It was refreshing to hear someone born outside of the region have a good word to say about Ashington.
And Matthew Engel had more than a good word in fact. He admires the people who live there and what they represent.
Engel, a writer for the Guardian newspaper for 25 years, some time editor of the ‘cricket bible’ Wisden and now a columnist for the Financial Times, visited the Northumberland town while researching his latest book.
Called Engel’s England, he spent three years re-visiting the old counties which disappeared off the map of Britain as a result of the Local Government Act.
Drawn up by Ted Heath’s Tory Government in 1972, it was implemented by Harold Wilson’s Labour on, appropriately I would guess in Engel’s mind, April 1 – April Fool’s Day – 1974.
“It was a shambles,” he said. “Politicians are interested in political boundaries, people are not. We don’t care about local government and local government gets worse and worse.
“It caused a huge loss of local identity but there are still things left, things to celebrate that really have an identity, places like Ashington.
“What a tremendous place. Of course it has its problems but it has a tremendous richness of associative life.”
Associative life means a clearly identified way of life, from recognisable pass-times like growing leeks and racing whippets, something that hasn’t been lost despite the decimation of the coal mines in the area, he said.
> Is that associative life or is it a cliche ? Most people, even in Ashington, probably never grew leeks or raced whippets.
And in any case, Ashington is still in Northumberland, same as it ever was. It never disappeared or changed name.
“It is a place with its own accent, it’s own traditions, which are very, very strong,” said Engel.
In the book he explained how counties were formed historically and how they developed along locally defined lines which threw up their own idiosyncrasies.
There were the counties palatine, including Durham, which were directly under the control of a local princeling.
Then there were counties corporate and boroughs that were regarded as self governing and fell under the control of the local Lord Lieutenant for military purposes. Yorkshire, readers may well remember, was divided into three ridings.
As a result counties developed their own laws, dialects, customs, farming methods and building styles.
“They formed the tapestry of the nation,” Engel says. “The very distinctions show just how important the county was in the lives of the people.
“Real places with real differences inspiring real loyalties.”
The Local Government Act of 1888 brought democracy to the shires by establishing county councils but, according to Engel, the integrity of the counties were respected.
Not so The Local Government Act of 1972 which binned centuries of local identity to see, for example, Teesside renamed as Cleveland and Tyneside becoming Tyne and Wear.
> Ahem – Tyneside and Wearside ! And in any case, I don’t think it was such a bad idea.
Cumberland – which had been around since the 12th century – became part of Cumbria, a name that Engel shudders with distaste at. “Always say Cumberland,” said Engel.
Yarm had formed part of the Stokesley Rural District in what was then the ‘North Riding’ of Yorkshire and remained so until 1974 – when it became part of the district of Stockton-on-Tees in the new non-metropolitan county of Cleveland.
Cleveland – like Tyne and Wear – was abolished in 1996 under the Banham Review, with Stockton-on-Tees becoming a unitary authority.
In May a poll inspired by the Yarm for Yorkshire group saw locals vote emphatically “Yes” to the idea of transferring Yarm from Stockton to Hambleton Council in North Yorkshire.
Last month Stockton Borough Council rejected calls to refer the matter to the boundary commission into it, but the debate rumbles on.
To add to the horror of Teessiders who pine for a return to Yorkshire was this bit of research from Engel after a talk with a dialect expert from Leeds University.
> Presumably that’s Teessiders on the south bank of the river. Those on the north bank were in County Durham.
“He told me Middlesbrough accents have actually changed in the years since 1974. In those 40 years the Middlesbrough accent has become more North East and less Yorkshire.”
Engel describes his work as a “travel book” – “I think I’m the first travel writer who went straight from Choral Evensong at Durham Cathedral to the dog track.”
He added: “The historic counties need to return to the map, the media and our envelopes, so future generations can understand where they live.
“Only then will the English regain their spirit the way the Scots have done. This is not about local government – it is about our heritage and our future.”
* Engel’s England, is published by Profile Books at £20 on October 23, 2014.
> Sounds like another “intellectual” telling people what they should be doing.
People know where they live, future generations will too. Names and boundaries have always changed and will continue to do so.
Matthew Engel, incidentally, was born in Northampton and lives in Herefordshire. If he actually had some connection with the North East I might take him a bit more seriously.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Chronicle, 19 Oct 2014
The idea of ‘welfare ghettos’ full of streets where nobody works is a myth, according to research carried out in Middlesbrough by a Teesside University academic.
Professor Rob MacDonald says the concept of ‘benefits streets‘ – brought to the public’s attention by the television programme currently filming its second series in Stockton – don’t exist.
Residents of Kingston Road on Stockton’s Tilery Estate will feature in the next run of the Channel 4 show, due to be broadcast early next year.
A popular misconception of such areas, Mr MacDonald says, is that they are dominated by families who haven’t worked over generations and that unemployment is the preferred way of life.
Instead, his research found, even in deprived areas most households contain people who work and younger people want to find jobs.
The first series of Benefits Street, filmed on James Turner Street in Birmingham, was met with tabloid headlines about “90% of residents on hands-out” and “the street where 9 out of 10 households are on welfare“.
But Mr MacDonald says those figures are misleading.
His research, conducted along with Professor Tracy Shildrick from Leeds University and Professor Andy Furlong from Glasgow University, was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Their studies in Middlesbrough and Glasgow focused on 20 families and aimed to find out whether some popular ideas about the unemployed were actually myths.
Mr MacDonald said:
“In seeking neighbourhoods to test out the ideas, we selected areas with very high levels of worklessness – perhaps like the makers of Benefits Street.
“Even with these extreme cases, the majority of local people of working age were not on unemployment benefits. This is a far cry from the situation where an entire community sits on benefits for life.”
In James Turner Street recent statistics have shown that between 62% and 65% of households have somebody in employment – meaning that 35% to 38% of households could be described as workless.
Mr MacDonald said:
“In this sense, James Turner Street is very similar to the neighbourhoods we researched in Glasgow and Middlesbrough.”
Confirmation that Benefits Street was being filmed on Teesside caused widespread anger.
The Gazette’s photographer was egged while taking pictures of film crews on Kingston Road, Boro fans have displayed banners protesting against the series and families have started petitions against the programme.
Love Productions, the company behind the series, insists its intention is to give the communities taking part “a voice“.
In the university research, of the younger people interviewed who did not have jobs, most had brothers and sisters who were working.
Mr MacDonald added:
“This throws into doubt theories that rely on the idea that individuals are so swamped by negative role models and so bereft of positive examples of people in jobs that they learn that worklessness is the norm and to be preferred.
“The idea of ‘benefit ghettos’ where unemployment is a ‘lifestyle choice’ is a powerful one that helps justify the government’s cuts to welfare budgets. Yet our research has demonstrated that this is a myth, in the sense that it does not reflect the facts of the matter.
“If a culture of worklessness cannot be found in the extremely deprived neighbourhoods we studied, then they are unlikely to explain more general patterns of worklessness in the UK.”
In response to the research, the government insisted that “sadly, joblessness isn’t a myth”.
A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said:
“In 2010, the number of families with no one working peaked at over 3.9 million.
“Latest figures show that this has fallen by 450,000 suggesting we were right to implement a radical overhaul of the welfare system.
“We are very careful about the language we use – making it clear that it is very often the system itself that has trapped people on benefits.”
The study that Mr MacDonald contributed to, ‘Benefits Street and the Myth of Workless Communities’, was published in the Sociological Research journal.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 12 Sept 2014