August 27, 2008

Forget Heathrow, Expand Newcastle


THE recent report by the Policy Exchange, which suggested that regeneration money spent in the North was largely wasted, and people should be encouraged to move South instead, predictably caused a furore in this area.

I am not going to add to this.

Plenty of other people have sounded off. What I am going to do is take the argument on.

We need to engage with the arguments put forward, rather than simply denounce them. The report is actually about cities, and argues that it looks at "what is possible and what is not, about what works and what does not". That is a sentiment with which I would certainly agree.

The second part of the report, which has been less well publicised, states: "We propose that the Government should roll up current regeneration funding streams and allocate the money to local authorities according to a simple formula based on the inverse of their average income levels." (In other words the worst off would get most.) Sounds attractive. An area like the one where I live would do well. But let us think it through a bit.

The problem with the North East, and other areas which used to rely on industry, is the lack of diverse career opportunities, particularly in the knowledge and media based industries. Traditionally, London has always been a financial centre and that is not likely to change, but other industries such as advertising, film making, and IT-linked industries do not have to locate in any part of the country, and these industries provide interesting career opportunities, particularly for the young. So how do we get them to come here?

The North East has excellent schools and universities, but the problem is many of the graduates leave for the South because of the lack of career opportunities here.

London is near Europe, where most of our markets are. The North East is not very big and we need to link with other places where people are. Most people in business and industry agree that if we are to improve our prospects we need to improve our transport links, both to the rest of the United Kingdom and to Europe.

So, forget about the third runway at Heathrow, and expand Newcastle and Teesside airports. Much of the present traffic into Heathrow is connecting flights with other parts of the country, and if there were more direct flights to regional airports there would be less need for these.

Better rail links would also reduce the need for internal flights. It would benefit the environment and the only losers would be BAA's shops.

We need to look seriously at the possibility of a new high speed line to the North East if the present one is overloaded. These are things that national governments have to do, not individual councils.

So why should people in the South support such ideas, if they mean spending more money away from London? Most of them think the city is already overcrowded, with a transport system that finds it hard to cope. There is vigorous opposition to plans to build new "eco-towns" near London, and what countryside is left round London is strongly defended.

The proposed third runway at Heathrow is unpopular too.

People might actually welcome schemes to promote development outside the South East to relieve the pressure on it. Have the authors of the reports actually asked people in the areas round London as well as Oxford and Cambridge what they think of the proposals to expand these cities?

I am very proud of what councils in the North East have done to regenerate the area and make it a better place to live. A cash bonanza for local councils might sound attractive, but it is not going to solve our problems. Better transport links would and help the South East too.

David Taylor-Gooby is a Labour councillor in Peterlee, County Durham

The problem with areas that used to rely on industry is the lack of diverse career opportunities.

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