The Prime Minister has been accused of ‘living in a parallel universe’ after announcing that councils in the North East could make more cuts.
In an interview with us, Conservative leader David Cameron has said that more budget reductions would be imposed – whichever party won the next election.
He insists that councils could make further savings without damaging services, however leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes has said cuts in the North East had already been “savage and brutal”.
Coun Forbes said:
“The Prime Minister is living in a parallel universe The disproportionate cuts his Government have made to northern councils like Newcastle have gone far beyond anything that could reasonably be met through efficiencies – they have been savage and brutal.
“I’d like the Prime Minister to visit Newcastle so he can see for himself the devastating impact of his policies on the most vulnerable in our society – but we’re not his kind of people up here so I doubt he’ll come anywhere near.”
However Mr Cameron said that local councils can continue ‘to find efficiencies’.
“I think local government has done brilliantly at being more efficient.
“And I think when you look at councils’ finances they can continue to find efficiencies by continuing to work together and sharing chief executives, sharing finance teams, sharing back office costs.
“Most councils have seen a large increase in their reserves over the last four or five years, so they do have financial capacity.
“And just like any business you don’t make efficiencies and then say, right, that’s it, I’ve finished.
“Businesses are always asking, how do I get more efficient next year than last year?
“So I think there is still more efficiency to be delivered.”
The comments came despite claims by local authorities in the North East that they have already been cut to the bone.
For example, Newcastle City Council has set out plans for £40million of cuts in 2015 to 2016, on top of £100m saved from budgets since 2012. The measures will lead to the loss of a further 260 jobs.
Coun Forbes said:
“Newcastle City Council has had to cope with budget losses of more than 40% over six years and has lost 2,200 staff since 2010 – the equivalent of the closure of Virgin Money HQ, or Fenwicks department store, or the shutdown of the entire offshore sector on the North bank of the Tyne.
“If this was the private sector there would be a national task force in place to deal with this scale of job losses but we’ve had to deal with this challenge without any assistance from Government.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 21 Mar 2015
Campaigners have pointed out that rail tickets near the Prime Minister’s own constituency are cheaper that those in the North-East.
Teesside passenger group Coastliners spoke out after David Cameron said the region’s decrepit Pacer trains would be replaced – but fares would have to rise to pay for the new rolling stock.
It was revealed on Friday that the Prime Minister had declared that “those trains are going” when asked about the unpopular Pacers, which run on Northern Rail lines across the North of England.
Mr Cameron rejected his own Government’s suggestion that the 30-year-old carriages could be modernised rather than replaced.
Instead, bidders for the Northern franchise will be asked to draw up plans to replace the trains.
But the Prime Minister said fares must rise to pay for the upgrades when the new contracts start in 2016.
However, research by Coastliners, which represents rail passengers on the Durham coast, suggests it is a myth that North-East fares are cheaper than those elsewhere in the country.
Coastliners’ Peter Walker said:
“Don’t forget that Campaign for Better Transport‘s London-based staff have admitted that we in the North pay as much as if not more than those living further South.”
“Oxford to Tackley, nearly in Mr Cameron’s constituency, is nine miles, and the day return is £3.50, or £3.40 single.
“If the fares level decides what type of rolling stock is provided, his argument implies that Pacers should serve Tackley and Class 166 diesels should be sent to our coast line forthwith.”
Mr Walker pointed out savings to users of the Oyster card meant that many London journeys of similar length similar to, or greater than, those on the coast line were far cheaper :
“London to East Croydon, some 13 miles, works out at £3 single for an Oyster-card holder.”
Mr Walker also questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that Northern Rail fares were the most heavily subsidised in the country.
Source – Northern Echo, 07 Nov 2014
> Well, its understandable – these places north of Watford are all the same, aren’t they ?
David Cameron mixed up his Teesside and his Tyneside as he took to the airwaves to talk up economic growth in the region.
