The North East: a reality check
By David Cliff
The North East of England is perhaps one of the most unappreciated areas in the country. For one thing, southerners do not know where it is. We only have to see the recent debacle over HS2 ending in the North – Leeds. Most “true” North Easterners smile wryly at that, although some do boil at the insensitivity of Whitehall and others in government. Most realise that people’s geographical perceptions of regions is very, very different when one has not lived in them for any length of time and become familiar with the culture, subcultures and overall geography of an area.
Such lack of local experience often leads to rampant generalisations such as all northerners being “Geordies”. This is, of course, an outright insult to people who come from the Sunderland area or indeed Middlesbrough, not to mention Sanddancers, but is tolerated somehow for the most part for the recognition of endearing attempts by our uncultured southern cousins to form some form of ethnocentric rapport.
It is without doubt, through many generations, that the North East has proved itself to have arguably the most sterling workforces in the country. Whilst Government think tanks have suggested that people from Sunderland should simply move out and desert the area, it is the very unique qualities of the local workforce that make Nissan the international triumph that it is, literally out-performing the Japanese at making Japanese cars. Other examples abound, not least the continued growth in manufacturing across the North East region right through the worst times of the credit crunches, while “modernising” governments and others were inflicting major damage upon our economy.
As the pull towards greater decentralisation of power continues, I remember both the attempt at creating a Northern Assembly and indeed the impact of One NorthEast on the economy.
My fear is the same for the LEPs, lest we are in danger of exchanging a non-representative Westminster elite for a non-representative North East elite. We need to be careful to not just work to expediencies and the shout of “jobs and growth” as a “get out of jail free card” for inadequate democratic processes and non-inclusion of the smallest in our business community. Their voices need to be heard with very much the power of the regional “leviathans” if we are to have a true community of practice in the business world that makes a difference and can shape a modern economy.
For a modern, fit for purpose economy, we need truly inclusive leadership practices, whether based in Westminster or elsewhere. We also need public service to be a service. The internecine arguments between local authorities need to stop and we need to deal with power struggles with a spirit of working together.
Public service also needs to look very carefully, at times of austerity, when there is a regular tranche of £100,000 plus salaries that are made available for commissioning and other jobs around the region. Great! We need talent where we need it but do we always need these massive salaries in public service when, for example, the NHS struggles to give the rest of its staff 1% and we all seem to wait longer for the same service with people in the commissioning role paid ever increasingly high salaries.
We need a new politic in the North East, one that is committed to a new modern progressive style of community where business and public service in the community work together in a truly integrated way. This is not the petty squabbling of organisational power bases, nor indeed arguments over dwindling resources in times of austerity, but a genuine aim to generate synergy and focus. I regret no such process exists within the North East for this vision to manifest itself currently. It certainly does not appear to lie within the current LEP structure and it is certainly not being demonstrated as readily available through the synthesis of our local authorities.
This debate needs to have regard to not only the “onwards and upwards” of commerce, but the continuity amongst the change, those indigenous businesses that are constant unswerving employers committed to the region, committed to their people and providing the back bone of the economy without state handouts lest they relocate in Taipei, Shenzhen or southern Portugal for example. We need to understand that many businesses need to survive the good and the bad times and we need to create a business environment that is not just about growth but about continuity and sustainability.
We need to recognise and enable all businesses to participate in the community, not just the rich ones that can take time out to do this. Let’s face it, I am a bit tired of seeing these people turn up in schools and tell everybody their success story. Perhaps a successful plumber who employs a couple of people might want to go and talk about his and having a prospering business. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to facilitate that when that successful plumber has to work so hard simply to keep their business sustainable and with this, the capacities of the great and the good perpetuated and the real cultural knowledge, the real politic of business, the hard grind that’s involved for the overwhelming majority of businesses is lost and we con our children with dreams of Dragons’ Den and making those millions, where the business reality for most is somewhat different, rarely celebrated and every bit as worthy.
Finally, it’s important that the North East drops this cap-doffing image of the past. I completely understand how people managed by distant workforces and political elites far away from the region, or even those landed gentry of days of yore within the region, recognise themselves as participants in an active political economy, of which each and every one of us plays a part. Such a mind-set has hampered this region for way too long and it’s being exploited by those who are quick to seek an opportunity and take action. Not so much entrepreneurs but those who exploit.
Because here’s a message to the rest of the country. The North East is a great place to do business. It has a great workforce, a fabulous and diverse culture and people whose adaptability and capacity to be “hard working” is without equal anywhere, I would argue. We call on anyone who seeks to dictate the fortunes of this area to do it with a sense of equity, inclusion and a strong sense of community and social justice so that we can forge a Northern economy that’s not so much a Northern powerhouse, but a northern approach that is the envy of the world.
Can people stop claiming the need for help for this region because of poor health, poor social prospects etc. Of course there is a complete mathematical argument that justifies the inequities in this area. That is the key argument upon which arguments for rebalancing of investment in the area should apply, not the fact that we are some North East remedial case (the term northern poorhouse comes to mind). This region, which predominates North of Leeds, is open for business. Its contribution to the national economy can be enormous, but its role in that economy needs to be matched with fairness and equity in resource distribution, recognising the unique value this region brings to the economy, not its deficits and perceived inequities.
The North East is open for business, has been for a while, and is ready to punch its weight. Savvy politicians, investors and others do take note.
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.