Political Promise

Middlesbrough: Death by a Thousand Cuts

In Uncategorized on September 17, 2010 at 9:51 am

New PP writer Dominic Smith speaks of the economic plight of his hometown, Middlesbrough.

Middlesbrough, the town of my birth, has recently been discovered to be the part of the country least able to deal with the impact of economic shock or public spending cuts.  The town is a relic of industrialisation, illuminated at night by the burning of the plant and yet deadened by the plumes of ashen smoke billowing from its many grey towers. A hundred years ago Middlesbrough was the nation’s jewel, a town built on steel that drove the economy forward and kept Britain at the cutting edge of innovation and prosperity whilst nurturing closely knit communities and a motivated workforce.

Industrial growth in Teesside led Britain into the 20th century, and fuelled innovation in public services. The NHS was established, a service so radical and ahead of its time that even the most piecemeal healthcare reform is still a topic of furious debate in other advanced Western nations. Healthcare free at the point of use that provided for our nation’s workers and bosses alike, from the pitface to the politician. In education, the school leaving age was raised to 16, no longer condemning generations to an uneducated start in life, and comprehensive schooling was introduced to attempt to level the playing field, regardless of economic or social background. This rewired the system that had dictated our country throughout the ages, whereby success and access to services was rewarded on the basis of wealth or social status. Healthcare and education were a public good, and not pre-determined by aristocratic lineage. These innovations were a reward for the millions that risked their safety and long term health every day. A right of being a citizen.

However, recent years have not been kind to Teesside. These mighty manufacturing industries have slowly degraded, been sold off to the highest bidder or closed completely. Steel, the true lifeblood of Teesside and an industry which defined its very people, was finally cast aside when the Corus plant in Redcar was given a mothballing notice in December 2009, condemning 1,600 jobs and 150 years of steelmaking on Teesside.

Nationally, we now see unprecedented levels of public spending cuts, with the North East likely to suffer the harshest with a great majority of its employment been provided by the public sector. As dole queues lengthen and vacancy lists shorten, local public services begin to feel the strain even further. Understaffed and overworked, these vital services on which people turn to in times of hardship are in serious danger of being forced to turn away the sick and vulnerable in our communities, leaving children to study in leaky roofed schools and pensioners to shiver in their own homes.

Successive governments have sold off prize manufacturing assets, leaving behind pools of highly technically skilled artisans to wallow and stagnate. Middlesbrough has historically been defined by the skills of its people, and exists only because of the valuable contribution made by its inhabitants in ensuring Britain remained a hub of prosperity beyond industrialisation. This prosperity meant that great social developments such as the NHS could be funded and implemented, a reward for effort and a clear sign of the state investing its own people. Recent times have seen the state, rather than modernise and diversify, simply surrender to the invisible hand of market forces. The trouble is, this hand has often felt so invisible that the people of Teesside wonder whether it is even there at all.

Instead of investing into the skills of manufacturing workers, government has neutered their skills and driven them into the service industry at best or unemployment at worst.  The lessons we have learnt from our history have been ignored, and a slash and burn budget risks condemning finally pockets of our society to a state of terminal deprivation, joblessness and poverty amongst a still proud people.

However, rather than an obituary, this should read as a call to arms. Under a new government intent on squeezing the public sector to bursting point, it is crucial now more than ever that local government, trade unions and community leaders join together and ensure that some of the most valuable areas of our country, such as Teesside, are not laid to waste. They must resist ideologically motivated cuts and prove that former industrial heartlands are still a crucial part of our economic and social future. The power of the strike and real industrial activism must join hand in hand with local community leadership to allow those with a true passion to shape the future of the communities in which they live.

Channel 4 denounced Middlesbrough as the worst place to live in the country, but the subsequent outcry showed that its inhabitants didn’t concur with the sentiment. The champions of the industrial revolution, the backbone of the British manufacturing industry for generations, the kick start of prosperity and the lifeblood of the economy, a community built on steel. These foundations have been shaken by successive governments intent on driving the workforce further south and deeper into a shirt and tie, but they have not been destroyed.

For areas like Teesside to be restored and protected from further recession and economic hardship, the public services that we all rely on and that developed as a direct result of the hard work of its inhabitants must not be allowed to perish. Instead, radical solutions must be sought to develop and modernise them, and ensure that until a time comes when government realises the benefit of investing in skilled people once again, that no-one unduly suffers.

As Gladstone remarked upon visiting Middlesbrough Town Hall upon the precipice of the industrial boom in 1846, the town represented an “infant Hercules” in “England’s enterprise”. It is time for Hercules to flex its muscles once again.

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