The Prime Minister frequently used examples of economic activity in Tyne and Wear – including investment from companies like Hitachi and Nissan – during an interview with BBC Tees.
Oh his third mention of the Tyne, BBC Tees presenter Lisa McCormick intervened.
“You keep mentioning the River Tyne, that’s not our region Prime Minister,” she said.
“I’m sorry, we are the River Tees, does that mean that you’re forgetting about us?”
For a moment Mr Cameron seemed flustered as he paused.
“Oh, I thought I was doing – oh no absolutely not,” he replied.
“I mean, if I look specifically in terms of the Tees Valley, we’ve got £90m from our local growth fund to boost economic growth.”
It might have been a swift recovery from the PM – but it was not quick enough for some.
Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland‘s Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop seized the chance to attack Mr Cameron.
“In isolation this may just seem like a somewhat silly mistake, yet over the last four years we’ve had a Tory peer calling the region ‘desolate’, frequent misspellings of Teesside in official Number 10 letters, and now the Prime Minister himself can’t even take the basic cue of appearing on BBC Tees to get the hint that our river is the Tees and not the Tyne,” he said.
“This just highlights how David Cameron is out of touch and completely uninterested in places like Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar, Hartlepool and East Cleveland.”
UKIP’s North East MEP Jonathan Arnott also took the opportunity to bash the PM.
“This is not just embarrassing for the Prime Minister but also what’s left of the Conservative party in the North East of England,” he said.
“Whilst unemployment figures are going down elsewhere around the country, ours are still going up.
“Perhaps if he knew which area he was talking about, people might have more confidence that he actually cares about local people.”
Defending Mr Cameron was Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton.
“No excuses, but I suspect he was doing a round of local interviews one after the other and these things can happen,” said the MP.
“I will be reminding him when I next see him not only how great Teesside is but of all the things this government has done for the south of our region, from bringing Hitachi to the return if steel making and the announcement of over £90m in local investment only a few weeks ago.
“I am proud of our record of delivering for this area and I am sure the Prime Minister is too.”
The chairman of the Redcar Constituency Liberal Democrats, Councillor Josh Mason, added:“The slip-up by the Prime Minister does not take away from the fact that since 2010 our area has received over five times more government investment per year than it did under the previous Labour government.
“It remains more important than ever for us to keep pushing for more investment and banging the drum for Teesside to ensure it remains on the government’s radar.”
The Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 25 July 2014
The number of impoverished households has more than doubled in the 30 years since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the largest study of deprivation ever conducted in the UK has concluded.
The research found that rises in the cost of living mean a full-time job is no longer enough to prevent some people from falling into poverty. One in every six adults in paid work is now defined as “poor“.
Last night the Government’s poverty tsar Frank Field said the study’s stark findings proved the Coalition’s approach to the problem “isn’t working” and called for the leaders of all political parties to make manifesto pledges to reverse the rise.
The Poverty and Social Exclusion project, based on interviews with more than 14,500 people in Britain and Northern Ireland carried out by eight universities and two research agencies, reported:
- More than 500,000 children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
- 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions
- 12 million people are too poor to engage in common social activities
- About 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
The survey showed that the percentage of UK households which lacked “three or more of the basic necessities of life” has increased from 14 per cent in 1983 (around 3 million), to 33 per cent (around 8.7 million) in 2012, despite the size of the economy doubling in that period. Researchers used the “three or more” formula as it is directly comparable with methods used to study poverty and deprivation in 1983.
Academics said the findings dispelled the myth that poverty is caused by a lack of work or by people shirking work. Almost half the “employed poor” were clocking up 40 hours a week in work or more.
Professor David Gordon of the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research at the University of Bristol, which led the project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said the Government’s strategy of tackling the root causes of poverty had “clearly failed”.
> Arguably, the Government’s strategy has been directed towards increasing the root causes of poverty.
