Happy New Year!
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As I start the New Year I reflect on the words of a Christmas Carol I sang at Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve; ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’. And I ask myself, ‘does hope trump fear?’
Last year some of our fears were realised but our hopes came true too. We entered a double dip recession but unemployment started to fall, 17.9% in the North East in 2012. There were also massive turnarounds in industries like car production and steel; the job losses announced in 2009 were effectively reversed in 2012.
On a very personal basis, I have reason to elevate hope over fear in 2013. My wife is facing a real battle with cancer. Last year started with a terrible operation and radical treatment but ended in remission. Naturally, we are concerned that remission will be short lived but we have every reason to be grateful to live in the North East. Here, we have the excellent facilities of the NHS in Middlesbrough and Newcastle, with the outstanding Bobby Robson Cancer Unit providing hope for thousands of patients and their families. It is here, in the great North East, that people spontaneously offer the love and support that has been born of facing years of adversity with fortitude and a generous spirit.
New Year’s day is a time for coming together. Positivity not partisanship is needed today. I am a Conservative to my finger tips but I’m sure my friends in the Labour Party will recognise some of the good things that are now happening in our region; just as I recognise their real concerns that local government budgets are being hit hard and that people on in-work and out-of-work benefits will worry about the cap in benefits rises. The debate about the deficit and the need to control public spending can happen another day but we can start the New Year with one certainty; the best form of welfare is a job and progress is being made to secure and create the jobs required.
Since 2010 the North of East has been allocated £382 million of investment from the Regional Growth Fund, which can create or safeguard 72,000 jobs. Exports from the North East are also promising: according to HMRC and UKTI, they reached record levels in the year to June 2012, amounting to £14 billion - an increase of 7.8% on the previous year. The North East is now the only region in the UK which exports more than it imports.
The Government's tax policies will also make a real great difference for working people in the North East: since 2010, 90,000 people in the North East have been lifted out of Income Tax altogether as a result of increases in the basic tax threshold. This year many thousand more will have a cut in tax as a result of the threshold rising; money that can be spent in our local economy. From April, in my home town of Darlington 31,906 people will have slightly more cash in their pay packets and in Newcastle it is around 150,000 people.
Last year was London’s year for big events - the jubilee and Olympics. This year, instead of a massive spotlight on the Capital we need thousands of smaller lights from the individual successes of small enterprises here in the North East - the result would be better than the one off boost to growth the Olympics gave London. It could be a permanent rebalancing of our economy. Fortunately it has already started. North East towns are now seeing record numbers of new business start-ups.: Darlington saw record start-ups of 140 in the first quarter of 2012 and Sunderland saw its highest ever level of company formations - 171 in quarter two, 2012. In Newcastle and Middlesbrough, start-ups in quarter one and quarter two 2012 saw a return to pre-2007 levels of company formation.
I think the answer to my question is ‘Yes’, hope can conquer fear but we need hope in our hearts to begin with. It won’t be long before the media turn up the gloom index and we hear about the most depressing day of the year, normally the third Monday in January! I for one will remain grateful I live in a region of friendly people, with kind temperaments and resilient personalities. This matters more than any of the arguments about politics or economics. Hope comes from within people and commentators in the media and politics should not try to extinguish it. So, although we may fear the worse, let us hope for the best and work towards it with a kind and generous spirit.
Happy New Year.