Behind the numbers: Can the spirit of enterprise really rebuild derelict Britain?

Jack O'Neil was hurrying down Atkinson Street in Leedsyesterday, a woolly hat pulled tight over his head despite the unseasonably balmy weather. He was a foundry worker for 40 years but is now "too knackered" for fettling, and can remember when this part of the city on the banks of the river Aire – the likely site for one of George Osborne's new enterprise zones – was home to thousands of steel workers, engineers and manufacturers.

Today, to most eyes, it remains a highly industrialised place, replete with workshops, garages and a huge cement plant.

But Mr O'Neil, 64, was not convinced the Chancellor could return the area to its glory days. "It's them that took it away in the first place isn't it?" he laughed. "I remember when you could fall out with the boss one day and tell them where to go and start the following day next door. Today if you are out of work that's it. They could start by sorting the buses out mind – that might help."

At an electrical warehouse across the street, manager Paul Wannan, 47, also believed the area's best days were in the past, though he conceded an easing of business rates could help. "We are surviving. Business can always be better but we are doing alright, although it's not how it used to be," he said. "We have been affected by the recession but we are now starting to see a slight improvement, although super-fast broadband won't be any use to us."

Still, Leeds has an impressive track record of generating private sector jobs during the last decade and a short walk up the river you find the newly refurbished Clarence Dock. Once congested with coal barges from the West Yorkshire collieries, now it is home to bars, restaurants, the Royal Armouries visitor attraction and smart new housing developments.

Enthusiasts say the dock is a living symbol of what can be achieved along the entire river valley – a vast regeneration area, which it is hoped will create 27,000 jobs in the next decade.

Those drifting out of Hunslet Jobcentre, a mile downstream, are the ones most likely to benefit from the continued renaissance of the Aire Valley. Dean Brockley, 37, said he had been laid off at Christmas from his job at the Tetley Brewery, which is closing after 188 years at the south Leeds site so owners Carlsberg can relocate production of the historic Yorkshire bitter to Northampton. "It is the first time I have been out of work since leaving school. I have had a couple of interviews but the Jobcentre is just a joke shop. Most that are down there are just in their trackie trousers and just want to scratch on. They don't want to work and something needs to be done."

But there was a welcome for the Chancellor's move to reduce the duty on petrol.

Paula Quinn, 43, a care assistant, was hoping the cut would ease the £50 she spends each month filling up at the pumps, although money remained tight. "It's the bills and the cost of food – everything just keeps going up and wages haven't," she said.

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