The January Declaration – a better deal for the North East two years on
by Peter Hetherington
North East England is a paradox. Almost 10 years after voters overwhelmingly rejected plans for a regional assembly, the main city – Newcastle upon Tyne – has a cultural and retail buzz. New hotels are springing up everywhere – ditto, restaurants – to serve a growing tourist economy geared to the city’s new status as a favourite short-break destination.
A new musical called simply the Tyne, written by Michael Chaplin – music by Sting (aka former local teacher, Gordon Sumner) – premiered at the small and beautiful Live Theatre (which gave the world the Pitman Painters and much else) – has completed a second run at the large Theatre Royal, in the magnificent classical splendour of the city’s Grey Street.
The play not only evokes a proud past, based around the Tyne – now England’s best salmon river! – but also points to a sound future built on offshore engineering, to serve North Sea oil and gas, and renewable energy.
The North East, in short, should have much to celebrate. But away from the fine buildings and the dramatic location of Newcastle and Gateshead astride the Tyne gorge and its seven bridges, deep-seated problems remain. Unemployment is the highest in Britain. Health is among the poorest in the UK. – ironically in an area with some of Britain’s best medical facilities. Educational attainment is similarly poor in a small area with four universities. New business start-ups are low. Yet the spirit of social enterprise is strong; certainly something to build on here!
But spending cuts, which will take a third out of local council budgets during the lifetime of this government, are hitting urban areas particularly hard; in the next three years, Newcastle alone will be forced to axe a further £108m from its budget. All the city’s 20 Sure Start centres, vital to address child poverty and give all children an equal start in life, are up for review. It’s a depressing picture of social regression.
Viewing the social and economic landscape over two years’ ago, seven of us around Tyneside – including Webb Memorial Trust secretary Mike Parker, and its key adviser, Barry Knight – decided to do something to address poverty, both of circumstance and of aspiration. We launched a ‘January Declaration’ in the local morning newspaper, The Journal. Almost 300 signed-up to our unofficial manifesto to deliver equity, address poverty pay and – where possible, but frankly much more difficult – clamp down on excessive pay levels in big business. We held a series of ‘themed sessions’, attended by one of our signatories, Justin Welby, now Archbishop of Canterbury, but then Bishop of (nearby) Durhan. And at the end of January, with the help of the Webb Memorial Trust and the organisational might of Barry Knight and his team, we pulled everything together with a final meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne, attended by over 100 from all walks of life – charities, business, academia, faith groups, tenants organisations, council officials, housing associations, for instance – with one aim: citizens action.
We enlisted the support of (North Shields born) Neil Jameson, head of Citizens UK, who originally launched London Citizens – instrumental in the national campaign for a ‘living wage’. And so, as The Journal reported, we laid the foundations for a potential north east citizens network, to campaign on specific social issues – perhaps addressing how alternative forces can get people into jobs, or examining how so many bright young people under-achieve at school. Just two ideas for starters.
On a show of hands, scores of attendees voted overwhelmingly to support the concept of a new organisation, after a rallying call from Jameson of Citizens UK, a London-based umbrella group which is backed enthusiastically by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Jameson’s theme was based on civil society mobilising to tackle growing injustices. Warning that half a million people were now dependent on food banks, and that homelessness was up by 34 per cent since 2010, he added. “Never has this country been as unequal as it is now…there is something we can do.”
He said in the battle to alleviate poverty 500 employers around the country, including 20 councils such as Newcastle – 19 of them Labour and one Tory – had agreed to pay the living wage of £7.65 an hour, which is £1.34 above the minimum wage. But he said other key social issues needed addressing.
The Journal generously added that the idea of a citizens network emerged from our group of seven, including former Tyne and Wear Development Corporation chairman Alastair Balls and former director general of Nexus (Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive) , Mike Parker.
Barry Knight told the conference that new initiatives were needed to fill the gap in social provision left by the government reducing the welfare state to a bare rump.
Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North ‘think tank’, who chaired part of the conference, offered support to a citizens network after warning that too many ordinary people felt powerless amidst rising poverty and inequality. He said London was now growing jobs at 10 times the rate as other parts of the country.
In a briefing note for the event, the conference organisers suggested a range of issues which might be addressed by a citizens network – from addressing the “scourge of long-term unemployment” to examining under-achievement in schools and considering whether social enterprises might “fill a vacuum left by the government’s steady contraction of the welfare state.”
The organisers said they believed a citizens groups could play a significant role in championing specific causes – although they stressed they were not in the business of directly challenging the conventional political process.
Finally, in case we needed reminding, we left the event with the words of Justin Welby – a strong supporter of Citizens UK – close to our hearts. Comparing his former home (near Durham) with his new abode (Lambeth Palace), he told a London conference last autumn: “We moved here in February (2013). It was like moving to another country and we’re both Londoners. It is so different in terms of wealth than when we went away, so different to many parts of the UK..places like the North East (where) there are huge numbers of people who have energy and ideas, and the system is simply not giving them the chance.”
So if our initiative can make a small difference in this area at least we will have achieved something. It’s just a pity about that referendum result almost 10 years’ ago. Just think what a powerful advocate for change a modest North East Assembly might have been?
Peter Hetherington, one of the ‘group of seven’, is a former Regional Affairs Editor of The Guardian. He is vice-chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association