Mr Field, the Labour MP who was tasked by David Cameron to examine poverty in 2010, said the study “sadly emphasises that working doesn’t now eliminate a family’s poverty”.
> Can’t help feeling Field cries crocodile tears… his views on the poor and how to make them suffer even more often seem to rival Iain Duncan Smith‘s.
A DWP spokesman said: “There is strong evidence that incomes have improved over the last 30 years, despite the misleading picture painted by this report. The independent statistics are clear, there are 1.4 million fewer people in poverty since 1998, and under this Government we have successfully protected the poorest from falling behind.”
Unfortunately that spokesman was unnamed.
Read the full story in the Independent
Source – Benefits & Work, 20 June 2014
By Jenny Howarth
Her Majesty the Queen has delivered the final speech at the opening of parliament before next year’s general election. A speech that Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described as ‘bold’.
In a joint statement issued alongside the Queen’s speech, the prime minister and his deputy said: [The coalition was] “still taking bold steps” [to] “take Britain forward to a brighter future”, adding:
Among the measures announced in the speech were:
- A bill implementing reforms to annuities announced in March’s Budget. In future, people will not be required to buy an annuity with their pension savings and will be able to draw their retirement income in one go if they choose
- A separate bill to allow employees to pay into collective pension funds shared with other workers, a move it is hoped will cut costs and encourage saving
- A new state-funded childcare subsidy worth up to £2,000 a year, replacing the existing employer-funded scheme
- A Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism bill offering extra legal protection for people being sued for negligence or breach of duty if they acted heroically or in the public interest
- Curbs on “excessive redundancy payments” for highly-paid public servants
- Tougher penalties for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage and a crackdown on the abuse of zero hours contracts
- Plans for a 5p charge for plastic bags in England as announced at last year’s Lib Dem conference
- Reforms to speed up infrastructure projects, including new freedoms for the Highways Agency and allowing fracking firms to run shale gas pipelines on private land without getting prior permission
- New criminal sentences for those assisting organised crime syndicates, tougher sentence for cyber criminals and tougher powers to seize the assets of crime bosses – and making the possession of written paedophilia a criminal offence
- A modern-day slavery bill with tougher penalties for human trafficking
- Help for pub landlords including a statutory code and a body to adjudicate disputes
- Giving voters the power to trigger by-elections where MPs have committed serious wrong-doing
With polls showing a Labour Party average lead of 6.6%, the speech, written for the Queen by her government highlights how out of touch and removed from reality the coalition government is. With Labour sources for the BBC saying it was “staggering” that the NHS and immigration were not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.
You would assume that David Cameron would have ensured that this final speech would have contained elements to woo voters. But sadly, it has failed, just as Cameron and his coalition government has failed the people of Britain and here is why:
National Health Service (NHS)
This week in a letter to The Guardian, top health officials including Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, and the chairs or chief executives of acute hospital trusts in London, Nottingham, Teeside, Kent, Sheffield, Oxford and elsewhere, warned that the NHS “is at the most challenged time of its existence.”
In a separate article, Rob Webster, speaking to The Telegraph, warned, that if “significant changes” were not made and the “decline” was to continue that:
- Hospital patients would be forced to pay for their meals, bed and even for patient transport.
- Swathes of the country would be left without a GP, because family doctors refuse to work in areas where they cannot keep up with demand.
- Accident & Emergency departments would be increasingly shutting their doors without warning, because they are unable to cope.
- Hospitals would go bust overnight because bills cannot be paid.
- There would be Longer waits for surgery, and increasing numbers of cancelled operations.
With the NHS so critical, it is something that should have been addressed in today’s speech but it would appear that Cameron and his Health Secretary are more determined than ever to place the NHS in private hands.
Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s (IDS) welfare reforms have been an unmitigated disaster.
His flagship Universal Credit Scheme has been beset with problems, with The Guardian reporting in May this year that The Major Projects Authority (MPA) – responsible for grading its implementation – has said that it has undergone so many fundamental changes that it is “reset” (gone back to drawing board).
