The dangers of ignoring this recession's bitter regional edge

The north of England and many of the other English regions are enduring a daily squeeze that is seld

As we all know, northerners are made of stern stuff and historically have seized any opportunities thrown their way. Nonetheless, with regards to recent economic trends north of The Wash, we all have ample cause to feel miserable.

Consider recent form: that the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber were the top regions in the country for increases in unemployment in the last quarter. Unemployment in the whole north now stands at 9.45 per cent (compared to a national average of 8.2 per cent) a rate the north has not had to endure since 1995. Manufacturing, a sector with more clout in the north of England than the rest of the UK, shrank by 0.6 per cent in from June to August. Worse, recent business surveys suggest that while the private sector in the north is recovering from a difficult business environment over the summer, the flow of new orders coming in to northern businesses looks precarious.

The north of England and many of the other English regions are, day in day out, enduring a daily squeeze that is seldom acknowledged. Whitehall's apparent ill-regard to northern concerns was exemplified by last week's public sector unemployment figures. Latest research shows that in one year, 121,000 public sector jobs have been lost up north while 32,000 have been gained down south. This sits uneasily with the government's apparent aim to make cuts as "fair" as possible. As the accountancy firm Begbies Traynor reported recently, companies in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire are being hit hardest by public sector retrenchment, with many small and medium sized enterprises disproportionately squeezed. Likewise, large companies like Boots have noted the stark impact cuts are having on their sales and consumer confidence in the north. We expect the labour market numbers, issued this Thursday, to reaffirm this glum picture.

Were it needed, this is all yet further proof that this great recession has a bitter regional edge. Through recent events in Europe, we have seen how one country's economic situation and performance can drastically differ from others. So it is in the English regions. Without a greater focus on spatial rebalancing and the significant decentralisation of central government functions away from Whitehall, both employment and demographic patterns are unlikely to shift. This matters to everyone: recent research from the OECD confirms that it is in a country's "lagging" regions (which make up 56 per cent of UK output) that the economic future lies. We must get growth in these regions in order to achieve growth and prosperity nationally. Positive growth figures in the north-west and Yorkshire in recent days are to be welcomed, but overall, there is still much with which to be greatly concerned.

Though we talk of a "UK economy" it is, largely, a falsehood. We need a more a nuanced understanding in our discourse as to how this great calamity is affecting the ordinary lives of those outside the greater south-east. Many of the wider iniquities that exist are seldom discussed. We in the north want to get out of this hole ourselves. To that end, IPPR North's Northern Economic Futures Commission is currently considering a wide array of proposals to kick start northern growth and make the north one of UK PLC's great success stories. But so long as we approach England and Britain as one economic bloc, with one set of economic priorities, we can never succeed -- it's time for Whitehall to recognise that.

Lewis Goodall is Researcher at IPPR North

 

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.