Category Archives: North East Region

Better than Gold

Last week we were in the vast cultural mixing bowl better known as the City of Birmingham. I lived there for about four years and I must say I rather like the place; there’s a zest and vigour about its people which belies the usual image of 1960’s concrete riven by urban motorways.
It was a bit of a blokes outing. Isaac and I share an aversion to the shopping enjoyed by his sister, mother and grandmother so we took ourselves to the City Museum to view the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’, the wonderful collection of be-jewelled gold artefacts found buried near Lichfield.
I’d thought we might look for evidence that it was looted from Northumbria some 1000 years ago but he turned out more intent on claiming a toy car from the shop. However, there I discovered real treasure; ‘Last of the Dictionary Men’ – Stories from the South Shields Yemeni Sailors by Tina Gharavi, published last year.
I’ve always been intrigued by the visit of Mohammed Ali to South Shields in 1977. Certainly, he and his wife came to have their marriage blessed at the Al Azhar Mosque, then the only purpose built mosque in Britain outside London. But why Great Britain ? Why South Shields ?
Apparently Ali considered the ceremony his ‘real wedding’ and was delighted with his reception in the town, commenting that ‘Nowhere outside of Africa have I received such a welcome.’ What a mark of distinction for the Yemeni community of South Shields and for the place where they have integrated over more than 100 years. Even more extraordinary to reflect that in the midst of a region which has benefitted least from immigration in recent decades, the Roman fort of Arbeia, literally ‘place of the Arabs’ had soldiers from Mesopotamia, what is now Syria and Iraq, in what is now South Shields, almost 2000 years ago.
Reading this brought to mind a funeral I recently conducted for a gentleman who eventually made his home and many friends in Northumberland but had begun life in the Bosnian Muslim community of Sarajevo. As a civil celebrant I am acutely aware that everyone has a story to tell but this one about a skilled engineer and businessman who came to London as a young man and then, with the outbreak of civil war in the former Yugoslavia devoted himself to the support of refugees from all religions and communities, would have moved a stone.
I had been requested a reading from the Koran and so was once again grateful to the Imam and elders of the mosque in Lancaster who had presented me with an English translation some years ago. As Labour M.P. for Lancaster I admit that I sometimes took the small Moslem community for granted. They had come to the City in the 60’s to work in local factories and most lived together in a few streets, developing shops and restaurants. While they kept largely to themselves they were respected for their industry, friendliness not to mention turning out regularly and avidly to vote Labour.
Ironically it was the terrible events of 9/11 which brought us more together. I spent time at the mosque and with the community, welcomed their young women to Parliament, supported young people diversifying family business into IT, accompanied a brother and sister renowned for charitable work to Downing Street to meet Tony Blair. We all tried much harder and it was strongly impressed upon me that Islam is a religion of peace and humility.
It’s important to hold on to this when we hear so much of young British men and women being ‘radicalised’ and travelling to Iraq and Syria to wage hideous destruction on the people of those countries.
What a misuse of the English language is ‘radicalised.’ The radical tradition is a proud one exemplifying democracy, freedom, rationality, equality and tolerance. The people who want to impose a caliphate on vast areas of the Middle East and presumably in time on the rest of us have actually been ‘feudalised’. Their devotion to a brutal theocracy imposed by crucifixion, beheadings, slavery as well as sophisticated weapons and fluency with social media is a new version of an old tyranny. Threatening the world; threatening all of us.
If we decide that this is someone else’s problem; even worse if we retreat into blaming those who live harmlessly in our midst or those who peacefully want to come here, we have lost. The best response to vicious assaults on humanity is actually to reinvigorate those real radical values and to better support democratic institutions based on international concepts of human rights.
Those suspected of involvement in genocide returning from abroad should be arrested, investigated and if necessary brought before the International Criminal Court. As members of a United Nations Security Council recently criticised for failing 200,000 people killed in Syria our Government is accountable to us for preventive action to save lives.
South Shields’ welcome for Mohammed Ali, founded upon respect for its Yemeni population demonstrates how communities are enriched by diversity. Now there’s something really precious for the world.

