Ben Houchen is a solicitor and Stockton Borough Councillor. He was a candidate in the recent European elections and fought the Middlesbrough by-election in 2012.
The North of England is a wonderful place – but, then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Having lived there my whole life, and having spent the last 12 months travelling to every far flung corner of the region as a European candidate, I know why the North is such a brilliant place to live. From its impressive employment growth figures and its beautiful countryside that can stand up to anywhere else in the world, to being able to buy a lovely two or three bedroom detached house for less than £120,000 – the North East has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the message that we get. In fact, it’s rarely the message that we get. Take the national and local media, for example, who can’t stop themselves from describing the North East in a largely negative way. Indeed, the only other group that is more likely to deride the North East are Labour MPs!
Their grumblings and pessimism about the North East and blaming it all on current and former Conservative Governments is constant. For example, only recently, a North East Labour MP proclaimed that things aren’t getting better, but actually worse – and pointed to the loss of 20 jobs as proof. While any job losses are unwelcome (whether it’s one or one hundred), it’s interesting that they don’t mention the fact that the North East is witnessing the largest increase in employment in the country, and that thousands of jobs are being created by businesses across the region. Every day, Labour MPs are chomping at the bit to be able to advertise how terrible the North East is. They’re excited to talk about unemployment and a lack of opportunities. They’re always first in the queue to tell people that the North East is worse than everywhere else, and that we sit around all day in a haze of hopelessness and despair.
This is not the North East that I know.
The region that I know has a lot to offer. We’ve seen significant investment in the private sector since 2010, largely led by the creation of the Local Enterprise Partnerships, with help from the Regional Growth Fund. These sub-regional bodies have been best placed to assist businesses, which has resulted in the North East going from strength to strength. We are seeing internationally acclaimed businesses coming to the region, from the now well established Nissan plant in Sunderland to the recent boon of Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe. Indeed, the recent investment from Hitachi could mean that the North East will find itself as the world’s capital for building high speed trains in the not too distant future. And let’s not forget that this Government has presided over the return of steelmaking to Teesside, which was tragically lost under the last Labour Government.
Not only are we attracting these blue chip companies, we’re also seeing a wealth of small and medium sized businesses breaking through, some aided by the hugely successful enterprise zones. This includes businesses in every sector from manufacturing and services to new technologies. We’re also seeing universities and other education establishments better engaging with business so that more and more qualifications actually mean something. A recent example of this is the excellent news of the region’s first technical college, which will be based in Newton Aycliffe and work with Hitachi, Sunderland University and others to train our engineers of the future.
Being a solicitor on Teesside and working with local businesses every day, I’ve seen first-hand the fantastic things that they are doing. I’ve seen the amazing strides that Teesside University’s Business School is taking by working closely with local businesses, the North East Chamber of Commerce, and the Institute of Directors, in order to help grow the local economy.
I see a region that has some of the most beautiful landscapes and environments in the world, from Saltburn in Recar to Berwick on the Scottish Border – and everything in between. I see a region full of opportunities and a place of real community and a collective drive to work hard and get on in life. I see a region of people and businesses that are proud of where they come from and who are fed up of being told it’s terrible.
While we can celebrate the wonderful achievements of the region over recent years, there is of course still plenty to do to reverse the systematic demolition by Labour of the North East’s image. It’s infuriating to speak to friends and colleagues from elsewhere in the UK who have been fed an image of the North East that doesn’t resemble real life, with many still seeing the region as a backwater, or a dreary place that is devoid of any opportunities.
To change this, we can’t just assume our successes will speak for themselves. Indeed, I’ve already touched on those who will take any opportunity to play down the region. What we need to do is take ownership of our own destiny and image. We need to talk about our successes much more. We need to get our friends and family talking about the region’s successes. We can’t let this false representation of the region to persist.
During recent years, I’ve done a lot of regional TV and radio and it’s always disheartening to see the long term damage caused by Labour’s negativity towards the region, which more often than not can be seen in the way things are reported both nationally and locally. We already have some fantastic representatives in the North East from my local MP, James Wharton, to Guy Opperman in Hexham. We also have some fantastic candidates in Will Goodhand fighting Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Ann Marie Trevelyan fighting Berwick and Rebecca Coulson fighting for the City of Durham seat.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty more to be done in the North East, but this is a call to arms. We need to get local people enthused about the North East. We need to get local people proudly telling others about the fantastic things the North East has to offer. It won’t be easy and it won’t change overnight, but if we don’t stand up and talk about everything the North East has to offer how can we expect anyone else to?