Nifco produce car parts: innovative little gadgets with fancy names like ‘high liquid sealability valves’ and ‘suction filters with integrated strainer function’. Yesterday they announced that they’d beaten off worldwide competition to win their biggest contract yet: a £50m multi-year deal with Ford, to make essential components for low-CO2 engines.
Nifco is a regional success story, and it’s an apt example of Conservative success, too.
This futuristic factory – in the heart of the Stockton South constituency – was also the scene of another announcement yesterday: the Chancellor setting the latest of his batch of regional economic plans.
Yet, as we’ve previously learnt in Yorkshire and the North West, these plans don’t just focus on regions in isolation: their strength is the connectivity and innovation that has come to characterise the overall vision of Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Give each area a tailored approach, and they will, when brought together, emerge into something much much stronger.
Stockton itself exemplifies regional Conservative success. Not only does it boast local-boy MP, James Wharton – whose 2010 victory doubled the number of Conservative seats up here, and who has quickly become a popular and effective local MP and parliamentarian. It also typifies historic Conservative regeneration success, in the form of the Teesside Development Corporation, set up by Thatcher to reignite its post-coal economic wasteland. New party-led strategies, such as Enterprise Zones, replicate the TDC’s successful approach. We need as much localised, sustainable opportunity as we can get up here, and this is what Osborne offered yesterday.
Standing in front of a laid-back-cool campaign poster – inspired by the kind of technical drawing no doubt going on in the offices above his classic high-vis shop-floor speech venue – Osborne outlined an immensely positive and yet practical plan for the North East.
At its centre was the creation of jobs and backing of business that is already turning everyday life around, up here. He promised more than 50,000 extra new jobs over the next parliament – jobs created by exploiting individual areas’ existing strengths. As well as announcing support for companies and corporations big and small, beneficiaries included world-leading scientific research in Newcastle, and the tourist industry in Northumberland, where investment in local favourites, such as Lindisfarne Castle, hopes to draw more than 150,000 extra visitors to the region each year.
Manufacturing and business commitments were supported by respective commitments to train the workforce their expansion will need. This comes, not least, in the form of a new UTC in Newcastle, and in £1.4m of government funding to Northern giant, Nissan – match-funded by the company – to train much-needed engineers.
Transport featured heavily, again reflecting the joint approach of these long-term regional plans. We heard of new connections, easier journeys, and a promise to help the North East benefit from the HSR projects: a proposal that 140mph trains could decrease journey times between Newcastle and York, thus making travel between Newcastle and Manchester (the real epicentre of the Northern Powerhouse) 25 per cent faster.
Pressing local projects such as the ‘dualling’ of the A1, and the widening of the Western bypass, were given support, and a major review was announced, with the aim to protect Northern airports from duty disparity in the wake of increased Scottish devolution.
Indeed, the d-word popped up several times. Following this week’s announcements about new approaches to local governance in Manchester, it was hardly a shock to hear Osborne talk about being open to the increased devolution of power up here, and the need for a stronger North-East voice.
When questioned over whether these ambitious pledges were just expediency for the forthcoming election, all Osborne had to do was ask to be judged on his record. Because that’s what’s really impressive about all of this. Yes, the plan was unveiled at a useful time, in a useful place – but none of its content was surprising. Instead, it’s a continuation of the approach that has typified this parliament’s standout commitment to the North.
Osborne’s Tiggerish positivity was backed up by the North East’s current success in the national league tables. Swiftest growing region last quarter. Jobs created at the fastest rate in the country. Earnings up by four times the national average. Greatest number of new small businesses. The only region to export more than it imports.
Yes, some of these feats hang on the North East having started out from a worse place than its sister regions: when unemployment is rife, a few new jobs will make comparative statistics look good. But why does that lessen achievement? And we’re not just talking about a few new jobs, anyway; we’ve gained 19,000 in the North East over the last quarter alone. Successful regeneration is most effective and appreciated where it’s truly needed. Do an Osborne, and think positively about this: the only way is up.
And this brings us back to Nifco – its towering machinery and shiny floors exuding happy safety, in sharp blues, yellows, and greys (no, definitely not a coalition portent!) Its recent expansion – including the newly-opened R&D space in which the Chancellor spoke – was supported by a £1.9m Regional Growth Fund award. This, alongside their winning of the Ford contract, is the way forward, up here.
As Osborne proclaimed, ‘It’s not just big state supporting big business.’ And neither is it the endless expensive unlocalised schematic failure of the Labour years. Instead, it’s the magic combination of public and private sector investment, working together to support sustainable, sensible innovation. It’s practical, it’s positive, and it’s potent – because, as summarised to me by James Wharton this afternoon, ‘It’s the Conservatives who are bringing real change here.’