Most of these towns are found north of an imaginary line drawn between the Severn and Humber. What they produced is now made elsewhere in the world, wherever labour is cheap and expendable. Northern towns, however, cannot survive solely on service industries. Those who find jobs stacking the shelves of superfluous superstores will never share the dignity (nor the bruises) of predecessors who built peerless ships, legendary locomotives and great civic buildings. But what hope is there today beyond fast food, edge-of-town shopping and escalating leisure?
Art. Paintings, sculpture and all? Yes. An increasing number of northern towns are turning to art to give them fresh direction, new heart and a place on the map of the international cultural tourist. The policy, enthusiastically adopted by three Tees-Tyne towns - Gateshead, Sunderland and Hartlepool - has something to do with soothing the souls of citizens denied access to first-class modern art while no longer allowed to make useful and beautiful things with their own hands. It has much to do, too, with the long-term revival of regional economies. The occasion for getting major arts projects off the ground, however, is 1996, 'Year of the Visual Arts', a time for grants and a target to meet.
Art and culture, as many European cities know, can be a commercial magnet. A sophisticated provision of museums and galleries, alongside a reliable civic infrastructure (from good state schools to integrated public transport networks), appears to boost urban economies. Can the same magic work for the North-east?
THE BALTIC Flour Mills, Gateshead, is unmissable for anyone crossing the Tyne: industrial architecture on a heroic scale set right in the heart of two city centres - Gateshead on the south bank of the river, Newcastle on the north. It has much the same effect on this twin cityscape as Bankside power station does on the City
of London and the borough of Southwark. Like Bankside, the Baltic Flour Mills is to be converted into an 'international centre for the visual arts'.
The first stage of the conversion will be ready in 1996, although it will take longer to finish. This is a long-term project and 1996 simply a key staging post. An architectural competition for the conversion of the building was launched in April; a winner will be announced in September. A director has yet to be appointed. Funding is entirely public and promises to be repaid several-fold. This is because the Baltic Flour Mills will be the first gallery of its kind in the North-east. To date, only the Tate at Liverpool (a successful conversion of Jesse Hartley's Piranesian warehouses at Albert Docks by Stirling Wilford), has won favour with leading international galleries. From 1996, the Baltic Flour Mills will place Gateshead - and thus Newcastle - on the international contemporary art circuit. But, as everyone agrees at Gateshead City Council, and every other enthusiastic body involved, the success of this major gallery will turn on the support of local people.
Gateshead is as far from London as Paris is. Only the most committed and wealthiest will venture here to see a show they can catch in Edinburgh, London or Paris.
The Tyneside building is, however, big enough to cope with and to generate the most dramatic exhibitions and installations. It is currently host to a parade of 100ft grain silos and a cacophonous colony of fast-breeding kittiwakes. The architect may have to build around the protected seabirds. Whoever is chosen to remodel this great Forties concrete silo will have the opportunity of shaping a building as rewarding as the Tate of the North and a precursor of the Tate Museum of Modern Art at Bankside.
IN SUNDERLAND, a few miles south, the site for the National Glass Centre is being prepared. What a site. The new building, also the subject of a European- wide architectural competition, will rise on the banks of the River Wear where ships were built until recently and where freighters and trawlers are still busy.
A part of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation's rapid rebuilding of the former docks, the Glass Centre will be more than a museum or gallery. Sunderland has lost its shipbuilding and coal mining industries, but remains home to more than 1,000 glass workers. It has been making glass for 1,300 years.
One of the biggest local employers is Corning's. Corning's makes Pyrex, the world-famous industrial glass. The National Glass Centre will forge links with local industry and act as a marriage broker between fine artists, craft workers (the Crafts Council is a keen supporter) and manufacturing. It will work, too, with the new University of Sunderland which is being built alongside. The centre will also feature a museum and art gallery.
The Tyne and Wear Development Corporation dreams of a truly radical building, one that explores and celebrates glass technology and artistry. It talks of creating a symbol for Sunderland, a building that might eventually win the affection of those disaffected thousands of Wearsiders who have only recently lost jobs in traditional heavy industry.
The Glass Centre is a chance to put Sunderland on the map of international excellence in the design and making of glass, from artworks to architecture. The project is being funded by the EC, Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, Sunderland City Council, Sunderland University, Northern Arts and Corning's. When complete, it should demonstrate how fine art, craft, local industry and imaginative architecture can work together to revive the fortunes of a dispirited town.
DOWN IN Hartlepool, an outpost of the Imperial War Museum, designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners, is intended to be the major cultural draw of the Teesside Development Corporation's vast pounds 200m redevelopment of Hartlepool Docks. Hartlepool needs a boost. Most of us know it, through the media, as a place of child murder, drunkenness and violence, not to mention the monkey they hung. That image is about to change.
Last Sunday, the extraordinary dockside theme park opened, a no-expense-spared recreation of an 18th-century dock. The buildings look as if they are originals zealously restored. In fact they are brand new: the 18th century recreated in 12 months, architect-free, on a steel frame and by animation and set-design experts drawn from the world of film.
Alongside this tourist siren is a swashbuckling new sea wall and esplanade, an embryonic estate of 1,000 private homes, an edge-of- town shopping lot and 'Jefferson's Landing', a US-style mall harbouring two dozen of the snappiest designer-wear shops. You want cut-price Armani? Hartlepool is your kind of town. But who buys Armani in Hartlepool?
'The Yachties for a start,' says Duncan Hall, irrepressible chief executive of Teesside Development Corporation. These are the 750 lucky sailing folk expected to moor at the marina, under construction. Are 750 'Yachties' sufficient? No. Hall expects coachloads of Armani-hungry shoppers steering an unflinching course to Hartlepool from Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Manchester. Scandinavians will sail in, too. Shopped out, some will tour the theme park (see how great-grandfather several times removed had his leg amputated during a fearsome sea battle) and some will make it to the Imperial War Museum. This handsome, hi-tech military tent will be raised within a year ('Sir Norman on a design-and-build contract,' chuckles Duncan Hall, who builds at a pace that would have them gasping in Hong Kong).
The Teesside Development Corporation has no doubt that, while Sir Norman and the Imperial War Museum will lend lustre to the project, the crowds will come here primarily to shop, eat and pursue leisure. Art and culture are icing on a rich cake. In this sense, of these three projects, Hartlepool is most in tune with the shape of England to come. It is self-evident that modern consumers are endowed with certain inalienable rights. Among these are a life of ease, leisure and the pursuit of a bargain.
All three projects - Baltic Flour Mills, the National Glass Centre and Hartlepool Docks - are intelligent responses to acute local conditions. All three deserve the excellent architecture and art they seek. A modern European town without a thriving modern art gallery is little more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Today, without heavy industry they seek art, culture and shopping. But, for all the increase in the status of art (and architecture), the greatest of these, as Hartlepool knowingly proves, is shopping.