Visible from the golden sands of Redcar is a huge offshore wind farm, giant blades turning slowly. The image is somewhat brutalist, but it is wheeled out now and again to reassure politicians seated hundreds of miles away in Westminster that, despite all the bleak news stories that pour out like the molten steel of the past, this North-eastern community is at the heart of a green industrial renaissance.
Little comfort that must be to the 1,700 newly unemployed workers in the town, victims not only of the closure of the SSI steel plant but this Government and the last’s failure to understand how fundamentally the North-east has been damaged by the financial crash.
George Osborne’s Britain has returned to economic growth, and yet this one corner of the country remains stubbornly resistant to its benefits. Unemployment stands at 8 per cent in the North-east – the highest in the country – and in towns like Redcar this is exacerbated by seasonal jobs and zero-hours contracts which leave people bereft of work for months at a time. The suicide rate among men is highest in the region, a statistic that the Samaritans has linked directly to social deprivation and recession. The number of rough sleepers is rising faster than anywhere else in the UK, up 40 per cent in a year.
Something is going very badly wrong. Whatever happened to the “Northern Powerhouse”? That policy was designed to help encourage investment into the North and regenerate local economies – and also, no doubt, to break Labour’s cultural stranglehold on the gems of the north: Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle. Which might go some way to explaining why public funds are being heavily plunged into Manchester – which quietly became a one-party state some time last year – while business leaders in the North-east feel thoroughly abandoned by the Government. There’s no point building a Northern Powerhouse that erects a Hadrian’s Wall for investment along the length of the M62.
What a wasted opportunity this project has become. Any success that Osborne boasts in Greater Manchester – where the complete overhaul of the city’s transport system has indeed led to huge economic gains – is not his to claim; that is down to the ambition of 10 neighbouring councils putting aside their differences to work together. It was the inspiration for, not the result of, Osborne’s powerhouse policy and that promise of a city mayor is its deserved reward. Elsewhere, the policy has claimed few results. In the North-east, as the closure of SSI has proved, it is invisible.
One mitigating policy proposed to Conservative ministers by the regional group of the Federation of Small Businesses is to extend the length of the High Speed 2 rail line as far as Newcastle, to help the North make a bigger contribution to the national economy and make it easier for businesses to reach the region and see its potential for themselves. Given the troubled history of the smaller version of this rail project, and the sheer length of time it will take to get the trains on the track, even visionaries among local lobbyists can offer no succour to the jobless.
If Osborne and his Treasury flunkies are committed to the future of the North they must show that means the whole North, in its complicated entirety. The North-east’s economy has been devastated over generations. Many people remain poor, reliant on the state and with little hope of stable employment – and that number has no doubt grown this week. For now, there’s little reason for voters to consider Osborne’s “powerhouse” as anything more than keeping the violins playing while the economy is submerged.Reuse content