EUROPE can learn from the regeneration of the North East, according to Finland’s ambassador to the UK. Pekka Huhtaniemi labelled Newcastle a shining beacon of cultural and industrial reinvention when he visited the city yesterday.
But he warned it was important for the region that the UK remains an “important member” of the European Union.
“There is traditionally an affinity between North East England and the Nordic countries,” said the ambassador.
“Newcastle is known in Finland as an industrial city. You have a glorious past as a great industrial centre based on coal and shipbuilding, but obviously a lot of those industries have disappeared. The North East has really succeeded with the problem of what to do next.
“I am sure it has been a long and difficult process, but the region has been able to create new, dynamic industries in the sectors of chemical industries, microelectronics, pharmaceuticals and offshore energy.
“Newcastle can provide some useful lessons to Finland in how to be successful in regeneration.”
Mr Huhtaniemi, who is normally based in London, was visiting the North East ahead of a conference on the position of the North East in Europe and the global economy.
As part of his trip he toured The Sage Gateshead, as well as Newcastle’s St Nicholas’ Cathedral.
“The creative industries have been revitalised too,” he said.
“The Baltic art gallery is well-known in Finland, Finnish artists have exhibited there. And The Sage is almost a symbol of regeneration. You don’t expect that kind of avant garde building in this landscape. It is provocative, but I think it is provocative in a positive way.
“Even the football - in Newcastle there is a huge stadium which is almost always full, and in Sunderland it is the same. It creates a buzz in the economy.”
Mr Huhtaniemi said the North East sits in the “Northern arc” of the EU, which also takes in Scandinavia, the Baltic states and developing markets in Russia.
Finnish companies such as engineering firm Wärtsilä, which has a base in Newton Aycliffe, have already embraced the region while industries such electric vehicles could create opportunities for co-operation.
But he estimates that no more than 100 Finns live in Northumberland, and the challenge remains to shake an image of the region shaped by 1990s TV.
“The Finnish love British TV, every day at 9am they show Heartbeat. A lot of people think the whole of the UK is like Yorkshire,” he said.
“Ordinary Finnish people still think of places like Newcastle as centres of declining industry, but it is part of my job to change that.”
However, his country fears those links could be damaged if David Cameron bows to pressures within his party and pulls out of Europe, Mr Huhtaniemi said.
“Finland is quite worried about this tendency in Britain to put a certain distance between herself and Europe,” he said. “Our politicians have expressed the wish that Britain would not contemplate leaving the EU.
“It could be very damaging to the EU, to Britain’s friends in the EU, and to Britain herself. She would lose some important assets. We hope that Britain remains an important member of the EU.”