The inhabitants of the North of England are often referred to collectively as ‘Northerners’, often as a reference to being ‘other’ to the London-centric ‘Southerners’ of the country. Yet within this group there are significant variances, not least between the North West and North East. Despite the North East’s access to the North Sea for trade, its cities and beautiful countryside it continues to find economic growth difficult, not least due to the decimation of the ship building and mining industries which had a profound effect. There is now unemployment of 7.5% – the highest in the country – and a significant proportion of jobs are now dependent on the public sector which is suffering severe funding cuts.
The geography of the north also plays a part, with the Pennines, ‘the backbone of England’, forming a high central ledge between east and west, affecting trade and transport links. To the south, the North Yorkshire moors stretch out, reaffirming the perceived distance from the capital and disincentivising infrastructure.
Regeneration of social housing has played a considerable role in the area in recent decades. The work done by the Byker Community Trust to increase sustainability on the Byker estate is an example of the excellent work undertaken. However, the current government has scaled back significantly on regeneration and compounded the impact with vast reductions in local authority funding and swingeing welfare cuts. This has resulted in estates partly empty due to regeneration issues and problems letting houses with three bedrooms or more as a result of the bedroom tax.
The recent National Housing Federation Home Truth’s report for the North East 2017/18 highlights that whilst the cost of housing in the region is lower than the national average, wages are also lower and so homes still cost over six times the average income. Additionally central government’s focus on ‘affordable’ housing that is simply not affordable means that accessing a home is out of reach for many.
Collective power in the new landscape of devolution is giving the North East a new opportunity to rally. The North East Combined Authority (‘neca’), encompassing the local authorities of Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland, is not progressing a devolution deal but continues to meet to collectively discuss transport, employment and regeneration. Yorkshire and North of the Tyne devolution is being progressed but not with the same speed as the Greater Manchester and Liverpool region. However, the prospect of increasing collective bargaining power with central government is still a prospect.
‘The Great Exhibition of the North’ and the ‘Convention of the North’
The Great Exhibition of the North runs for 3 months from 22nd June 2018 in the sister cities of Newcastle and Gateshead, situated next to each other over the span of the River Tyne. It is billed as a “celebration of the North’s pioneering spirit” with a focus on innovation affecting change for tomorrow.
To bring the interests of the north together, the Greater Manchester and Liverpool Metro Mayors, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham have proposed to hold the first ‘Convention of the North’ in Newcastle and Gateshead alongside The Great Exhibition. The Convention will focus on the key aspects to affect the north of the country collectively in the current political landscape, namely the impact of Brexit, rail infrastructure and devolution.
The impact of Brexit is unknown, making it extremely difficult to consider. The North East is vulnerable to its impact due to the long-standing lack of attention from central government, its relative isolation and its closeness to the Scottish border, the nature of which may change if Scotland re-considers independence.
The proposed high speed rail network for the north is considered by some to be a key future asset in future industry growth. Whether the rail funding does come through will significantly impact the job markets and communities of the north.
The Convention of the North could be a platform for council leaders from across the north to reach a new consensus on the method for achieving a better deal for local communities.