luminous north-east light is at its most seductive. We drive into the small town of Blyth, where there has been a port since the 12th century, which suggests the region has more staying power than the doom-mongers claim. We approach a cluster of shiny, towering blue-grey sheds, where the National Renewable Energy Centre tests blades for offshore wind farms. In December, the government increased its subsidy for this source of electricity, a rare gift from Whitehall to the north-east in the age of austerity. Twiddy sounds like a small boy for a moment: “The crane for lifting the blades is just amazing!

We walk to one of the windowless sheds. Inside, spot-lit, suspended above an expanse of polished concrete floor, a single pale grey blade, with weights and cables attached to it, flexes slowly up and down, vast and stately as the tail of a whale. The only sound is the hum of the air-conditioning. In a space the size of a small cathedral, but clean and tidy as a science lab, only two employees are visible: distant, purposeful figures in dust coats.

Working here looks much better than working in a chilly shipyard, a call centre or a nightclub, or for most of the region’s previous economic saviours. But Mill says the centre has a staff of 69. The north-east will need an awful lot more workplaces like it this if it is going to stop teetering.

Source – The Guardian  10 May 2014

High speed rail plans may end up slowing the North East down

High speed rail will slow down services from the North East to Scotland and reduce London journeys by just 11 minutes, the region is today warned.

A series of route documents have shown how the North will be increasingly isolated if the £42bn railway project is completed.

After a trickle of concerns at the plans for a new railway emerged over the last year, the final picture increasingly shows a high speed network in which Newcastle actually loses services.

Consultation documents put out by HS2 and Network Rail show:

  • From 2033, Newcastle’s direct trains to and from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow are replaced by a stopping service calling at small towns throughout the line, hugely adding to journey times;
  • All London to Scotland services will go up the West Coast;
  • High speed rail will replace, not add, to all existing East Coast London to Newcastle routes in order to free up capacity south of York;
  • Under High speed plans, Durham would lose out on direct links, while Darlington moves from two trains an hour to London to one train;
  • Total journey saving times to London when Durham’s Hitachi trains are built are just 11 minutes.

Under Government plans, the high speed railway will go from London to Birmingham, heading in a Y-shape to Leeds and Manchester by 2033. The fast trains then switch down to regular speeds and travel either to Newcastle or up the west coast to Scotland, with Newcastle now becoming simply the end of a branch line.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, who sits on the House of Commons group overseeing the London to Birmingham high speed work, said he had warned his own party’s front bench team that something will have to change if the North East is not to lose out.

He told The Journal: “We have some of the worst rail connections already. As I have said to our front bench, the North East first of all needs to be recompensed for the disruption we will face as work goes on from York to London.

“But also, this new line will build economic powerhouses in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, while whatever happens in Scotland it is going to be given more economic powers.

“The North East risks being trapped in between these economic honeytraps, with slower connections to Scotland and losing some services to London. How will we sell ourselves to investors after High Speed 2?”

Other Labour MPs hitting out at the high speed plans include Durham’s Kevan Jones and Newcastle’s Nick Brown. They are at odds with Labour councils such as Newcastle and the Association of North East Councils, which have campaigned for new route despite the concerns.

Many of the damaging changes to North East services come as a result of a lack of investment in the East Coast Main Line north of York.

The four-lane line railway network changes to a two-lane line between Northallerton up to Newcastle. And with that system already leading to congestion on a one-in one-out basis, the new high speed route would only be able to replace, rather than add to, existing services.

In its consultation document, Network Rail admits that High Speed duplicates services up the East Coast, and as such, it wants to “reduce the quantum of long distance services,” axing long distance trains and replace them with slower, stopping services.

South of York there is increased extra capacity as all trains from Newcastle and Scotland are sent past Birmingham to Euston, with six trains an hour from the North moved off the existing system.

The system would mean there is an end to services from London to Edinburgh via Newcastle, documents show.

Instead a new stopping services would start at Newcastle and call at Cramlington, Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick, Dunbar, Drem, Prestonpans and Edinburgh Waverley.

And the same capacity constraints that force all these changes mean that from 2019, transport officials have decided the only way to increase services on the Transpennine service is to reduce one train an hour on the Birmingham via Leeds Cross Country routes.

Source – Newcastle Journal  06 May 2014