Fighting for a better deal in the region still tops agenda

OVER the past few months, this newspaper has been setting out its ‘Case for the North East’ – a campaign designed, among other things, to ensure the region retains a distinctive voice and can develop the transport and digital connectivity to enable it to compete in the 21st Century.

OVER the past few months, this newspaper has been setting out its ‘Case for the North East’ – a campaign designed, among other things, to ensure the region retains a distinctive voice and can develop the transport and digital connectivity to enable it to compete in the 21st Century.

Campaigning political journalism of this sort is nothing new for The Journal. More than a decade ago the paper launched a similar campaign called the Case for the North.

Although that sounds as if it was about what has since become known as the “generic North,” including the North West and Yorkshire, it wasn’t really. It was always about eliminating the disadvantages faced by this region.

Essentially the goals of the two campaigns are the same – a better deal for the North East in a country where economic and political power tends to be concentrated in London and the South East.

What gave Case for the North its underlying moral force was the existence of the North-South prosperity divide.

What gave it its topicality was the widespread feeling that a Labour government stuffed full of North East MPs and elected partly with North East votes was ignoring its heartlands.

The Case for the North was more explicitly about the need for a fairer allocation of government spending.

That issue has not gone away. The Barnett Formula still delivers a funding advantage to Scotland of £446 per head compared to the North East, which equates to an additional £2.25bn a year in public expenditure.

But with public spending across the board likely to face a squeeze over the next few years, now was probably not the time to revive a campaign for additional funding for worse-off regions.

This does not invalidate the original arguments, so much as reinforce the point that New Labour squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something about regional inequalities at a time when rising public spending overall could have masked such large-scale redistribution.

Furthermore, although tackling the regional funding divide is not an explicit aim of the Case for the North East, the campaign’s actual stated aims are bound to bring funding issues into play.

Inevitably, the original Case for the North also became caught up with the debate over regional governance which, in the 90s and early 00s, was advancing hand-in-hand with the rising concern over regional economic disparities.

Although the campaign was never really about ‘home rule’ as such, democratically-elected regional government was seen by many at the time as a better vehicle for tackling the prosperity gap. It remains my view that a properly-empowered, properly-funded assembly might by now have begun to make the same sort of inroads into the prosperity divide as both the Scottish and Welsh administrations have done.

Now the arguments have moved on. Where once the debate was about whether institutions such as OneNorthEast should come under the control of a democratically elected assembly, now it’s about whether institutions such as OneNorthEast should exist at all.

The Tories now seem to be rowing back from earlier excitable talk of scrapping RDAs in their first month in office, but beneath the surface, they continue distrust regionalism.

Then again, aside from having established the RDAs in the first place, Labour’s own response to the issues raised by the Case for the North has been, at best, confused and at worst mendacious.

It first of all tried to deny the prosperity divide existed, then when forced to admit that it did, fatuously claimed in 2003 that there was “no link” between this and levels of regional funding.

If the government had a strategy at all, it was probably best encapsulated in the “Northern Way” initiative, but that was always much more about Leeds and Manchester than it ever was about Newcastle and Sunderland.

And other Government initiatives ostensibly designed to address the prosperity gap, such as the Lyons Review on the relocation of public sector staff from London, ultimately produced little discernible benefit.

North-East voters with the interests of the region at heart face a potentially stark choice between the two main parties.

Should they punish Labour for its abject failure to do more to address the needs of the region over the past 13 years, or should they re-elect it for fear of what a Tory administration might do instead?

The Journal’s Case for the North campaign put the issue of regional economic prosperity on the mainstream political agenda, but the questions it posed were never adequately answered.

Ten years on, it is right that these questions are posed again.

Paul Linford was Political Editor of The Journal from 1997 to 2004 and, together with the newspaper’s then Editor Mark Dickinson, devised the original Case for the North campaign. As well as continuing to write his Saturday column for the paper, he is now Editor of the journalism website HoldtheFrontPage.

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