In addition, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures, also released in May showed that over half a million ESA claimants are still waiting for the results of their assessment.
Then there is the hated Spare-room subsidy (bedroom tax). In a survey of 183 housing associations (HA), conducted by IPSOS Mori on behalf of the National Housing Federation in February this year, it was found that:
- One in seven of those hit by the bedroom tax has now had a notice of seeking possession issued to them.
- 66% of HA residents hit by the bedroom tax are in rent arrears
- More than a third (38%) reported to be in debt because they were unable to pay the bedroom tax
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation said:
“If these notices of seeking possession turn into evictions it will be the direct responsibility of those who introduced a measure which is economically incoherent, socially divisive, disruptive of family life and causing real damage to real people. It really can’t be allowed to go on.”
The failure to address welfare reform in today’s speech would indicate that if the Conservatives were to win next year’s election then it is likely it will go on, inflicting more misery to more families.
It is clear, that Cameron is not listening. The recent local and European elections proved that the people of Britain are not happy. Ed Miliband, picked up on this by saying ahead of today’s speech:
“The local and European elections show the depths of discontent with the direction of our country which people increasingly feel does not work for them.
“We need action, we need answers, we need a programme for government equal to the scale of the challenge our country faces.
“We would have a Queen’s Speech with legislation which would make work pay, reform our banks, freeze energy bills and build homes again in Britain. “A Queen’s Speech which signals a new direction for Britain, not one which offers more of the same.”
So what would be in Labour’s first Queen’s speech if they were to win next year?
Mark Ferguson, writing for Labour List, has put together what he thinks would be in it, based on Labours plans so far:
A first year priority, that would mean breaking up banks to create competition in the banking sector – and reforms intended to boost lending and support small businesses.
Make Work Pay bill
Mark Ferguson acknowledges that this one still needs some detail adding to it, which he believes we should get in the months ahead. In short, this bill would see Labour legislating for a higher minimum wage (maybe even a statutory living wage?) and legislating on zero-hours contracts.
Currently Labour is talking about building 200,000 homes a year by 2020. For Mark Ferguson, that’s a little slow, believing that Labour should be aiming to build a million homes over the next parliament with the expectation for Miliband to upgrade Labour’s offer on housing before the election.
However, it is already pretty substantial, and this bill would act on land banks, legislate for new garden cities, crack down on fees for private sector tenants and provide more stable and secure long-term rents for those in the private rented sector.
Nicknamed, the “taking back the high street” bill. This would give communities a say on payday lenders and betting shops on their high streets – thus reducing their volume and growth.
Angela Eagle has stated that Labour would legislate on immigration. Such a bill would seek to stop workers being undercut and ban recruitment agencies from only recruiting from overseas.
A new Scotland bill
This would enshrine the recommendations of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission, introducing a form of “Devo-Max” – obviously this is in the event of a No vote in this year’s referendum.
Or perhaps more accurately, the energy prices bill. Labour’s big energy price freeze pledge would be enacted in the first Queen’s Speech
Outlawing discrimination against armed forces bill
This would put discrimination against members of the armed forces on the same footing as other forms of discrimination.
Mark Ferguson, goes onto state the other priorities for Labour in the first year of the next parliament that don’t necessarily need primary legislation, but which would be mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. These include:
- The jobs guarantee,
- The return of the 50p Tax rate
- The abolition of the Bedroom Tax.
Unlike Cameron and his Conservative Party, it is evident, although some may disagree, that Ed Miliband has thought through what the people of Britain need.
> More likely the thinks its the sort of thing people might vote for at this moment in time. Unfortunately, an increasing number of people believe that should Labour win the next election, it’d actually just be a case of neo-liberal policies as usual.
And In case you’re wondering where the NHS fits in, Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has said today that it would be a “joyous moment, when next year, Her Majesty the Queen says: “My Government will repeal the Health & Social Care Act 2012″. Assuming of course that there will be a Labour victory.
With 336 days to go to the general election, the stakes have never been higher. David Cameron has to start listening to the people of Britain, has to axe the bedroom tax, has to curb welfare reform and stop privatizing the NHS. Failure to do so will mean he will be out of a job – not only as prime minister but also as leader of the Conservatives.
Source – Welfare News Service, 04 June 2014
David Cameron claims the North East economy is growing – even as unemployment rises.
The Prime Minister used a visit to the Port of Tyne to champion the region after unemployment figures showed it was the only region to see joblessness increase in the last month.
He said: “The interesting thing is, I know that the unemployment figures for the last month in the North East were disappointing, but if you take the last quarter or the last year the increase in the employment rate of the North East was the fastest anywhere, not just in this country but the United Kingdom.
> The interesting thing is, Dave, that unemployment continues to rise in the North East, whatever crap you spout.
“There were 43,000 jobs created in the last month. We need that to go even faster to decrease unemployment as well.”
> Really ? 43,000 jobs created in the last month ? Where are they, Dave ? I don’t see them when I do my jobsearch. The rise in unemployment suggest no-one else does either.
The unemployment figures out this week, in which the North East was the only area to see an increase, came after the Guardian newspaper caused outrage by comparing the region to Detroit.
“To say that is just to put the North East down,” Mr Cameron said of the controversial article. “You know, Nissan is producing more cars than the whole of Italy,”
> We also know that Nissan has just laid off 350+ workers…
“we have the Hitachi train factory coming that will mean massive investment for the North East, we have oil rigs being fabricated on the Tyne now, something that has not happened here for some years.
“The Chancellor and I have been very clear: we need an economy where we invest more, where we make more, design more things, export more things, and the North East is a very positive part of that.
“We need everyone involved in politics and business in the North East to speak up for it, and I’m glad to play my part.”
He added: “I think we are putting our money where our mouth is here. We have put a third of a billion into the North East through the regional growth fund, with the city deals, we have unprecedented devolution to Sunderland, Newcastle, there are major infrastructure projects going ahead with the Metro and the Tyne crossing.”
The Prime Minister’s brief visit to the Port of Tyne in South Tyneside did not include any discussions with regional leaders, however.
South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm said he thought the PM was “frit” – meaning “frightened”.
“I have to say we are quite disappointed with this,” Mr Malcolm said. “What we wanted was for the PM to have the courage to come and see the regional leaders and set out what can be done to tackle the issues facing the North East.
“Instead of engaging with any of us he just flew in and flew out as quickly as he could.”
> And nobody knew he was coming… therefore there was no chance of embarrassing demonstrations.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 17 May 2014
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
The coalition government’s ‘Help To Work’ scheme comes into effect from today, Monday 28 April 2014.
Under the new scheme unemployed people who have been out of work for longer than two years, and who have completed the Work Programme, will be expected to undertake tough new requirements in order to continue receiving benefit.
Community work experience placements will be for 30 hours per week and could last up to six months. If participants have failed to find a job by the time the six months are up they could find themselves being recycled back onto the programme, in what could become a never-ending cycle of work for your benefits.
> How are you expected to find a job while serving a 30 hour sentence each week, when you couldn’t when you had more time to look for work ?
The long-term unemployed will also be expected to visit their local JobCentre every day to ‘sign on’ and will receive up to fours hours intensive job search coaching for each week they are on the ‘Help To Work’ Scheme.
> I don’t think Jobcentres would be able to cope with the numbers just signing on each day – forget 4 hours ‘intensive job search coaching’ ! Which in any case would actually amount to 4 hours trying to sanction you.
Failure to comply with the strict new regime could result in jobseeker’s losing their benefit for four weeks at a time or longer for repeat offenders.
