The North/South divide

April 1, 2021

Teesside’s success and the north of the region’s lack thereof in the bid to be one of eight UK freeports has reignited the debate around what exactly the North East is and whether or not there is a regional North/South divide. Richard Dawson speaks to Lucy Winskell, chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, and Peter Snaith, partner and head of manufacturing at law firmWomble Bond Dickinson, to find out how the collaborative spirit of the region’s business community can help put differences to one side and ensure that the benefits of Teesside’s freeport status are widely shared.

Is Teesside part of the North East? Well, according to the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) codes of the United Kingdom, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.

But if you were to ask someone from Middlesbrough, Hartlepool or Redcar and Cleveland where they came from, would they say the North East or Teesside?

While the geographical boundaries of the North East region are absolute – 2.66 million people living under one roof – any given local person’s sense of place or spatial identity is much more difficult to ascertain.

The answer to the question, “where are you from?”, is different for everyone and depends on a complex mix of anthropological factors such as family, culture, values and beliefs.

In the microcosm that is the North East, there is no uniform sense of belonging.

Each area has its own history and its own story to tell.

But if you look at the map of the UK, there is only one North East, indivisible, and perhaps fostering more of a collaborative spirit would enable us to change our status as being the smallest economy of the nine English regions.

The North East business community has form in this endeavour.

Both the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) jointly deliver business support and economic development programmes across the whole region, and there are many examples of the 12 local authorities and three combined authorities collaborating with each other on funding bids and inward investment.

“The North East LEP and TVCA are both partners of Energi Coast,” explains Lucy Winskell, chair of the North East LEP. “The North East and Tees Valley also work together as part of the North East Growth Hub, jointly developing workshops and outreach activities to support businesses and help them get through Brexit and COVID-19.

“There are also plenty of examples of different local authorities working together to ensure inward investment lands locally.”

However, the recent announcements regarding Teesside getting freeport status and a new Treasury economic campus while Tyneside missed out on both, has reignited the debate about there being a divide between the North of the region and the South.

Rishi Sunak didn’t help matters. The Chancellor made four references to Teesside in his Budget speech, but there was no mention of the North East.

Lucy says: “When we received the news that our bid for the North East England freeport was unsuccessful, we were bitterly disappointed.”

Peter Snaith, partner and head of manufacturing at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, which worked on the Teesside freeport bid, adds: “Notwithstanding the widespread impact that one freeport can have, I was very much hoping to see two freeports being designated for the North East.”

Of course, Teesside’s triumph does not come at the expense of the wider North East, and both Lucy and Peter talk up the ancillary benefits and opportunities that will come off the back of the new freeport and Treasury hub.

“The Teesside freeport will support the offshore wind, clean energy and advanced manufacturing sectors and these are all key sectors for the whole of the North East region, not just Teesside,” says Lucy.

“Supply chains will be built around investment whichever bit of the North East gets that investment.”

That being said, there is a perception, perhaps driven by images of Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson walking around Teesport in high-vis the day after the Budget, that the freeport belongs to Teesside, rather than the North East.

Peter adds: “Irrespective of the difference in approach between the North and South of our region, we need to find ways to work as one.”

Part of that equation is about unifying the people of the North East as belonging to one region, putting differences, which have been stoked by generations of tribal rivalries, to one side.

It is here where the business community has such an important role to play.

Peter says: “Coming from a family with a history of doing business for 150 years in Darlington, but having lived for most of my life in Newcastle, I sense how dedication to our sub-regions can sometimes deny us the potential of drawing on our wider resources.

“We should acknowledge what we can do for each other because we are much stronger together.”

One North East was an economic development body that embodied this spirit of working together, speaking for the whole of the North East from Darlington to Berwick and everything in between.

Since its abolition in 2012, the regional development picture has become more fragmented, as the recent Budget demonstrated.

But there is still an appetite for working together to make the region more investable and productive.

The question is, how do we maximise it?

Lucy says: “I am a great believer in evolution.

“The work didn’t stop when the doors closed on One North East and in particular, the talent, knowledge and expertise of the people that worked there, didn’t disappear.

“Now, we need to work with Government to understand what levels of investment it is prepared to make because we have a joint ambition of creating more and better jobs to level up and further unlock the industrial potential of the North East.”

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