People who matter

About 30 of us spent Saturday afternoon thinking about an old photograph.
It dates from 1901 and shows Robert Embleton Heslop, my great grandmother’s cousin, standing in front of the old Queens Head Inn, Newbiggin by the Sea.He’s recently taken over as landlord and he’s holding up his one year old son for the camera.
Robert’s pride is palpable; you can almost hear him saying ‘my bairn, my pub.’
At the age of 35 Robert had a great deal of work ahead of him. 20 years after this photograph was taken he was still in charge of a rebuilt Queens Head and the child in his arms had made him a grandfather. With the coming of the Pit the population of what was once a tiny fishing village had multiplied 3 times.
The baby in Robert’s arms actually represented the 5th successive generation of his family to live at the Queens Head. Robert knew that he was succeeding 3 women – great grandmother, grandmother and aunt who had been the licensees before him. In all, Ann Embleton, Jinny Cowell and Sarah Davison ran the Queens Head for seven decades of the 19th Century – 1828 to 1899.
What extraordinary women they must have been.
All widowed, for many years , all mothers who lost some children in infancy, all in business at a time when women were so repressed, with opportunities so limited. They all had to manage a public house whose customers would overwhelmingly be men; fishermen, sailors, miners . Hard men from a hard men’s world.
At a time when it was reported that Newbiggin publicans were remarkably short-lived, remaining in business no more than 7 years ,they must have been formidable.
There was opposition; the temperance movement deplored the ‘ inveigling’ of young people with ‘fish suppers and dancing’. In 1874 the Medical Officer of Health joined in the condemnation; complaining that living conditions of fishing families were so cramped the wife would usher her husband off to the pub so that she could tidy up the house, thus ensuring that men acquired the habit, the taste for alcohol. Later, Dr. Reid acknowledged that these widows seemed better able to keep orderly houses than men.
Every family must have similar tales; the difference in Newbiggin is that we are building a community family history, resurrecting the interlinked family tales of thousands of people, resonating with those alive today, wherever we are in the world.
It’s important that we do so. Not only because everyone is surely to be valued in themselves but because the more we learn about people, the more we recognise our own identity and, learn to make sense of our own world.
Some think that genealogy is an interesting pastime for people with plenty of time on their hands. I think it’s critical to understanding who we are. It demonstrates respect for people; recovering information about past lives ensures that a vast treasure house of experience can be reflected upon, utilised rather than being squandered. It’s a tool with which to build humanity.
We now know that three women ran the Queens Head, spending their whole lives around a few streets in an obscure fishing village at a time when Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire spanning the globe. Yet why should accident of birth or greater opportunity mean that any human being is valued more ?
Sometimes I reflect that we haven’t really moved on. While it is possible for some individuals to rise from very humble beginnings I think we constantly re-invent an ‘aristocracy’ of money, unelected officials, so-called celebrity driven by the pernicious influence of ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ you know. Millions are simply ignored.
Whether they are alive or long dead, I believe this to be stupid as well as immoral. In a long career of meeting fancy people in fancy places my experience is of learning most about life from other kids in the back lane, children in care, powerless people who I was elected to represent, dispossessed people seeking refuge, under-valued people from undervalued communities.
We all, when it comes down to it, inhabit small places for what turns out to be a short time. However, there’s really no question of any of us living small lives. In fact it’s just sensible for us to learn to listen not just with our ears but with our whole being and to forever put the principles of equality and democracy into action.
One month today Scotland has the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s a matter for the Scots people; what gladdens my heart is the vigorous democratic debate taking place, involving people as never before.
What utterly saddens it is the bunch of cronies from the ‘Core Cities’ group of local authorities who have the undemocratic effrontery to advocate that a Councillor elected by a few hundred people to represent one ward can thereafter be entitled to lead a million people deploying vast resources in a ‘City Region’.
100 years and more since they last walked on the earth my great grandmothers tell me that people require better than that.