According to the government, jobseeker’s with learning difficulties will also receive educational support to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.
Sick and disabled benefit claimants in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will not be required to take part in the scheme.
Prime Minister David Cameron said:
“A key part of our long-term economic plan is to move to full employment, making sure that everyone who can work is in work.
“We are seeing record levels of employment in Britain, as more and more people find a job, but we need to look at those who are persistently stuck on benefits.
“This scheme will provide more help than ever before, getting people into work and on the road to a more secure future.”
Secretary of State of Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith said:
“Everyone with the ability to work should be given the support and opportunity to do so.
“The previous system wrote too many people off, which was a huge waste of potential for those individuals as well as for their families and the country as a whole. We are now seeing record numbers of people in jobs and the largest fall in long-term unemployment since 1998.
“But there’s always more to do, which is why we are introducing this new scheme to provide additional support to the very small minority of claimants who have been unemployed for a number of years.
“In this way we will ensure that they too can benefit from the improving jobs market and the growing economy.”
The move has come under heavy criticism from both Labour and the unions. Unite’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner describing the new scheme as a form of “forced unpaid labour”. He told the Independent newspaper:
“This scheme is nothing more than forced unpaid labour and there is no evidence that these workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term.
“We are against this scheme wherever ministers want to implement it – in the private sector, local government and in the voluntary sector.
“The Government sees cash-starved charities as ‘a soft target’ for such an obscene scheme, so we are asking charity bosses to say ‘no’ to taking part in this programme. This is a warping of the true spirit of volunteering and will force the public to look differently at charities with which they were once proud to be associated.
“It is outrageous that the Government is trying to stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing, otherwise they will have their benefits docked.”
Labour’s Stephen Timms added:
“Under David Cameron’s government nearly one in ten people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance lack basic literacy skills and many more are unable to do simple maths or send an email. Yet this Government allows jobseekers to spend up to three years claiming benefits before they get literacy and numeracy training.
> Yes, we’re a pretty ignorant lot, us unemployed – obviously we wouldn’t be on the dole if we weren’t thick.
What proof is there actually for these kind of claims ?
“A Labour government will introduce a Basic Skills Test to assess all new claimants for Jobseeker’s Allowance within six weeks of claiming benefits.
“Those who don’t have the skills they need for a job will have to take up training alongside their job search or lose their benefits.
> Here we go – Labour so eager to prove that their stick is as least as big as the ConDems.
Labour’s Basic Skills Test and our Compulsory Jobs Guarantee will give the unemployed a better chance of finding a job and will help us to earn our way out of the cost-of-living crisis.”
> Yes, but unless there are actually more proper jobs to apply for, you can have all the mickey mouse qualifications in the world – you’re still limited by the number of vacancies.
Whilst the number of available job vacancies have increased significantly in recent months many area’s of the country are still witnessing a severe shortage of jobs, with the North-East of England and parts of Scotland fairing the worst.
> See, the problem is that it’s all very well saying the number of available job vacancies have increased significantly in recent months , but no-one breaks down the numbers.
How many of these jobs are actually full-time ? how many part-time ? How many are zero hour jobs ? How many are dodgy ‘self-employed’ leaflet distribution jobs ?
As someone who needs a full time wage, I know all too well that the number of these is all too small a percentage locally.
This is in stark contrast to area’s in the South-East of England where the number of available jobs are greater than the numbers of people looking for work.
However, figures due to be released on Tuesday are expected to show that competition for jobs has fallen to a new low of 1.42 jobseeker’s for every advertised job vacancy. This will no doubt come as good news for the coaliton government.
> If anyone actually believed it…
However, those figures are also expected to show that the average advertised salary has dropped by £1,800 over the last twelve months, providing more fuel to Labour’s ‘cost of living crisis’ argument.
Sourc e – Welfare News Service 28 April 2014
Church vicars are increasingly being asked for help by hungry parishioners, the Bishop of Durham has claimed.
