Better but worse

Tony Blair's own region has been left behind by economic growth during his decade in Downing Street, according to research by a team of top North-East academics.

Tony Blair's own region has been left behind by economic growth during his decade in Downing Street, according to research by a team of top North-East academics.

In a report to be launched today to coincide with the anniversary of his 1997 election win, the Durham University team accepted that most people in the region have "never had it so good".

But they said richer parts of the country have seen growth which outstrips the North-East - meaning that in relative terms, the region is worse off than it was when Labour, led by Sedgefield MP Mr Blair, came to power.

And Fred Robinson, Ian Zass-Ogilvie and Michael Jackson warn that the North-East still has "significant structural weaknesses" which leave it vulnerable to future changes in circumstances.

They say: "It is apparent that many things in the North-East have got better and, materially at least, most people have `never had it so good'."

But they add: "The region's economic revival should not be overstated. It is uneven, and it is unclear whether this economic structure is really robust or sustainable.

Moreover, while the North-East has witnessed a welcome economic revival, the substantial gap between the North-East and the South of England has persisted and, indeed, grown."

They say there is a "high reliance" on increased public spending which has "rescued" the region, and warn there is still only a small base of dynamic, home-grown firms.

However, the report also points to a series of successes during Mr Blair's premiership. There has been a major downturn in unemployment, and the gap between rates in the North-East and the national average has been cut.

"Such low unemployment rates - and such convergence - would have been inconceivable a few years ago", the authors observe.

Similar convergence has happened in school achievement - though the report notes a "sizeable minority" of youngsters still achieve little and are at risk of becoming increasingly marginalised.

There is above-average spending on the NHS in the region, which has produced "very substantial improvement" they say, claiming the North-East is "probably the best performing region in the NHS".

However, life expectancy rates in the region are still less than the national average and do not appear to have narrowed significantly.

The academics, who interviewed 40 key people in the region as part of their research, say opinions on the Blair years are split. They wrote: "Optimists say that the region has fundamentally changed, now set on a course of economic growth and ever-increasing prosperity. Only traffic congestion and skill shortages can hold us back.

"Pessimists, on the other hand, say that this economy is fragile, insubstantial, and is liable to be seriously undermined by global competition or recession."

The report points to specific achievements including the development of Newcastle and Gateshead's quaysides, particularly the Baltic and The Sage Gateshead.

They also describe how some of the most deprived parts of the region have improved - with some houses in North Shield's once-notorious Meadow Well estate now selling for £140,000.

Crime rates have fallen below the national average, and it would now be inaccurate for any parts of the region to be labelled the "car crime capital of Britain", as some once were.

The impact of the Blair years on the North-East

Click here to read the full Durham University report

Page 2: So happy to be here

So happy to be here

Gill Burgess and husband Peter Cooke say they haven't looked back since relocating to the North-East six years ago.

The couple settled in Corbridge, in the Tyne Valley, and started their own business in nearby Hexham, which was identified in today's report as being at the right end of the region's "wealth divide". They now employ seven people at marketing firm R//evolution and say wild horses wouldn't make them leave the North-East.

The couple, who have two children, Christian, 11, and Sophie, eight, moved to the region from the Manchester area, where they were working for a marketing consultancy, and set up in a new business unit funded by Tynedale Council.

Although Gill, 42, had lived in the region before, Peter had been born in Devon, brought up in Essex and was living in London when they met.

"We felt there was great potential in the North East," he said. "Newcastle was clearly growing and developing economically. Our business depends on other businesses being successful and it has really worked for us."

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Wheels turning for Ian

Ian Wilson says he is repaying a debt of gratitude by helping other people back into the jobs market in a former mining community.

Ian, 34, and wife, Gayle, 32, live with their eight-year-old daughter Ellie, in Horden, near Peterlee, which is placed at the bottom of the region's wealth divide in today's report.

Ian left school with one GCSE and had mixed luck with jobs before contacting the Acumen Trust in Horden, set up in 2003 to help local people into work and learning.

Acumen helped Ian to get grant support to start his own driving school business, and he then decided to put something back by setting up Wheels 4 Work, a social enterprise within the Acumen Trust.

Wheels 4 Work aims to improve the employability of people by "providing transport solutions". It has trained 185 forklift truck drivers since November 2005 and has a fleet of 30 scooters to help people travel to jobs.

Gayle said 10 years of New Labour have brought huge improvements to life in Easington.

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MPs give their verdict on premiership

Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell said: "Tynemouth constituency was one of the seats crucial to delivering a Labour victory in 1997.

"The Tories had held Tynemouth for most of the 50 years before, leaving an inheritance of high unemployment, record crime levels and chronically underfunded public services.

"Unemployment has halved, school investment and results are up, waiting for an operation in the NHS will shortly be a thing of the past.

"Crime is down - we live in one of the safest boroughs in the country. The minimum wage and working tax credits make work pay. Pension credit is helping over 6,000 pensioners in Tynemouth and every pensioner benefits from the winter fuel allowance. We said it would it take more than 10 years to put the North-East and our country right and there is still more to do. But on balance this is a good government led by a good Prime Minister."

Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick, Alan Beith, said: "Having a Prime Minister who represents a North-East seat hasn't led to any special effort going into improving the North-East's position.

"And it should have done - tackling things like the Barnett formula. Although the North-East has benefited from some improvements in the national economy, it is still a disadvantaged region."

Conservative MP for Hexham, Peter Atkinson, said: "The region is a far more prosperous place. But we've had a widening gap between the North and the South and we've had a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in the region.

"Hexham is a much more prosperous town than it was 10 years ago, but you wouldn't say the same if you went to somewhere like Easington - there's been very little progress there.

"In education and health, all the Government has done is tinker with the bureaucracy.

"One thing the Government should have done most to is infrastructure. They haven't invested in roads, the new Tyne Tunnel has taken a long time and there's been the complete failure to dual the A1.

"And the way they have spun things has reduced the standing of all politicians across the region, of all parties, who work hard for their community.

"They're now tarred with the same brush as unreliable and untruthful, which I think has damaged the country."

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