Missing in Gaza

We were looking after some of our bairns last week. Then, with the grandchildren peacefully, quietly in bed we collapsed in front of the TV; horrified to see other peoples’ bairns being killed in their hundreds, only a few hours away.
Later we heard the calm, rational arguments of intelligent, civilised men from the most established democracy in the Middle East. They offer reasoned justification – explaining their actions in terms of the self-defence to which they are surely entitled; assuring us that they target their missiles at terrorists and provide warnings to people whose elected Government launches rockets from their neighbourhood and stores weapons in their hospital. We even have the odd apology – for the deaths of four boys playing on a beach. Then they go on with the relentless bombardment of a place about as big as Tyneside but packed with three times as many people.
Sue and I lived in Israel for a few months in 1976. It was our first time outside Europe and the opportunity to work on a kibbutz, experience a communal, sharing way of life and visit places familiar from the Bible was one of the adventures of our lives.
It wasn’t great. Our biggest disappointment was that understandably, the mainly young, largely privileged, very temporary volunteers were kept at arms-length by those whose whole life this was. Reservists in the armed forces when they weren’t on the kibbutz, the Israelis needed our work on the farm and in the factory. However the newly qualified teacher so keen to work with children never got the chance and when your own politics is so febrile who cares about the budding politician straight from university? They were tough people, committed to their collective survival, worthy of our respect. Perhaps none of us had time to get beyond the easy familiarity of work on those sunny early mornings when the ‘guys got on the wagon’ and we went out to ‘cut more bananas than anyone else in the whole state of Israel.’
Assigned to a beautiful place in the Jordan Valley, just south of the Sea of Galilee we were acutely aware of how threatened people were; the armed guard at night, the minefield beyond the banana groves and the air raid shelters which we cleaned out and re-stocked. Weapons were everyday tools; the middle-aged woman shopping in Tiberias with a bag over one shoulder and a sub- machine gun on the other. One Saturday, driving in a lorry to a beauty spot near the Golan Heights; the volunteers took the picnic, the drivers the kalashnikovs. Later, on a public bus travelling through the West Bank we were stopped at an army checkpoint somewhere out in the Judean desert; all the Arab men onboard were made to get off, spread-eagled in the dirt, searched while we watched, then came back to their seats and what was plainly a normal journey carried on.
Israel made us want to affirm life; on coming back to England we started our family. Last week, with our grandchildren asleep, resisting the urge to turn off the images of terrified, injured, screaming children; parents clutching them, desperately trying to keep them safe I thought of Yad Vashem.
Israel’s great memorial to six million people murdered in the Holocaust expresses all its tragedy on an epic scale; strangely uplifting, it reserves its most telling, poignant fact for last. My abiding memory of visiting all of 38 years ago is of turning a corner on the way out, thinking it all over, then coming across a final glass case containing one small, scuffed, well- worn child’s shoe with the simple statement that of all those who died, 500,000 were children.
If you had any tears left to weep this would surely be the time to let them go.
Israel cares for its own children and I believe that its people will be concerned for the children of Gaza. I hope they will spurn the cruel obduracy of leaders who are so self- righteous in their disproportionate pursuit of terrorists that they have lost sight of their duties to humanity. I trust we will soon hear the voices of a coming Israeli generation who don’t wish to spend their whole future in conflict with people scarred by the wicked treatment of children and their families in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
It’s an irony of our time that atrocious suffering can be ever more easily inflicted, ever more easily observed, while it’s ever more easy to feel there’s nothing we can do. Nevertheless we must not turn off or turn away.
Whether we are from Ashington or Ashkelon we live in democratic countries which are part of a system of international law and human rights which needs to be used and supported and developed further to deal with international crises.
Democratic politics is the best weapon and it’s in all our hands. We should invest in our own democracy, take time to meet with our politicians during their recess and take our bairns along. Call for the whole world to do better – and more.

