“More and Better Jobs”. A great slogan and one that as a region we should focus on.
Here in the North East we live in the poorest English region and sadly we sit at the bottom of many league tables. So the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), which came up with the slogan, is absolutely right to put jobs at the centre of its strategic economic plan.
However, although we have above average unemployment as a region we are predicted to lose 60,000 working age people in the next 20 years. This is because of our ageing population, and the percentage of people who are not economically active is set to grow faster than the birth rate. Many of our young people are leaving and don’t return. Business leaders from companies big and small tell me that we face skills shortages in a range of occupations. We are particularly short of entrepreneurs who will create the jobs of the future.
If we are to be economically successful and create more and better jobs we need to tackle this demographic challenge head on. We need inward migration. So does it really matter where from - London or Manchester, Paris or Delhi?
In contrast with this sits the decision of the North East to leave the EU in last year’s referendum. On doorsteps across the region I listened to concerns about immigration. In the context of insecure work and low incomes this is understandable. But there is now a real danger that we have sent a message that says ‘You’re not welcome’.
We can’t argue with population figures. So have the people of the North East voted, by a majority of 60%, in favour of remaining the poorest English region? As the Prime Minister is all set to trigger Article 50 I don’t believe this is what people want for their future.
But we won’t have more and better jobs in Ashington or Gateshead, Sunderland or Consett unless we can persuade people, including people from overseas, to live and work here.
We pride ourselves in the North East of being a very friendly region. But an increase in hate crime and the examples I have heard of EU citizens being made to feel unwelcome makes me wonder about this. Recently I was told: “I’m French and I’ve lived in the UK for seven years and my neighbour has never spoken to me. The day after the referendum she spoke to me for the first time and she said, “Well you’ll have to go home now, won’t you””.
I spent some time last week in Brussels talking to an Austrian manufacturer of engineered timber products (they made the wooden beams for the Sunderland Aquatic Centre) with a view to seeing if I could entice him to set up a factory next to one of our deep sea ports. For two hours I was a salesman selling the North East region. I’d bought the relevant Ordnance Survey maps and I had them laid out between us; I showed him the good rail and road links, timber from Kielder and Scotland, green electricity coming soon from Norway, a workforce who are passionate about ‘making things’.
So what if he says, 'Yes' and would like to come and take a look at some development sites? What happens if he wants to send a couple of his German speaking staff here to help set things up? Would they want to relocate to the UK post Brexit and to a region that voted 60% leave? Would they be welcome?
We need to address how we view people who are not local for the sake of building an open, strong, vibrant and prosperous region.
NELEP’s plan has some great ideas of how we can improve our region’s prospects but this needs to be a joint effort, with a role for everyone. Hence, now is the time to take the plunge and set up that business you’ve always thought about. Now is the time to take that evening course which will lead you to that better job. Now is the time to come out of retirement and mentor a young person to pass on your skills. Now is the time to make a contribution to building a better North East.