The north-east: England’s Detroit?

Is the North-East England’s Detroit? investigates

Dr. Saudade

Dr. Saudade

A recent article published in the Guardian newspaper has attracted controversy for its comparison of the fate of England’s beleaguered northerly reaches to America’s infamous old ‘Rust Belt’. Both areas are well-known for the decline of traditional industries in the area, and an arguable lack of viable solutions offered to each either, but Detroit has become almost a by-word for a void of economic hope, of simultaneously an incandescent present and a bleak vision of future prospects.

This comparison has caused a fierce backlash in a proud region, where journalists, MPS and innumerate online voices have pointed out the ill-fit of an ignominious label to an area with still much to offer, and far from bleak prospects. Much has been made primarily of contrasting the region’s charms to an area which – so the quip goes – had to tone-down stock footage of itself to present a post-apocalyptic version for film use.

However, even beyond the undoubtable haunting beauty of the Northumbrian Coast, the windswept North York Moors which have inspired generations of literary talents, and the twee towns and villages of Yorkshire, the area has economic prospects any region would be proud of.

Aside from the primary problem of generalizing a region that arguably stretches from Kingston-Upon-Hull to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the conclusions have some more specific economic flaws too. The Economist magazine recently itself derided Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as Britain’s own declining Rust Belt, in ironic ignorance of Britain’s largest car-manufacturing plant (operated by Nissan) just to the north in Sunderland. Meanwhile, the old ICI plant on Teesside towers both over the Vale of Mowbray, and in its being one of Europe’s largest research and development sites for the chemistry-based process industries. Newcastle and Sunderland now boast a thriving start-up scene too, and new businesses are continually moving into the area.

Of course the region has had problems, that is true. The closure of the mines and the decline of traditional industries left the area without jobs or economic prospect. It is true too that the area has been in some economic decline for the better part of the last half-century as a result. Gross-Value-Added is one of the lowest in the country, unemployment rates some of the highest, and those employed are more reliant on public-sector jobs than elsewhere.

However, the fault for this lies just as much at the hands of the successive governments who have failed to provide a viable economic alternative to help regenerate the area. Small-scale projects and local funds have offered some help, but there has been no distinct idea for any significant part of the region, or anything sufficient to replace the lost industries. Behind each of these figures lies that the north-east receives some of the lowest government spending in the country, with Londoners receiving twenty times more per head in infrastructure spending (as of December 2013).

The North-East though, is recovering; it is strong and growing stronger. Here is where it differs from the Rust Belt; despite the lack of large-scale public investment, private investment and growth has boomed. Newcastle and Sunderland have replaced shipbuilding with a booming start-up technology scene, with ‘incubators’ (where start-ups can rent desk-space) appearing in growing numbers. Instead of the Durham mines, it has GlaxoSmithKline, Quorn Foods and even the largest teabag factory in the world. Even Darlington has gone from the world’s first public passenger railway to Orange, American engineering firm Cummins, and the Student Loans Company. The region now boasts Europe’s largest shopping centre.

PriceWaterhouse-Coopers reports that the economic recovery is broadening, seeping out of London to the North. Just last month saw record employment figures for the North-East, and earlier this year reports of the fastest growth of any region in the UK. The area now has the highest graduate retention rate outside London.

The North-East may be richer in natural and cultural beauty than in finance and growth, but this is arguably more for an ignorance of its plight in government, than for a lack of economy or entrepreneurialism in the North. The North-East remains strong, and Yorkshire alone boasts an £80billion economy, serviced by 5 million people – comparable to Ireland, Norway and Singapore. The area is hard-done by, but far from Detroit.