Looking East

These are the best days of Summer; long and warm with all the promise of holidays, clusters of people, families staying late on the beach.
I love a beach in all weathers. Ever wary of the sea I’m an inveterate beach-comber cluttering house, car, pockets with odd bits of smooth stone and boody – sea-washed pottery and glass. That’s one way to experience lots of wind and rain as well as cold, hard, bright days.
However my best treasure came from the sea at the slow end of a hot afternoon. I remember it well even though more than 50 years ago. The family, school teachers and their bairns had been on the beach all day; I recall feeling slightly burnt and salty but clean, with that warmth you get when you’ve dried yourself off from the sea.
Leaving everyone else to pick up all our gear I’d wandered back to the sea and then I saw it, a green flash of light about 50 yards out, heading steadily in, towards me. When it came nearer, clothes and all I just plodged back in, then deeper, wanting to protect it, determined to claim it for myself.
I have it here now, it’s an old green glass fishing float, crudely plugged, marked with a letter ‘M’.
It isn’t actually worth anything at all. You see loads of replicas amongst lots of other tourist tat, even the old ones found in junk shops sell for a couple of pounds. However it is beautiful, dark green with impurities that catch the light and I have treasured it all these years, wondering where it really came from and trying to persuade generations of children that it’s some sort of crystal ball.
I suppose that it bobbed up from an old wreck or long-discarded nets no further than Newbiggin bay, but it certainly fed my childhood imagination, and remains part of my fascination with what lies over that easterly horizon and the idea of a North Sea community.
I’m no sailor so the great travel book that I just know is inside me will be about my long journey around the shores of the North Sea.’ North Sea Littoral’ will take in the part of England I’ve already done – Spurn Head and that ship burial at Sutton Hoo, then to the huge beaches of Belgium and before Denmark the shifting sands of Holland and Germany.
That’s something for the future, perhaps.
However I was thinking about Germany last week, enjoying the celebrations of their ‘golden generation’ winning the World Cup, thankfully, without the aid of penalties.
Long ago, with the North Sea still frozen into a receding Ice Age our ancestors could walk there; some of them probably came from what is now Schleswig- Holstein the northernmost of the 16 regions of Germany. Further research will have to wait for my travel book but I’m interested in the parallels between their region and us.
Northerly, bordering on the North Sea and another country, similarly sized population; Kiel their major city is comparable to Newcastle with shipbuilding and naval traditions. However, they are prosperous even by German standards while we are poor by English – and their region, playing its part in federal Germany has its own Parliament and Government.
There are those who will doubt the role of politics in developing an effective economy but I would argue that without one elected, accountable body with real power to invest, to tax (or not), to plan and to focus its efforts on our region alone we are not going to get where we all want to be. We are not going to do as well as our neighbours, 400 miles across the North Sea, closer than places in England.
A few days ago a friend and colleague was telling me of his journey from redundancy when the coal mine closed to successful small business via university and reflecting that he had met more clever people ‘doon the pit’ than in the halls of academe. The tragedy for all of us is that 30 years on many of those talented North East people have never made it out of unemployment.
We spoke with some business people about how important it is to ‘enable’ the good ideas emanating both from world class research and communities. Of how enterprise culture should start early, provide real practical help to fledgling companies with finance, tax breaks and wise advice readily available now and in the long term. The vital necessity of calculated risk- taking to create jobs and opportunities. Regional focus and regional solutions.
I thought of the German football team and a set of attitudes around team work, efficiency, consensus and long term planning which have ensured that wonderful talents have been nurtured rather than squandered.
I spent 11 years working at all levels in London and have enjoyed no more than a few hours in the company of friends from northern Germany. Nevertheless, if we really had a crystal ball I wonder if it would advise us to look south or east if we are to build our region anew ?

Hawaay Hyem

Wor Billy’s coming hyem next weekend. After years in Liverpool my brother will still want to trek further north to the best beach in England. It’s 7 miles of vast space and sand dunes, castles, wrecks, with a little island cut off by the tide.

Whether ‘Yem’ or ‘hyem’ it’s a good word. Derived, I’m told from Old English, exactly the same in Danish or Norwegian, similar to Swedish, Dutch and German. Our common feeling for ‘home’ demonstrated by shared language and history across the North Sea, revealing common humanity.How important it is to be rooted somewhere.

Laughably for someone who has barely set foot outside of England I consider myself to be a world citizen; my freedom to travel to the ends of the earth unaffected by the fact that I very rarely use it. However when I have been briefly furthest away, to Israel, Japan, Angola, California, when we were only 150 miles distant for quarter of a century in Lancaster, I always felt the pull of home. Missing family of course but also lacking that uncanny sense of place, wondering why ‘here’ semed more real. Revelled, for example, in the writing of James Joyce, partly because in decades of exile in Trieste, Zurich, Paris, ranging across life and language he only ever wrote about a few places, on a few days, in Dublin.

