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25 September 2000

Hartlepool still awaits its saviour

The economic boom has bypassed Peter Mandelson's constituents. Peter Dunn reveals that their cries f

By Peter Dunn

Navvy Nan, a tattered Valkyrie of a woman aboard her donkey cart in early Victorian Hartlepool, would weep in her grave if she could see her sad, disheartened little town today. Nan, in her long skirts, coarse apron and hobnail boots, could hold her own with any navvy with pick and shovel. In her local, the Blacksmith’s Arms, she could quaff three pints of strong ale in five minutes before lurching out to kick-start her donkey homeward with a well-directed gob of black tobacco juice.

Navvy Nan represented a kind of fiery independence underscoring the dynamic Victorian entrepreneurs, such as the businessman Ralph Ward Jackson, who turned a poor fishing community into one of the busiest shipbuilding ports on the north-east coast.

You don’t see much of that spirit in Hartlepool today, except, perhaps, in the Monday morning rush to Albemarle & Bond, pawnbrokers to the damned, in St Paul’s Road near the civic centre. Here, on the pavement outside, hoarsely angry under the three golden balls, an elderly woman complains to her husband that the shop has refused to accept her wedding ring because it is too worn. Inside, it looks like Asprey’s: glass cabinets filled with sparkly things accumulated in a long-gone age when Hartlepool had a steel industry and working docks. Big notices in the window read: “We will cash personal cheques and delay presentation for up to a month.”

In the civic centre, next door to a boarded-up shop called Bankrupt Clothing and round the corner from the Samaritans office (“Volunteers Wanted”), supplicants in tired clothing sit quietly on reception furniture whose seats are torn and have their stuffing hanging out. On the glass entrance door, someone has stuck a printed poster. “Mr Mandelson’s Surgery Has Been Cancelled,” it says.

Ah, Mr Mandelson! I was present in Hartlepool in December 1989 when new Labour’s charismatic director of campaigns was selected to succeed the town’s MP of more than 25 years, the worthy but invisible Ted Leadbitter. The old port’s ruling fathers celebrated his victory as the dawning of a new age. “We might be inward-looking here,” one of them said. “But we all have strong ambitions for our families and our town. People are seeking desperately a candidate who offers that kind of hope and can actually fulfil those dreams.” New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 had Hartlepool dancing in the streets. The town’s community leaders polished the shop windows, plumped up the street furniture and waited for Mandelson to deliver. And waited.

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And waited.

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After three years in government, Mandelson still manages to dazzle people in Hartlepool with his knack of reaching down to soothe their little problems – never too burdened with duties at the Dome or, now, in Northern Ireland to petition Jack Straw on behalf of some foreign student whose visa has expired, always happy to abandon his Special Branch heavies to plunge into the warm crowd at some local festival and press the flesh. Even on the poorest council estates overlooking the dead and dying industrial sites across Stockton Road, you won’t hear a word of criticism about Mandelson’s £373,000 loan to bankroll his distressful housing problem in London. Nobody thinks he should have resigned. “I was amazed when he did,” says Ray Waller, a former steelworker and leader of the town’s Labour group. “And so were most people in Hartlepool.”

So far, in classical new Labour style, Mandelson’s nimble small-town footwork has kept him three waltzes and a polka ahead of the question that nobody has dared ask him in Hartlepool – the one about new Labour’s failure, despite £400m of Tory and Labour government investment in the region, none of which has got the thousands of Labour heartland supporters off the dole. Until last week, that is, when something snapped in John Megson, a distinguished banker who took early retirement five years ago and became chief executive of the Hartlepool Enterprise Agency. Megson disclosed to me a series of hitherto confidential letters written earlier this year to four north-east Labour MPs – Tony Blair (Sedgefield), Mo Mowlam (Redcar), Alan Milburn (Darlington) and Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) – challenging them to do something about the chronic unemployment in a region that put them in power. The response from the Prime Minister and his three Cabinet colleagues reveals, as we shall see, an astonishing indifference to the deepening, perhaps irreversible, plight of one of the poorest communities in Britain.

To many in the north-east, the Megson/Blair correspondence will merely confirm suspicion that Hartlepool has become a metaphor for new Labour’s canny skill to promote triumphal appearances over tatty substance. Hartlepool looks good on a fine Monday afternoon, with a splendid 540-berth marina development where the docks used to be. There is a spanking new Heritage Museum on Heritage Quay, one of its rooms devoted to a fishing cob and the recorded squawk of a seagull being strangled. Waterfront properties have been tarted up, as has the town centre, so derelict a few years ago that even Navvy Nan would have applied to the Victorian Improvements Board for a transfer to a better slum. And its unemployment figures have dropped two points from 11.5 to 9.5 per cent in the past 12 months. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the marina has no relevance to the poor of Hartlepool, except for a scattering of jobs with Colonel Sanders or Pizza Hut. Even the marina’s jolly manager, Pat Ralph, concedes that, for most families on the town’s struggling estates, it might as well be on Mars. Most of the boat owners come in from York, Sheffield and Leeds and would rather be seen dead than spend money in Wonkey Donkey, the local nightclub. “In my experience, if a boat owner’s got a bit of cash to spare, he’ll spend it on his boat,” Ralph said. “The [number] of town people you see floating around here is minimal. Hartlepool people, in my experience, wouldn’t thank you for a bit of fresh air. There’s a new restaurant opening by a man from Manchester on the other side, 10,000 square feet, all the different oriental meals, water features, the lot – there won’t be anything on the north-east coast to touch it. The Middlesbrough football team would eat quite happily down here. A lot of name-dropping will happen in the future.”

