The Independent Archive: On a walkabout with Mrs Thatcher

17 September 1987 The Prime Minister was captured yesterday in an arresting image - back to camera on a wasteland in Middlesbrough. Peter Jenkins reports
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The Independent Culture
HOPES THAT Mrs Thatcher might go walkabout in the lower depths of the other Britain were quickly dashed. Her visits to the deprived urban areas of the country have been planned as sunrise tours. Everything she saw was new and nascent, green-site or high-tech. If by inner city you mean Toxteth or Brixton, this was more like a day in the country.

Teesside is a straggling conurbation of small cities or towns loosely tied together by motorways. Rain or smog might have been more appropriate but, in defiance of the weather forecasters, the sun shone brightly all day long and the ICI chemical works was on its best behaviour, emitting picturesque white smoke into a blue sky.

We began at a derelict and deserted 75-acre site, trapped in the bed of the River Tees where a foundry had once stood, employing in its heyday 1,000 men. Some 50,000 jobs have gone from Teesside in the Thatcher years and the local unemployment rate in Middlesbrough is 28 per cent. The Prime Minister alighted from her Daimler and slipped into sensible shoes in which to pick her way through the potholes and the rubble.

She was told how the newly formed Teesside Development Corporation planned to divert the waters of the Tees, link the site by bridge to Stockton and build some 500 houses around a marine development. In two years she would see the place transformed.

The Prime Minister posed for pictures in the middle of this large empty space, presiding - they might suggest - over a scene of desolation of her own making. At the request of cameramen she stalked off alone into the middle distance, and back again. Then she began preaching in the wilderness. She preached the gospel of enterprise as the only means to salvation and regeneration. The North, she said, had been built by the enterprise of its people and that was how it would be rebuilt. There was no other way.

Harold Macmillan, who in the Thirties had sat for Stockton just across the river, had believed there was a "middle way". But not this Prime Minister. Where was the money, reporters wanted to know. "You keep asking me facile questions," she complained.

Next stop was the Cad- cam centre, a high-tech industrial estate. Cadcam stands for Computer-Aided Design, Computer-Aided Management. Here she preached her gospel of co-operation - between government, local authority and private enterprise.

Stuart Bell, the Middlesbrough MP, had shown up, not to protest but to welcome her coming. But she was wrong, if she thought she couldn't work with Labour councils. "Our councils are moderate, traditional Labour councils," he said. They were sensible people yet they were rate-capped and had no money to repair the deteriorating housing stock.

Listening to Mrs Thatcher extol the virtues of enterprise was one of its northern exemplars. This was John Hall, the Northumberland miner's son who built the great Metrocentre in Gateshead, the largest supermarket complex in Europe. Now he has bought Lord Londonderry's seat, Wynyard Hall, and the 5,000 acres that go with it. Here, in the cause of provincial generation, he plans to create what he calls a "centre of excellence". A business park will be provided with three golf courses, a five-star hotel, pheasant and partridge shooting facilities. Then he'll sell off two-acre plots to businessmen to live like country gentlemen. "It's the life style they want," he said. "We're not peasants up here. You'll have to change your bloody image of us."

Round the corner some real people had congregated to greet the Prime Minister, the first she had encountered all day. Some cheered, some booed. A man with a megaphone called out: "Why has she rate-capped the council? Why won't she give us some money to build homes like the ones we have just seen? They are the answers we want from her."

Mrs Thatcher did not stop to tell him to please stop asking facile questions. She said nothing.

From `The Independent', Thursday 17 September 1987