“It is time to stop pretending there is a bright future for Sunderland”

The episode of The Simpsons shown on Channel 4 last night involved the Mayor resorting to Springfield’s ‘Plan B’ and picking up the whole town and moving it by five miles, after the original site had been completely messed up through the dumping of rubbish. It seems someone from the Conservatives’ favourite think tank, the Policy Exchange, has also been viewing this particular episode and has come up with a ‘Plan B’ of their own for solving urban deprivation: move lots of people from cities like Liverpool, Hull and Sunderland to the untold wealth and possibilities of Oxford, Cambridge or London.

As someone who grew up in the North East but now lives in London, I am probably indicative of a brain drain that draws many away, either to London and the South East or to the more successfully established regional cities like Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle. However, the suggestion that simply moving people from areas characterised by low incomes to the areas where the highly skilled jobs of the information economy are concentrated is going to solve anything seems rather misplaced. Are these people going to absorb the wealth and skills of their new locations by osmosis, or are they just moving to fulfil the requirements for low paid service sector recruitment in more prosperous areas?

The suggestion in the report seems to be that government policy has done all it can to resurrect areas like this through generous regeneration budgets, but as earnings continue to rise at a lower pace here than in the South East, all such efforts must be judged as failures and in future resources should be directed elsewhere. What this misses is the fact that government policies have, in fact, been overwhelmingly skewed towards the interests of high finance and multinational capital for the past twenty five years. In other words, they have created the situation in which London and the South East overheat (spiraling house prices, strain on a crumbling infrastructure in the areas of roads, public transport, water supply) but the industrial or manufacturing base that sustained large areas of the country dwindles and dies. Therefore any complaint with regard to high levels of government spending in the North seems to ignore the fact that success in London was only made possible through the decimation of Northern industry. So the notion that prettifying of city centres and troubled housing estates or adding museums, art galleries or other assorted cultural facilities is too great a commitment seems really ridiculous.

If there is a complaint to be made about regeneration, it should rather be that it is largely just a superficial tinkering at the edges, which may improve the appearance of failing towns, or provide them with a Lottery-funded ‘showpiece’ cultural attraction, but does little to improve their long-term economic viability. So, in the case of Sunderland, they have been provided with the National Glass Centre and a number of large edge of town business parks that, for the most part, have been filled by large call-centres. It’s hardly surprising that development such as this has yet to compensate for the loss of the once dominant shipbuilding and mining industries.

For the most part, the Policy Exchange report seems to hinge on the fact that certain cities are likely to fail economically due, for the most part, to problems with their particular location: eg being on the coast, so at the end of transport lines. Surely one of the major benefits of modern communications technology is that a central location is no longer the necessity that it once was. Is it really necessary for so much government administration to be located in London, or could much of it not be located to the regions? Or, if a good location or close links to Europe are still of such great importance, should the government not be investing more heavily in our transport infrastructure – high speed rail links between major centres, much greater use of light rail or tram systems within our large towns and cities? In the case of Sunderland, one of the major tragedies for the city was that it took more than 20 years for the ‘Tyne and Wear’ Metro to actually reach the banks of the Wear – and even then the extension to Sunderland was such a half-arsed job, for the most part just using existing rail lines, that it remains largely ineffective and underused.

David Cameron has been quick to distance himself from these proposals, dubbing them “rubbish from start to finish”, but inwardly he must be seething. It has taken a long time for the Conservatives to distance themselves from the perceived image of them as being a party for London and the home counties. But now, after years in which admitting to voting Conservative in parts of Northern England would make you more of an outcast than admitting to devil worship, just as progress was being made the publicity over these proposals will once again raise suspicions over where the true heart of the Tory party lies. Although, perhaps that is actually not such a bad thing…

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~ by Steve on August 14, 2008.

One Response to ““It is time to stop pretending there is a bright future for Sunderland””

  1. […] Go on, watch it yourself, and try not to come away with the impression that people who live in the wrong part of town die earlier simply because they are stupid and workshy. They probably just spend all day sat on their fat arses, shovelling junk-food into their mouths, smoking and drinking, pausing only to bring more children into the world into whom they can inculcate similar slapdash ethics. If only they had the wit to move just a few miles down the road, they could have access to great schools and housing and their children would live forever. Maybe we should just introduce a government policy to encourage people to move out of areas of poor health and into the areas of higher life expectancy. Hmmm, that kind of logic sounds vaguely familiar… […]

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