Before I start, I’d better warn you that I’m partisan. I’m a Geordie, and I’m so Northern that I get altitude sickness in reserve when I go south of York. There are a lot of problems, admittedly, but it’s the home of Greggs, for goodness sake. It surely can’t all be bad.
The TUC released figures recently which showed that youth unemployment in my own bit of the North East is up 31% in the last year. It wasn’t a pretty picture to start with. Meanwhile, the IPPR reports that the North East as a whole is already back in recession, while house prices lag behind the rest of the country.
There are parts of County Durham and Northumberland which are effectively already ghost towns, gutted by the closure of coal mines. Behind them, on the fells and moors of the bleak, beautiful upland country, are their predecessors: the skeleton remains of old lead mining settlements. Life and industry move on; I get that. What I don’t get, what baffles, angers and frightens me in equal measures, is why a whole region can seemingly be allowed to slide into a terminal decline. The canker which has taken such hold in the old pit districts is plainly evident now in towns which were bustling a decade or so ago, and seems to be creeping unchecked into those areas which still have life in them.
People have always moved away from the area, as is the case with any comparatively deprived region. Brighter lights naturally draw the clever and the ambitious. But what about those who just want to do a decent job for a living wage, who are happy to forego the prospects of wealth for the pleasure of staying in their own community. Is it hopelessly naive or idealistic to think that that’s a worthy way to want to live? The type of working class job which allowed such a life choice is disappearing here, and the prospect of regional pay for public sector workers means more squeeze on both household and disposable incomes even among those in work. The choice left is stark: stay, and grind along, or move away.
I’m no economist, but I would love to see an analysis of the costs of such a depopulation. Presumably the state has to pick up the burden of caring for the elderly, which local family would otherwise carry? Hospitals, schools and other services become less viable, and more job opportunities are lost. At the other end, families miss out on help with childcare and child-raising, to everyone’s detriment.
Is it feckless not to want to leave? Is it really desirable that the South East continues to turn into one vast urbanisation while the regions are bled dry of resources and talent? Squeezed between an increasingly muscular Scotland and an apparently hostile Westminster, that’s the message a lot of people here feel they’re being given.