Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Fog on the Tyne

Today the last deep coal mine in the north-east of England was forced to shut as a result of extensive flooding that occurred in the last two weeks. In many ways this signals the final end of an era for the North East, and I for one am very sorry to see the mines disappear.

This is not because I hold a deep love of mining. Indeed, there was something that was depressing about the regular cycle of north-eastern life. I remember a junior school teacher of mine telling us with pride how he was the first of the family not to go down the pit. If ever there was a dispiriting job, it was coal-mining.

Yet to go to the former pit villages of the North East today is even more depressing. Since the collapse of the coal industry, very little has come to take its place. A large number of the poorest, most deprived areas of the country are in the North East - a factor that often gets overlooked for the bleating of the need for inner-city regeneration. There are few jobs, and the community spirit that used to infuse the miners has disappeared.

For the loss of the mines sparked off a deeper cultural malaise. There is a cricket team I play against every year from Trimdon - in Tony Blair's own constituency. The ground always used to be owned and run by the Colliery Welfare organisation. Now it is run by the Parish Council and is almost totally ignored - the ground is kept up by the endeavour of some highly committed members. Even then, the clubhouse was burned to the ground last year.

The thing is, action could be taken to solve this problem. But while we have an education policy that is determined on destroying educational excellence rather than raising the standards for all, little achievement will be made. That is perhaps my strongest point. By and large, the schools in the North East are not great. With communities suffering from a lack of aspiration, it is the duty of the education system to give hope to the children of the North.

That alone will not do, however. Another major problem that faces the North East is that it is the only area of the country that suffers a net loss of population (according to the last census). The job prospects for the brightest in the area are not great - instead they get sucked away to London and other metropolitan centres. If they could be brought back to the North East, then the area would have a much stronger chance in the future. Similarly, funding formulae which divert money to Scotland and Wales at the expense of the North East should be changed.

There is a restoration of civic pride taking place - and one that I have been proud to see. The investment of the area in arts centres puts the rest of the country to shame, and it will rise above the petty prejudice of mindless snobs like Brian Sewell. It was a huge shame that Newcastle and Gateshead failed in their bid to become European City of Culture - the attention it would have brought would have generated would have been a real boost to the entire region. With the Centre for Life carrying out pioneering research that may eventually provide a cure for diabetes, there is much to be proud of.

Similarly, I read the other week that Newcastle is the boom town in Great Britain as far as new technologies go. I can only hope that this continues - for only sustained investment in the region will entice back the former sons and daughters who have fled to more prosperous climes. This is a somewhat folorn hope. But it offers the best chance for the region to prosper.

The North East has the potential to be a real success story. But for that to happen, it will need attention. It will need the media to move their focus from concentrating on urban deprivation to highlight the stark but unnoticed problems that exist in the North East. It will require a change in the education system so that the children of the North East can fulfil their potential both academically and vocationally (one under-represented group in the university sector is students from the North East). It will need a new entrepeneurial spirit and for there to be genuine job prospects for people to return to. These are achievable, if hard goals. But making the North-East a less depressing place would be a feather in the cap for the nation.