It's time to look North as Scottish independence vote draws closer

The North East should look to Scotland for stronger links and partnerships. A conference in Newcastle tomorrow will look at that and how the region can help itself

Andrew Milligan/PA Wire Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond walking in front of a Saltire
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond walking in front of a Saltire

Scottish self-government should be seen as an opportunity to create new economic alliances rather than a threat to the North East, a leading academic asserts today.

Common cultural and historic ties, along with shared industrial interests – particularly offshore oil and gas-related activity – present a golden opportunity for the region, he maintains.

But in a call to action, Professor Mark Shucksmith says leading regional politicians need to bury their differences if the North East is to reach its potential.

In a paper for a major conference in Newcastle tomorrow Prof Shucksmith, director of the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal at Newcastle University – and, previously, a senior academic at Aberdeen University – says viewing Scotland as a threat is not only counter-productive but also misleading.

“This really is an opportunity for the region,” he says. “We may be far from London, but we are close to Edinburgh with shared values and historic ties which bind us together.

“Research shows that the region would benefit hugely from a high-speed rail link between ourselves and Edinburgh and Glasgow, never mind London and the south.

“We have significant potential synergies with Aberdeen as the centre of the North Sea oil industry. Many other linkages could be exploited. Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, this is a time of opportunity for us to forge stronger links with our northern neighbours.”

That’s a view shared by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who yesterday said that Scottish independence would bring potential benefits and opportunities for the North of England.

“It is not for me to intervene in English affairs,” said Mr Slmond. “But if I were a politician in the North of England, I would be campaigning avidly for more economic and political powers for that area.”

A new poll in advance of September’s vote shows the race tightening, and resistance to independence weakening. Prof Shucksmith cautions that the opportunity for the North East needs leadership and concerted action – and he warns that the region lacks a coherent voice not only to speak to the government but also to pursue a vision for the future.

“In Manchester, as in many European regions, a combined authority promotes broader regional interests – while some of our own council leaders seem disinclined to work together.”

That was a reference to the difficult birth of the region’s own combined authority, through which the seven councils in Tyne and Wear, Durham and Northumberland would win extra powers and funding. A prolonged outbreak of bickering between the councils threatened to derail it before it had even been launched, with Sunderland Council worried that too many of the benefits would be hoovered up by Newcastle.

The arguments were brought to an end – for now at least – last week when all seven councils signed off on the plan, which will now be considered in Whitehall.

Tomorrow’s conference, which will be attended by scores of delegates from charities, community groups, universities and business, is designed to lay the foundations for a North East Citizens forum – along the lines of groups being created around the country, from London to Nottingham and Milton Keynes – which will campaign on specific issues.

The conference organisers say the North East needs a new “dynamic”.

“That doesn’t mean necessarily challenging the conventional political process, but it does mean complementing that process,” they say. “People too often feel powerless in a region remote from London and much closer to Edinburgh.

“The decision-makers of a centralised state appear to be operating in a different land – at a time when Britain as we know it faces irrevocable changes from Scottish self-government, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum this September.”

The conference will be addressed by Tyneside-born Neil Jameson, who set up London Citizens and heads the Citizens UK network, which is backed enthusiastically by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and former Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby.

In a speech late last year the Archbishop said in places like the North East, huge numbers of people have energy and ideas. “But the system is not giving them the chance,” he added. The conference leaders say that local action, through a citizens’ network, could help address under-achievement among school-leavers – “a poverty of aspiration” – generational unemployment and new economic models of social enterprises to fill a gap left by the government’s “steady contraction of the welfare state.”

It also floats the idea of a regional bank, in a nation where it says the overall financial sector has the largest sum of money every recorded.

Two years ago a group of seven concerned individuals came together to begin a debate on how they might change things in the region.

The idea was to act as a catalyst. They produced a “January declaration”. One of the signatories was Justin Welby. He subsequently attended a themed session – one of several organised by the group – to discuss how we might take matters forward.

The Archbishop’s point, in that recent speech, is that we need a debate about how to improve our lot – and that, given a fair wind, and a more equitable banking system, some progress can still be made to begin a recovery:

“If there is going to be regeneration of the economy, and the re-creation of jobs and a serious attack on the appalling poverty that is now three-generational in some parts of our country...it is not going to come from the major companies but from smaller operations in local areas of different sorts, both co-operative and also single person companies and start-ups.”

But the conference’s organisers are clear about the difficulties faced in the region – what they call a “leadership vaccum” with two much distance between governors and governed, between those in power nationally and ordinary people.

And they highlight parochialism and political in-fighting between different parts of the region and between local councils. They add: “Let us be clear. We are not challenging the conventional political process.

“But in a mature local and regional and national democracies – Greater London, Scotland for instance – it is accepted that citizens’ groups can play a significant role in campaigning for, and championing specific causes.

“We believe the time is right to test the appetite for a North East Citizens organisation.”

“While we don’t have all the answers, it is surely right to begin asking the questions.”

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