Never had it so good?
(1 May 2007)
On the tenth anniversary of the Premier walking into Number Ten, people in “Blair’s backyard” are at the bottom of a league table of English regions.
That is the key finding of a wide-reaching analysis of the fortunes of North East England under New Labour, carried out by Professor Fred Robinson, of St Chad’s College, Durham University, and published today (May 1). The study, funded by the Millfield House Foundation, shows that, although the region’s economy has recorded significant improvement since 1997, other regions have performed even better. And the strong performance of parts of North East England has created a new wealth divide within the region. Affluent towns, like Hexham, have surged ahead, while the “trickle-down” benefits of an improved economy still struggle to reach communities like Easington, a former mining district just 40 miles away on the Durham coast. The research process combined interviews with key influencers across North East England with an in-depth analysis of statistical data to paint a striking picture of life on “the Premier’s patch” in 2007. The report identifies a general mood of optimism in the business community and a “widespread assumption that prosperity will continue”. “It is hard to know whether that optimism is well-founded and realistic,” it comments. Employment in call centres has proved more robust than feared, with 50,000 people in the region now earning a living at the end of a telephone line in “call centres […] like the large factories they have replaced”. Orange’s Darlington call centre is now the largest private sector employer in the town, while other success stories include software giant Sage, Northern Rock bank and the Bannatyne fitness empire, all founded in the region. But high value business services remain under-represented, with too many based out of the region in Leeds, rather than in Newcastle. “Perhaps the biggest threat to the region’s economy in the medium term is frorm reduced public expenditure,” continues the report. “That could hit the region hard and could have multiplier effects through the rest of the North East economy.” The report notes that, while unemployment has fallen, this masks the fact that the region has twice as many people on Incapacity Benefit than are classed as unemployed. There is also concern about the growth in the number of young people who are neither in employment, education, or training – “NEETs” – and the emergence of a “culture of dependency” that detaches young men in some areas from the mainstream economy. Report author Professor Fred Robinson commented: “We wanted to take a fresh look and trawl through the statistics to see what really had changed in Blair’s backyard over ten years. “A lot had indeed changed – more than we might have expected, as when you live somewhere you don’t always notice how much change is going on. “We found a great deal had really changed very much for the better, but the sad thing for North East England is that it has not changed enough to narrow the gap with other regions.”