The Right Reverend Paul Butler spoke out as ministers sought to brush off new figures revealing more than 900,000 people turned to foodbanks for emergency relief in the past 12 months – a near three-fold increase on the previous year.
Bishop Butler, a former social worker, said: “Clergy have told me of increased requests directly from parishioners struggling to make ends meet.”
And, having joined dozens of bishops and hundreds of faith leaders in signing an open letter demanding the Government take urgent action, he urged: “This is a reality and not a problem that will easily be solved – but solve it, we must.”
The Trussell Trust, which runs 400 foodbanks nationwide, reported a 463 per cent year-on-year rise in demand across the North-East.
Bishop Butler said that many families were facing the “terrible reality” of empty cupboards was deeply challenging and raised acute moral, social and political questions.
Speaking of a recent visit to a Hartlepool foodbank, he said the number of children in need was shocking.
One foodbank user from Brandon said she had asked for help having been forced to leave a stable life and move to care for her father and his partner.
“We have now been housed by Durham County Council, found help and guidance through places like foodbank. Without this help until benefits are resolved and wages for new jobs are paid, we would not be able to survive,” she added.
The faith leaders’ letter, published today, calls food poverty a “national crisis” and comes just two months after 27 bishops said Prime Minister David Cameron had a moral duty to act on the growing number going hungry.
Source – Northern Echo 18 April 2014
A damning list of North rail failures has been put to the Government.
MPs have accused the Department for Transport of overseeing years of neglect and of “blundering” its way into years more of service failures on crowded and outdated Northern trains.
Ministers were told it was disgraceful that they were planning to take 170 modern trains from across the entire North of England and send them south, serving constituencies such as the prime minister’s.
Shadow deputy leader of the House Angela Smith said the loss of stock on the North’s First Transpennine Express service came as result of officials pushing back its franchise renewal while they “rushed” into the sale of mainline services.
And the Government was forced to admit it will try and phase out the unloved Pacer trains, used by Northern rail on the Hexham to Newcastle line, as soon as possible in the next franchise. Speaking in parliamentary debate, the MP said: “It is becoming obvious where the Government’s priority lies when it comes to rail lines, and the priority is not with passengers in the north of England.
“As their ill-fated, illogical and shambolic franchising policy goes off the rails, it is the north of England that suffers.
“We are witnessing a situation in which the huge blunder that was west coast franchising has led to a comedy of errors, with the consequences landing squarely in the lap of the north of England and its railway services.”
She added: “We in the North believe we need efficient, well-run railways with modern trains providing the capacity a growing network needs. We need those trains so our economy can compete with the South – we all know how big that challenge is – if we are to close the North-South gap. On the Northern franchise, however, the average age of the fleet is 2, which compares with a national average of 18 years.
> I think they meant an average age of 20+, not 2. If only it was 2.
“Many routes are still served by the Pacer railbuses, which make up about a quarter of the fleet. I will not name my source, but I was approached several years ago by someone who asked whether the Pacer trains might have a future in the new country of Kosovo, but the trains may still be required on those Northern Rail services if the Government do not get their finger out.”
Ms Smith was backed by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, who said: “We need to highlight the point about the differentiation in investment in different parts of the country.
“At a presentation last week to the all-party group on rail in the North, Network Rail outlined its plans for investment, including in the Northern hub.
“However, the only reference to the North East of England were signs on the map saying, York, and, To Scotland. The North East of England was not an afterthought – it was not even a thought.”
Junior transport minister Stephen Hammond said discussions were ongoing to try and let the North keep the modern trains until May 2015.
The minister added: “Pacer trains that were introduced in the mid-1980s and have rightly received their fair share of attention.
“With the introduction of new rolling stock into the region, higher quality rolling stock will be released for use across the network.
“We expect to ask bidders for the Northern franchise to put forward proposals for the removal of Pacers from the area.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 14 March 2014