Talking to a woman last week about employment in the North East I was struck by her passionate motivation to ‘bring my lads home’. Or at least, with them exiled to good jobs in London and Birmingham, because there had been ‘nothing for them here’, to try to ensure that other mothers’ children didn’t face the same lack of choice.

This is the region whose primary export is its children – to the armed forces, to universities, to jobs, to the world. Of course there’s a good side to all that; we should give young people the very best start in life, set them free, ambitiously, excitingly, to serve, to pursue opportunities, to make their own way across the whole world .However they should have the real choice to stay here and prosper. As well as the opportunity to return and remain when they are in their economic prime. Indeed, we should be better able to attract other people’s children from way beyond the North East to come here for world class universities and jobs because there’s something for them here too.

Unfortunately the brutal facts are that we are the smallest, slowest growing region in England with the oldest population, the highest rates of unemployment, the fewest people in work, the lowest wages and the most people living in poverty and ill health – and sometimes,some of the poorest educational standards in the country.

These matters are well known and they are being addressed – by Local Government, Business , Education , Members of Parliament. Reported almost daily, considerable energy and skill is being well deployed to chase the next opportunity, to pursue new investments, to promote ourselves at first sight of every new government scheme. All this is commendable and worthy of acknowledgement and support.

However we remain the last and the least of England, disregarded for example by that major project which ends the railway of the future at Leeds. When we are promised some special emphasis we find we are just another part of some national initiative, competing with every other region which is better connected, closer to London and already has more jobs than us. All those worthy efforts; working very hard – to keep us coming last.
With forever being the place whose children have to leave.

We really shouldn’t allow this to go on.Take one step outside Northumberland and we find somewhere with exactly the same need for opportunity and experience of exile. Yet Scotland successfully makes its own decisions, last week launched the biggest ship ever commissioned by the Royal Navy and enjoys an annual level of Government funding which if applied to our region would provide us with more than £1billion extra every year.In all the debate about Scotland’s independence there is not one voice calling for less devolution, In fact, whatever their views, everybody is responding to Scotland sticking up for itself by falling over themselves to give them more. We should demand much more.

There’s no need for special favours, just fairness. Consider the 12 million people from the UK who have no stronger identity, face many of the same problems yet have far more resources and the far greater devolved power we need to benefit 2.6 million people here. Thankfully, just as in Wales and Scotland the cause of North East devolution is picking itself up, not content with London’s leavings.

One thing we might do is mimic Scotland’s ‘homecoming’ for its exiled population. We should say ‘hawaay hyem’ to a million North East people living all over the world. With great enterprise we could establish a major, identifying cultural event to help re-engage people with home, to remind ourselves that the North East requires the best of everything.Way beyond Wor Billy’s favourite beach.

