Battered towns in northern England test Johnson’s plan to ‘take it to the next level’

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REDCAR, England – Standing 180 feet tall, the coal bunker that towered over the skyline of the former steelworks in northeast England was weathered, discolored and an eyesore to some who lived nearby. Yet it was such a symbol of the region’s industrial heritage that activists fought to stop its demolition.

They never had any luck. The tower stood in the way of an economic development project, and last month controlled explosions reduced only a few crumpled remains on a landscape littered with relics of Britain’s Rust Belt.

The demolition was part of an effort to convert the 4,500-acre site into a “free port” or low-tax zone, which will build wind turbine blades and focus on clean energy and advanced manufacturing. .

Redcar is more than just a city in transition, however. This is part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s far-reaching plan to extend the good life beyond prosperous South East England to the neglected areas of the center and north of the country – a policy he does not never defined but called it “leveling up”.

The concept has since become a central pillar of Mr Johnson’s agenda, which he says will shape his legacy as a British leader. He considers it so important that last month he entrusted one of his most capable ministers, Michael Gove, with the task of turning a vague set of aspirations into a strategy – a strategy that can improve performance. the lives of working-class voters in the North who helped the Conservative Party win a landslide election victory two years ago.

The issue will likely be at the center of the party’s annual conference, which begins in Manchester on Sunday.

It’s places like Redcar, a North Sea town of about 38,000 residents, where Mr Johnson’s ambitions will be tested. Like many other cities in the North, it was hit by deindustrialization and thousands of jobs were lost when the steel complex closed in 2015.

On one of his first days on the job, Mr Gove traveled to Redcar to visit the nascent freeport project at the steelworks site, known as Teesworks, then telling reporters: come here.”

Walking his dog near the steelworks where he was employed in the 1970s, Stephen Bradbury, 73, hardly regretted the demolition of the tower, a silo-shaped structure that held 5,000 tons of coal.

“Good riddance,” he said, recalling his time as an electrician at the resort. “The neighborhood suffered when it closed, but we have to move on. “

Yet Mr Bradbury was not entirely convinced Mr Johnson’s favorite project would revitalize the region. “You will never level the North and the South,” he said.

Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley and influential member of Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party, said it would take years to move upmarket. He compared the economic disparity between the north and south of England to the division between East Germany and West Germany after the country united.

But Mr. Houchen, one of the main architects of the development program, said leveling was the “no. 1 policy ”and on which Mr Johnson would be tried.

“At the end of the day, a government that wants to rule for the whole country has to do something about it if it is to win the next election,” he said, adding, “You have to do something about it. very dramatic to be able to move the dial, and something like Teesworks is doing: 20,000 jobs over the next 12 years.

Yet some analysts believe that there are so many complex and interwoven problems in neglected areas of the country that “leveling” is likely to fail. And if the lack of specificity allows the government to avoid alienating anyone for now, it will eventually catch up with them.

“Politically, if you don’t define it, then everyone’s leveling up is appealing,” said Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Center for Cities, a research institute. “If you define it, you start to exclude people and start to annoy people.” “We shouldn’t just focus on creating more jobs – but if we can, so much the better – we should focus on life expectancy, health outcomes and skills,” a- he declared.

For these kinds of projects, known as regeneration in Britain to be successful, not only must there be companies willing to hire, but also workers with the right skills and qualifications – and a transport network that can handle them. get to work.

As the crow flies, it is less than 10 miles from Redcar to Hartlepool, another town that has suffered greatly from deindustrialization, but without a bridge to connect them, the journey takes 45 minutes by car. It takes even longer by train.

So an increase in job creation at Redcar’s new site is unlikely to help Ian Jennings. After a spell of unemployment Mr Jennings, 49, has a job at a factory in Hartlepool and would like to move on to something better.

Unemployment in Hartlepool is around 8 percent, well above the national average of around 5 percent.

Hartlepool is also expected to get a ‘free port’ in the area of ​​its docks, although there are no details yet on what will happen there.

“There are a lot of promises made and one government is just as bad as the other,” Jennings said, “but I can’t see a lot of things happening in my life.

Poor diet and poor health have also taken their toll on life expectancy in Hartlepool. Outside of the Wharton Trust, a charity, there is a queue of around 50 people for free food near the end of its shelf life that a Tesco supermarket has donated.

Sacha Bedding, chief executive of the trust, warns of a short-term crisis, with rising prices for heat and food combined with the end of larger social assistance that was provided during the pandemic.

“The scale of where we find ourselves in the places left behind is huge,” he said, citing the delay in school results. Looking for a silver liner, he added: “At least people talk about ‘leveling up’, even though no one fully understands what it is.”

The upgrade plan should, he added, “be our Marshall Plan for the decade if it is to make sense; it is reconstruction on a scale that we have probably never done in peacetime. The concern was that instead of producing a 10-year plan and empowering communities with money, the government tended to chase the headlines and “shoot from the hip,” he said. declared.

In Redcar, Rachel Woodings of Coatham House, a charity that supports homeless youth, said many residents were about to be evicted or were surfing on sofas, simply staying where they could spend the night with friends.

“Young people don’t have the same opportunities,” she says. “It’s a lack of jobs. It’s probably a skill set that’s missing as well. These are the same issues that are circulating.

It is not just young people who are struggling. Sharon Nicolson, 54, who is unemployed, said she sometimes applied for 30 jobs in a week.

“You can’t survive on £ 60 a week when I have to pay for electricity, feed, dress – that’s ridiculous,” she said, referring to her welfare benefits.

Returning near the abandoned steel mills, John Nelson, 66, described how those who grew up nearby almost inevitably ended up accepting the many jobs that were once available.

“My father worked here, so when I left school I was scheduled to work at British Steel,” he said, referring to the company that at one point operated the huge factory. .

But in the end, he chose another path, starting his own business; none of his children went to work there. Mr Nelson said he welcomed the demolition of old industrial buildings.

“I know some people see beauty in it, but most of the people who talk about it have never worked there or had nothing to do with it,” he said of those who campaigned in vain to save the tower.

“You have to move on and make a living,” he said.


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