Welcome to Tyneside! Welcome to the North East! Welcome to the Great North Run! This was the message last weekend as our region hosted its 37th half marathon, a half marathon that is the world’s largest.
While the single biggest group of runners comes from the North East, participants come from all over the UK. Further afield there were runners from the Republic of Ireland, our nearest EU neighbour, and from all over the rest of Europe and in fact the rest of the globe.
Last year the organisers of the Great North Run tried to get a participant from every country in the world. This campaign managed to get at least one participant from 178 out of 193 UN recognised nations. As a result we had more nations represented on the start line than in any other single running event anywhere in the world.
Here in the North East we pride ourselves on being friendly and welcoming. The region’s former development agency One North East devised the strap line ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ to help capture the essence of the region so as to better sell it to the wider world.
As a politician representing the North East, from Berwick on the Scottish border in the north to the Tees Valley in the south, I’m proud to represent a region that has such a welcoming attitude.
Yet Brexit has cast a cloud over how others see us and forces us to ask ourselves if we really are the warm and welcoming region that we think we are? The North East voted by a decisive 60% to leave the EU, no ambiguity there. While some of those who voted leave were driven to do by so by concerns around parliamentary sovereignty being taken away from Westminster and given away to Brussels, many voted to leave because of concerns around immigration. To be brutally honest these sentiments were often summed up in doorstep conversations by the phrase, ‘There are just too many of them here’.
Putting to one side the factual observation that the North East region has the lowest level of foreign born residents of any of the English regions or nations, this state of affairs presents the region’s political, civic, business, church, education, and community leaders with a genuine conundrum.
Why? Because the North East is the poorest English region. We have above average levels of unemployment, in particularly stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment. We have an ageing population such that the number of adults who are economically active will continue to decline as a percentage of the whole population, which will reduce further the wealth of the region. Many of our young people leave to take up good jobs elsewhere and never return to North East. While our universities excel at attracting ever increasing numbers of young people to live and study in our region from across the UK and impressively from all over the world, most of them haemorrhage away once their studies are complete. As a consequence business finds itself with permanent skill shortages that in turn hold back the region’s economic growth. Without changing this pattern we are in danger of remaining firmly rooted at the bottom of the regional league tables. Is this the future we want for our children?
In response the business and political community, through the region’s economic plan formulated by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP), have made it clear that the North East needs inward migration. The NELEP doesn’t stipulate where in the country or wider world these economically active folk should come from. However, they are unlikely to come from London and the South East where the economy is faring better and are most likely to come from abroad, from elsewhere in Europe and the world beyond. In other words - the very people that many leave voters would perhaps like to see fewer of. There lies the conundrum and with the UK quickly heading for the Brexit ‘finish line’, a coordinated approach at regional level must be developed.
So it’s huge congratulations to those who successfully completed the Great North Run last weekend. But perhaps a change of heart is needed if the North East is to be seen as warm and welcoming as it was to the runners."