October is the month when radicals used to celebrate the anniversary of the Jarrow March, the attempt by the north east to shame the nation at the height of the Great Depression.
It could hardly be judged to have been a success. Two hundred of them set off, exactly four centuries after the even more disastrous Pilgrimage of Grace from the same area, carrying a petition signed by 11,000 people, enraged by the closure and dissolution of their local shipbuilding company, by 72 % local unemployment and the closure of one of only two grocery shops. There were no beheadings when they reached London a month and nearly 300 miles later, unlike the Pilgrimage of Grace, but they were snubbed by the prime minister Stanley Baldwin and given £1 each to get home again.
The news from Redcar this month, and the plight of the steel workers there, is somehow a reminder that the economic challenges faced by the north east are still largely the same. Industrial change and the end of heavy industry was already apparent in the 1930s.
‘The conventional approach to economic regeneration involves
making sure that you fit into the round holes required by overseas investors’
A revealing picture now hangs at the Geffrye Museum in London of a languid young couple at the window of a club in St James in London, looking down at the burning torches of the marchers as they arrived. There was some interest, but not much. It is an evocative portrait of the strange peculiarities of the English class system. But it also underlines the difficulties when whole regions are forced to beg for work.
For all the potent symbolism of the march, I would suggest that it hasn’t served the north east that well. Because it may have embedded the idea that they were dependent on outside help to support themselves.
Because that has been the prevailing idea. It meant that the question shifted to whether the north east attract the kind of infrastructure funding that would encourage outside investors. That led to the dominance of T. Dan Smith in the 1970s, cut short by the Poulson bribery scandal.
Or could the north east attract the kind of investment in big factories capable of mopping up the available surplus workforce? The Nissan factory followed, then the Church of England’s massive Gateshead Metrocentre, at that time the biggest shopping centre in the UK.
It isn’t unimportant. Smith built the infrastructure that made some of the other investment possible. Nissan has transformed UK car manufacturing. But the questions have also embedded the idea that the north east is bound to be dependent on the largesse of outsiders.
This is the conventional approach to economic regeneration. It involves making sure that you fit into the round holes required by overseas investors, or you wait patiently while you lobby for pork barrel investment from Whitehall which may come – but, equally, it takes a staggeringly long time when it does.
But there has always been another way, which according to the great Canadian planning critic Jane Jacobs (see her book The Economy of Cities) has always been the way that cities dragged themselves up throughout history – not by specialisation, though of course it is important to play to strengths, but by replacing imports with local production.
The theory is clear. If people are living somewhere, and they have imagination and energy and needs that require fulfilment, it should be possible to generate the economic activity necessary to support them. Needs provide economic opportunities, after all.
So what has gone wrong in Newcastle and its region? Maybe three things – there is a problem with the training level of the local population. There is the perennial problem of monopoly, when the local needs are mopped up by international giants without leaving behind many of the benefits. The giants also have such privileges – Tesco insists it waits three months before it pays for its stock – that local challengers can rarely intervene.
But the final problem may be habits of thinking as much as anything else. Has the legacy of the Jarrow March embedded this sense of powerlessness? Is the north east struggling economically because they don’t have the skills, or because they don’t have the confidence?
The legacy runs deep. It is the north west, not the north east, which has created the political storm of devolution known as Devo max – and yes, of course, it is flawed but the north western local authorities still have confidence that they can forge it into something worthwhile.
The local authorities which are most innovative economically, looking closely at where they are spending money, finding ways to make it flow locally, and to boost local enterprise, tend to be north west councils – like Preston – rather than north east ones like Newcastle.
It is easy to carp from the sidelines. Life is difficult in the north east, and getting more so, but we could make sure the local authorities are asking he right questions. And here they are:
- Are they concentrating on what they have got – wasted local people, local imagination – rather than what they haven’t?
- Do they know how much money is flowing through their areas and where it flows out?
- What would it mean to concentrate their major effort, not on attracting rare outside investment, but on building networks of local enterprise to fulfil local needs?
- Where does public money get spent?
- Is the local authority trying to do everything, or are they aware of the imagination and energy locally which really ought to be taking decisions and taking some of the strain?
- What financial institutions to they have that are committed locally, and how can they launch more of them?
This last question is especially important. Redcar’s last MP, the Lib Dem Ian Swales, made a fierce speech a year ago calling for a Bank of Redcar. I suspect we are no further towards getting one.
- Read New Start’s Newcastle edition here.
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.