David Cliff: It is time the North East shook off its inertia and demanded change

The chairman of the Institute of Directors' Northern Sector Group on how the North East has been let down - and how it can respond

'The Response' war memorial at The Haymarket in Newcastle
'The Response' war memorial at The Haymarket in Newcastle

When I was a small child, my sense of awe defied description when I saw the war memorial outside of Newcastle Civic Centre referring to “The Response”.

The century after the start of that conflict, one can only reflect on the incredible sense of community and strong values that people had to give up their everyday lives and band together, often several generations of whole families to go off to defend something they believed in.

Sacrifice on that scale should never be seen again. However one cuts it, war is futile even if it does bring out the very best of human kind.

I have been fortunate, in common with generations to have lived free of the sight of war upon our own homeland. For this, I count myself lucky.

But there are conflicts at home, lying beneath the surface, that have yet to be addressed. I would not liken these in any way to the demand of the patriotism of the first and second world conflicts but, nonetheless, these subtle, unaddressed issues need to be righted as guns will never sound over them, nor will lives be lost in the traditional sense of an armed conflict. I refer to the hidden war of inequality that now exists within our society.

In the days of the regional development agency nobody wanted to see the North East as a “remedial” case. No one looks for special treatment, preferential arrangements, a boost to something that is so far away from Westminster.

No one wants to see Scotland with its large land mass and low population prejudiced as a substantially rural community, but many heads have been turning north in envy over the latitude given to them by our political classes.

Between Holyrood and Westminster there is a funding depression that exists that denigrates the memory of those brave ancestors, those brave sons (and daughters) of the North that gave up their lives for what they believed to be something better.

The inequalities of the tax spend are a matter of public record. We see recently that even the National Lottery disproportionality favours London and the Home Counties in a way that cannot be justified on any rational social and economic argument.

We increasingly live in a world of elites who believe they actually understand what most people have to endure each day.

We live in the irony of a former socialist administration that went right of centre to get elected, that then mismanaged the economy so badly that quantitative easing was introduced, making the rich so much richer whilst everyone else suffers. And yet it pours scorn, with massive hypocrisy, upon the current administration and alleges it has generated a cost of living crisis.

Diplomacy is not particularly the solution here. Those of good heart in the North East actually need to bond together; business associations, local politicians, captains of public administration and others, to join in one voice for this area.

Around the table influencing and garnering speeches from the “great and good” serve only to cover over the growing inequality that this region tolerates whilst those with real influence of the region still use conventional means to put their messages over.

What we need is a voice for the North, not another set of ossified structures where we substitute one set of Westminster elites for a northern set of elites because, let’s face it, we know they are there.

We know that with every initiative that is parachuted in with minimal consultation, tight deadlines and expediencies that exclude, as much as create, real progress.

We need a fair deal for the North and a fair deal between us within the North to ensure that even the smallest voices in our community are heard and responded to, that every aspiration is taken seriously, supported, cultivated.

For those involved in education and business growth, we need to get out of the mentality of people “sitting on seats” equals income and move towards outcomes and models of true social worth in our corporate activity.

We have the legislation, it’s been there for a few years so is it perhaps not time to start using it properly and encourage our masters down the road to do the same?

In revisiting those cold brave figures at that memorial, I look forward with the hope that they have. I muse upon the dilemmas for the North as not being like an armed conflict yet people live shorter lives here, have fewer opportunities, struggle with social mobility, mental illness, despair, homelessness.

It’s time for political change as well. I’m not advocating Ukip, nor am I advocating a cartel of red that cushions the region amidst a heritage of false identification with a political movement that has moved on so much whilst still espousing half-baked “initiative” measures around poverty that ultimately compound this.

I call for local businesses to shout out about their incumbent status, seeking from Westminster at least the support that some of our inward investment partners from overseas receive.

Those organisations know who they are: they’re vested in the North East: they don’t expect a hand-out, when a little bit of sabre-rattling by others about relocation to another country sends politicians hopping to the treasury for financial incentives.

As I go around small businesses, as I see people in communities, as I talk with them in a way in which they are too despondent to talk with politicians and other leaders, the underlying inertia is endemic. It is for those who lead to now do so and ensure this agenda is not lost to a generation of despair.

A hundred years on, there is a “Response” needed of a very different type. It isn’t about heroism or patriotism. It is about social justice and fairness. It is about honouring our fellow citizen in an organised society, where mass warfare is a distant memory, individual rights are celebrated and we enable our fellows to a better life for all.

  • David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group

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