Engaging the Peoplo

It’s 35 years this week, since I started working for Northumberland County Council – as an unqualified social worker in Bedlington. There’s a scary thought.
These days it would be illegal; you’re not allowed to call yourself a ‘social worker’ unless you are actually qualified and registered (which I am) with what’s called the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Back in 1979 it was a different world, much less regulated and formal.
I absolutely loved it. Social work is some of the best work in the world; getting alongside people at critical moments in their lives, using your skills, often yourself to help them make some of the biggest decisions it’s possible for a human being to make.
How’s a child going to be looked after? Where’s an older person going to live ? What impact has illness or disability made ? Sometimes having to intervene yourself when getting it right or wrong is a fine balance and the risks are huge.
Thankfully for the good folk of Bedlington everyone else in the team knew far more and had much greater experience than me. My immediate colleagues were a group of bright young people assisted by two mature women and managed by a senior group steeped in practice wisdom and local knowledge. I swiftly adopted the yellow Citroen 2CV and chugged around trying to make myself useful.
We did good work. Mightily enthused I left to go and get qualified then never returned; moving on despite the advice of one of those wiser heads who clearly thought that proper social workers stick around.
However, they don’t get their voices heard; nor are they recognised for some of the most important work undertaken our behalf.
I pay my Council Tax and vote for those who want to lead them but I find it incredibly difficult to find out about what today’s social workers are doing in Northumberland. Look on the County Council website and you’ll see prominent pieces about important things such as dustbins and holes in the road but nothing informative about the front line of social work and for instance, even more importantly, the children and young people in their care.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually suspect there’s a good story to be told here. Although I always take Ofsted with a pinch of salt they did praise Northumberland’s safeguarding services as ‘outstanding’ a while ago. Moreover to its enormous credit the County is one of the few local authorities which still operates a secure children’s home – a vital yet dwindling part of systems to protect the most needy children.
I’m not advocating that any confidences should be broken but good public communication is vital to underpin child protection.
A recent report on a child starving to death before everyone’s eyes noted that people had been unable to ‘think the unthinkable’. What utter nonsense; children are the most powerless members of our society and while we shouldn’t exaggerate child abuse there is just as much potential for them to be harmed as there is for potholes to appear in the road and for bins not to be collected. It happens.
As successive Governments have stated ‘child protection is everyone’s business’. It wouldn’t cost Northumberland a single penny more to use their website, publications, communications to enable us all to hear from their social workers and above all from their young people. They have an important story to tell which we citizens have the responsibility to hear.
Northumberland are hardly alone in this. Indeed every local authority in the area could improve its public engagement particularly when they are plainly struggling with massive financial cuts and when some are faced with fundamental decisions about joining a potential Combined Authority.
Given their oaths of office to serve the people who elected them I have considerable sympathy with the leaders of Sunderland City Council who express qualms about taking on these new, untested commitments at this time. Bloody-mindedly I’m even more on their side when I see some London-centred, unelected, self-appointed, so –called ‘think tank’ trying to take them to task through the letters page of this newspaper.
On the other hand the understandable difficulty experienced by local authorities trying to move beyond warm words and good intentions into breaking down long-established boundaries and working together, demonstrates the flaws in this whole approach to ‘regional’ development. Nobody expects Glasgow and Edinburgh or Cardiff and Swansea to slough off their identities, their commitments, their cultures, even their rivalries. What’s so different about Sunderland and Newcastle – and the excluded Middlesbrough ?
Why is the North East expected to make do with some sort of hotch-potch, spatchcock, papering over the cracks instead of having real power, real devolution, real democracy here ?
It’s public understanding and engagement which is truly protective of children and underpins the work of dedicated public servants in social work. It’s our political will, our action which will bring better opportunities to the North East.
Let’s not rely on a few people elected for other purposes. Far better emulate the people of Scotland – however they vote this Autumn.