The modest fall in unemployment statistics hides a bleak reality in Hartlepool, illustrated by the Sits Vac board in the town’s Jobcentre, with its dead-end jobs in pubs, telecanvassing and Channel Island hotels (“£198.11 per week gross”). The area’s biggest employer is Hibernia Foods, a Dublin-based frozen-meals company, run by a group of elusive, courteous Irishmen. The financial director, Colm Delves, denies local claims that the firm’s wage rates are low and that some employees are on short-term contracts that preclude paid holidays or sick leave. “We don’t have part-time staff, except in the run-up to Christmas,” he said. “Our wage rates would be as competitive as anyone else’s in the area. I don’t have specific details, because they vary according to seniority.”

Nobody in town, even the council’s new Lib Dem leader who saw Labour bounced out of power in May for the first time in 22 years, would dare be too critical about poor pay. If a company like Hibernia pulled out of Hartlepool, the town’s jobless figures would go through the ceiling.

“Some of us were looking at an old map of the town yesterday,” said Ena Savage, the chairman of the Central Estate’s residents’ association. “We spread it on the table and all the memories came back – the old streets, how the marine works whistle went at 12 and you couldn’t cross the dual carriageways for men on bikes going home for lunch.

“I do feel now that, if you’re below middle class, you don’t stand a chance. As community workers, we put on training for people but . . . it’s just to keep them busy. I tell them: ‘I honestly believe this will increase your employability.’ It needs to be said because it gives them a purpose in life, but at the end of the day, I don’t believe it.

“I’d like to say: ‘Yes, I rejoiced when Labour got in’, but then you look at other people and I don’t know whether they just can’t understand, but I think they’re quite frightened. They expected so much overnight and, when it didn’t come, there was panic.

“Yes, we’ve got a marina and it looks really nice, and it has brought the town’s image up. More likely, it’s a boundary between Them and Us. We’re Hartlepool people and we can’t afford what’s going on across the road down there. We’ve got a fantastic little museum depicting the work of our forefathers, but what sort of history will we leave behind? Will we have another museum where you see children huddled in corners taking drugs?”

Living with this kind of despair, week in week out, it was a long time before the government’s indifference to the north-east’s problems dawned on community leaders in Hartlepool. Mandelson, chairing a meeting of the Hartlepool Enterprise Agency last year, had airily waved away a suggestion that a government department should be transplanted from the south into his constituency. There is also a deepening suspicion among development officials in the region that regeneration is being held hostage to new Labour’s ministerial cat-fighting. One of them told me that the powers of the government’s regional agency, One NorthEast, established by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, were being stealthily neutralised by Blair’s kitchen cabinet in Downing Street to stop Prescott forming a power base.

The final straw, in Hartlepool, came when Blair launched himself into a series of photo opportunities in front of posh buildings in northern cities to announce that the north-south divide no longer existed, except in pockets.

On 24 January, in a letter headed “North South Divide. The Unacceptable 10.2 per cent Unemployment in Hartlepool”, Brian Beaumont, the former chairman of the enterprise agency, wrote to Blair – copies to Mowlam, Milburn and Mandelson – urging the Prime Minister to relocate part of the government to the region. Beaumont told him: “Crippling joblessness afflicting generation after generation of some families remains. One in five of the town’s long-term unemployed has been out of work for more than two years. When you have second and third generations of families who have not been employed, not only does the normal work ethic go, but the education ethic goes, too.”

“What happened after that beggars belief,” said Megson. “It is less than acceptable that Blair sent the letter down the line to the DfEE and then through to a minion from One NorthEast. Peter Mandelson and Mo Mowlam ultimately responded, but only after a second letter requesting them to do so. Mo thanked us for keeping her informed. Alan Milburn didn’t reply at all. The most contemptible letter of all, when we finally got it, was from Peter Mandelson.”

The MP’s brief note, headed “Employment Action Zones”, was dated 13 April, nearly three months after Hartlepool had launched its plea for some real jobs. In it, Mandelson appeared to take credit for launching the enterprise agency’s initiative, regretted that his town was not an action zone, addressed none of the issues raised in the agency chairman’s original letter and signed off, with breathtaking insouciance, “Thank you for your letter to me on this important subject, you can be assured I will continue to push Hartlepool’s case to the best of my ability.”

“This is the worst Cabinet this country has ever had,” Megson said. “Blair listens, but does not hear. From the Prime Minister downwards, they are carpet-baggers, all of them, using safe seats within a 30-mile radius of here to further their own ends.

“There is increasing awareness in the business sector here that, if you sat Mandelson down and asked him ‘How many jobs or businesses have you brought to this town?’ and ‘What have you actually done to improve the economy of Hartlepool?’, he would have great difficulty answering you.

“As Kennedy once said: ‘It’s not what America can do for you. It’s what you can do for America.’ Switch Hartlepool for America and go to Mandelson, smug in his very safe seat and doing very little except use the place to assist himself with his very egotistical career.”