My old home town has been struggling pretty much my entire life, as its original prosperity was built on industries which have been declining for decades. The Guardian says there’s a chance that Middlesbrough will be one of the new designated “low-tax enterprise zones”:
George Osborne does not know it, but Wednesday’s “budget for growth” could change much more than the lives of ponies now grazing quietly on a grassed-over industrial site in the heart of Middlesbrough. It seems all but certain that the chancellor will designate the Tees valley one of 10 new low-tax enterprise zones. If so, one of the local options will be to set up a precision-engineering cluster on the old ironmasters site — relic of the days when “Made in Middlesbrough” was stamped on countless bridges, including Sydney harbour’s.
In September 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously took her “walk in the wilderness” across a similar derelict site five miles upstream in Stockton, where as local MP in the 30s Harold Macmillan once preached the economic “middle way” she rejected. Stockton’s enterprise zone eventually became a business park, supporting 4,500 jobs at its peak. But this is a region that has long struggled to diversify its coal-and-ships, chemicals-and-steel economy, its hard-won gains always at risk — from global conditions as well as government policy and the region’s own mistakes.
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So an enterprise zone will generate good headlines in the Middlesbrough Gazette and Northern Echo. But in deciding exactly how to proceed, disrupting ponies will be the least of it. The five unitary authorities that make up the sub-region of Tees Valley – Hartlepool, Redcar, Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough – must agree which of their local plans will make most long-term impact for all of them in terms of inward investment, skills upgrades and job creation along the supply chain. Spread the opportunity too thinly and it may be wasted. It has happened here before.
As Teesside University’s professor Tony Chapman puts it, the north-east has endured so many changes in Whitehall’s regional policies that someone could make a career in “the archaeology of regeneration”. Likewise, countless local government reorganisations have seen Anglo-Saxon “Mydilsburgh” change from a hamlet to an industrialised borough, become part of unloved Cleveland (1974-96), return as a borough, and now boast an elected mayor in ex-superintendent Ray “Robocop” Mallon.
Everyone agrees Middlesbrough has had its problems, some worse than its neighbours. Steel and chemicals have shrunk, as has the population of the town (bidding to become a Jubilee city) by 20,000 since the 60s to 140,000. “We have 200 teenage pregnancies a year,” says Mallon, who thinks a hardcore of families let the town down. But 16 wards out of 23 have high indices of deprivation, which cuts seem likely to intensify.