Response to The Guardian's ill-conceived article about the North East

This article is a full version of Graham Robb's regular Journal Column which will be used this week to rebutted claims in the Guardian the the North East will be 'somewhere near Detroit' in five years.


By Graham Robb North East Chairman of Institute of Directors Senior Partner, Recognition PR

I was in a full blown fit of righteous indignation at an article in last weekend’s Guardian magazine which has the audacity to compare the North East of England to Detroit in the US.

The comparison was made by a left wing writer, Alex Niven, and hyped his case beyond credibility. He suggested that in five years the situation in the North East will get “somewhere near Detroit”. Not that it matters much to him; he upped and left the North East for London 10 years ago. It’s the people in business, like my members, who are working so hard to ensure his ridiculous apocalyptic theory is wide of the mark.

Comparing the North East with Detroit is an irresponsible and foolish thing to do. Irresponsible because it’s the kind of tag that lazy investors might see and believe, foolish because it is nowhere near true. Detroit has economic and social problems that are off the scale when compared to the North East, for that reason this stupid analogy should be challenged.

In the North East the crime rate is the lowest in England at 53 crimes per 1000 of population. Detroit has one of the highest in the United States. According to Forbes Magazine, Detroit was the most dangerous city in the United States in 2012. In 2013 there were 333 murders in Detroit, in the North East murder is rare.

In 2013, Detroit was declared bankrupt, with $18.5 billion of debt and local companies begging to be paid. Despite protests by our local councils about budgets, they pay their bills.

Detroit’s population is decreasing; the North East’s is increasing, albeit at a slower rate than elsewhere in England.

The article focussed on my home town of Middlesbrough with a photograph depicting dereliction. The photographer could have literally turned a corner and seen the Digital City complex a few yards away. Last week, Digital City reported that in ten years it has created more than 537 new jobs and 264 companies, as well as attracted 12 businesses from outside the area, and supported 515 new businesses.

It made a mistake on our contribution to UK economy suggesting it was 2% when the latest figures say 3%. It ignored some positives; affordable housing for example. The average house price in the North East last year was £145,000; in London £425,000 – wages are higher but not that much higher!

The Guardian’s article is the more depressing because of its tendency to look down the nose of people who a have good, honest jobs here. When considering the redevelopment of Teesdale in Thornaby, where Mrs Thatcher was famously photographed before it was newly built, the author cannot help but observe “the car parks are full of mid-range vehicles. For three decades the North-East has been a centre for modestly paid clerical work”. Whoa! Look at him, a highly paid Guardian writer looking down his nose at people’s cars and the jobs they do. Their work at least gives them the chance to own a car; try affording one in London where your house will decimate your income and the congestion will render it useless.

The article talked about the North East Local Enterprise Partnership – completely forgetting the Tees Valley LEP but using Teesside sites to illustrate its case. It suggested the NELEP replaced the RDA when in fact the RDA was not replaced but dismantled; its resources were targeted and money was saved. Different agencies were given parts of its role. Development sites were given to agencies like the Homes and Communities Agency, which is already making good use of them – a example being the multi-million pound development on the banks of the Wear in Durham.

Tees Valley Unlimited was the region’s first LEP and has had longer to work, the results are coming in. It doesn’t measure its success by how many people it employs but by the resources that reach the local economy.

Over period 2008 – 2011, RDA offered some £15.7m to companies in the Tees Valley together with the £60m TVIP Fund which came as a result of the Corus closure.

Taking a similar three year period from 2010 TVU has secured the following sums: RGF Rounds 1 to 4 offers to companies of £118m (Round 5 applications total £42m are not included in these figures), Lets Grow £10m, direct award to TVU £17m, Business Growth Hub £2.4m, Pinch Point monies £12.4m, Growing Places Fund £8m, City Deal £2.65m, Skills Employer Pilot £2m - Total £172.45m.

The only heroes of the article are Bruce & Freddy Shepherd and Tony Trapp. In an attempt at balance they are interviewed and make constructive comments about their own enterprises, the jobs they have created and their ideas to make things better.

The Guardian violates our region by presenting an inaccurate and ill-considered impression to a global readership. When the Entrepreneurs’ Forum meets for its annual conference this week, the business owners attending will ignore it and get on with the real work in changing our region for the better.

Last week, I met clients of my firm and other people in business who are fired up to do the work of helping our region grow: the energy industry leaders at the Energy Debate conference; Ebac, which is opening a new factory this year to manufacture the only UK made washing machines; Growth Funders the only North East based crowd-funding platform which is providing small firms with access to funds from investors; Vertu Motors plc, which is based in the region and reported great profits last week. These are the heroes of the North East – people who invest, create wealth and employment. The authors of ill-conceived commentaries can only undermine their work.  Help counter the Guardian by tweeting this article!

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Response to The Guardian's ill-conceived article about the North East