I often say the North East is not a problem for the UK to solve but a massive opportunity for growth. We have so much to offer that could really boost the whole economy from tremendous tourism destinations to global scientific excellence.
One of the factors that is at the root of what has held us back historically, is the totally disproportionate level of funding per head that goes to different parts of the UK on everything from culture to transport. This has to be addressed, particularly following the experience of the pandemic which has impacted our region more than most.
We had been making some small gains and narrowing the gap between ourselves and the rest of the country before Covid. These tiny pieces of progress have been wiped out and will need additional support to be reinvigorated and deliver for the future.
Let me be clear about the extent of support we need to be completely ‘levelled up’.
Firstly, Health. Our region’s poor statistics on life expectancy, due in part, to our industrial heritage, has impacted heavily on our elderly generation. Covid has hit many communities extremely hard – there were too many existing health conditions which were exacerbated by the virus.
Secondly, Employment. The figures paint a picture of our region which show that we are not going in as positive a direction as the rest of the country, or as quickly. We had the highest rate of unemployment before the pandemic and it has deteriorated since.
Thirdly, Transport Infrastructure. Many of our members’ business success is reliant on efficient transport regionally, nationally and (in normal times) internationally. It has been written about many times but it is worth stating again. Our East Coast Main Line, for example, is not fit for purpose.
It is Victorian infrastructure which is badly in need of replacement. Victorian! It was built before even our great-grandparents were probably using the trains. The problem with this creaking system is that it hasn’t enough capacity for the busy passenger and freight traffic which relies on it today. There is only one track in each direction. Slow freight is forced to make way for faster passenger trains, where there is the space for them to do so. Antiquated doesn’t begin to cover it.
In the North East we have an exceptional track record in international trade. In fact, before Brexit, we were the only region with a positive balance of trade. Unfortunately, due to the lack of preparation by Government and the late hour Brexit agreement, our exporters have been severely affected by mountains of red tape and delays, with no perceptible advantages.
Despite all this, the Chamber view, representing over 2,500 members, is that we certainly deserve levelling up but that, with the right support, we have the potential to fly and become a true economic powerhouse second to none.
About the Author: James Ramsbotham is the chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce