Despite the success of local initiatives, economic disparities between regions have the potential to divide the country.
If you walk about in Cambridge, you are conscious that you are in a flourishing society. Economic problems are constantly in the news, but if your knowledge is from Cambridge alone, you will hardly be aware of them. The reason is simple: the Cambridge region is home to major high-tech developments which for many years have had an important beneficial effect on the local economy.
It is salutary to venture away from the region, and take a more balanced view of the national economy as a whole. When you do that, you quickly realise the significance of the gloomy economic news which is the pervading message that is currently coming across.
I have just been visiting Northumbria, the northernmost county of England, staying in a cottage close to Hadrian’s Wall. Two nearby towns are Hexham — which traditionally attracts many tourists — and a much smaller one, Haltwhistle. It would be wrong to suggest that either of these towns is facing extreme economic problems, but there is no doubt that they are having to cope with economic difficulties. Some of the signs are obvious: shops closing, for example.
More significantly, there is a freely admitted recognition that remedial steps are necessary. In Hexham, to take a major example, a group of retailers have emphasised that a “back to basics” approach is necessary to revitalise the town. One of the proposals that have emerged is the appointment of an official with the task of liaising between the retailers and major public organisations, such as the county and the town councils. The initiative has been named “in Hexham for Hexham”. The proposed plans include a scheme to clean up the image of the town, for example by improving the appearance of the marketplace, which is situated in the centre, near Hexham Abbey, an impressive medieval church.
Generally commending these initiatives, the local newspaper, the long established Hexham Courant, suggests, for example, that as the number of visitors to town centres on Sundays and bank holidays has increased significantly in recent years, retailers need to ask whether they can any longer afford to close on these days “and effectively encourage potential shoppers to spend their money elsewhere”.
It is certainly interesting to find a local community taking initiatives of this kind. It serves as an important reminder that, inevitably, a great deal depends on local people and organisations. It is manifestly important that communities recognise that coping with problems, including economic problems, requires local action and initiatives.
It nevertheless needs to be recognised that there are limits to what can be done locally and regionally. For example, when one looks at the government’s Work Programme, introduced two years ago to get people off benefits and into jobs, it has to be recognised that the programme can work only if there are jobs available. It is sometimes argued that too many people are inveterate “scroungers”, preferring to be on benefits than in a job. That argument is difficult to justify; what is clearly apparent is that the number of jobs available is not sufficient to meet the demand.
In that context, regional differences are clearly significant: the problems in the flourishing Cambridge area, for example, bear no real comparison with the problems of those northern towns where unemployment is high.
Making this point is not to underestimate the importance of the Work Programme. Nor is it to belittle local initiatives, such as those in Hexham. It is possible to achieve a great deal through local action, and through a national effort, such as the Work Programme, designed to guide people through the whole process of planning and preparing for employment.
My visit to Northumbria, however, made me recognise that when there are major economic discrepancies between different regions, and when disparities between what is possible in them are becoming ever more obvious, there is the potential for the country to become seriously divided. That surely cannot be a good thing. Indeed, it is in essence itself a major problem. I will not pretend that there is a clear and simple solution. I will argue, however, that it presents the government with an important challenge, with political, and not simply economic, features. There is a great, wholly understandable, temptation to concentrate on the troubled economy, and pay little attention to the less precise, more tentative, political challenge. In my view, for any government to do that would be most unwise. It will be interesting to see whether the political implications of the situation are recognised, and tackled.