Up off our knees in 2014

It isn’t quite the famous Bobby Thompson story about acting as ‘first foot’ in Consett ( in June) ; however, it will still feel a bit late as I cross our threshold this afternoon. These family parties at the other end of the country do tend to go on!
With no great claims to be tall, dark or much of a stranger to those within I’ve always enjoyed the traditions of New Year. Apparently it started at the age of 3 months when I was ceremoniously ‘walked’ into the house by my father clutching a tiny piece of coal. A little later I recall standing outside with others on a cold, frosty night waiting for the pit ‘buzzer’ to sound out across the village.
We’re so accustomed to texts and emails that now it seems odd to remember the instant communication of that sinister noise. To recall those other communal events in Newbiggin when the lifeboat rockets went off and you’d join others rushing to the Quay Wall vantage point to observe what was going on. To think of those other obsolete forms of messaging, the four telegraph cables linking the UK to Scandinavia via Newbiggin by the Sea still lying there under the waves.
Still on communication, I’ve recently been stunned to see a print of L.S Lowry’s painting of St Bartholomew’s Church at Newbiggin and to read that he had a ‘special affinity’ (i) with the town. I love Lowry’s work, I’ve walked the Berwick town trail a number of times and I’m familiar with his stark painting of what is plainly the southern promontory of Newbiggin bay, the Needles Eye. However I hadn’t realised just how deep was the relationship between an artist who managed to be both a genius and incredibly popular- and the whole North East; particularly the industrial areas close to coast and rivers of Sunderland and Blyth. Art and artists enable us to see the familiar in a new light and I’m sure we should make more of Lowry’s prolific output and particular understanding of our region – from Middlesbrough to the Tweed.
Some other reading over Christmas has been a couple of papers about the core aspects of the Northumberland Local Plan and the consultation on the proposal to create a Combined Authority for Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear.
Every Council in the North East has been working on Plans to guide development for the next 20 years; Northumberland’s is at an advanced stage with the final version going to public consultation in the Spring and the whole thing due to be adopted in 2015. These are crucial documents which lay down policies to be followed way into the future and will change the communities where we live forever. They aren’t so difficult to read and I have no doubt that the effort to consult through public meetings, online documents, various means to support people with disabilities is sincere. Nobody gets everything they want but it would be sad to allow cynicism or a lack of confidence about local authorities/ politics/ ‘officialdom’ to get in the way of participating in critical decisions affecting all our lives.
One point I’ll be making is that Northumberland Council undermine their own case for substantial growth by failing to emphasise that the County has the worst major road in England. They should also address the fundamental issue that the place which led Europe in learning as long as 1,250 years ago now so lacks university presence and partnerships that Northumberland must be the largest higher education- free zone in England.
Both these are also critical matters for what I’d prefer to describe as the ‘Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear Combined Transport and Enterprise Authority.’
This addition of ‘Transport and Enterprise’ is intended to be helpful. If the new combined body comes into being we will need to hold its 7 council leaders to account for a limited range of measures to address key transport and development priorities. The really difficult issue for them will be to look beyond the interests of their own local authority – which they are actually elected to pursue – to those of the sub-region as a whole. If they openly agree and energetically address the main issues; if they lay themselves open to serious public scrutiny, the combined transport and enterprise authority will do the best it can.
However, if the 7/12ths of North East Councils represented try to pass themselves off as some sort of wider Regional Authority its lack of democratic legitimacy and the sheer unrepresentative nature of its membership will doom it from the start.
Whatever the work of politicians the key to all our futures, to ensuring our best for the place where we live is our participation, our engagement, our determination, our ability to use our democracy to its proper ends.
Some ‘think tank’ says ‘the North needs its own Boris’. Frankly Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool are welcome to him; what the North East needs is for all of us to get up off our knees.
All the best for 2014.

‘Don’t watch your leaders ……..’.

Early evening in November.
I was making my way home from a birthday party when I came upon Kevin..
‘HOW ! Di yee knaa President Kennedy’s been shot ! ‘
Such was the way that global news passed between 10 year olds in Northumberland, 50 years ago.

JFK’s presidency was different from the ‘Camelot’ he portrayed and it took the political guile of Lyndon Johnson to make some reforms work. However the anniversary remembrances have demonstrated that Kennedy’s oratory and idealism still resonates down the years.

On another November evening 18 years ago, I took a call from a young chap from Lancaster who said he’d like to nominate me as the Labour candidate for Lancaster & Wyre at the forthcoming General Election. Perhaps this wasn’t such a great offer as the newly formed constituency had a notional Conservative majority of 11,000. Nevertheless, Tony Blair was sweeping the country in similar ways to John Kennedy and thanks to a great deal of work by a considerable number of people I duly played my very minor role when things could only get better in May 1997.

Those heady days seem almost as distant as JFK. However when we do gain more perspective I think we’ll be better able to acknowledge Tony’s great work in Northern Ireland and his Government’s legislation on equalities. Each in their different ways have been great influences for good. Devolution too; although the tremendous strides that have been made in Scotland and Wales have hardly been matched here.

Last week some good folk met in Newcastle to talk about regional government. There were those there who’d played key roles before the 2004 referendum and a good debate ensued with more thought of the future than raking over the past.

As one colleague said:‘2014 is crucial. Independence for Scotland would change everything.’ So could a new Party devoted to the best interests of the North East. Determined to get real power devolved to what otherwise will forever be the smallest, most deprived, least noticed region of all. Something different; profoundly committed to equality and to achieving the best through democratic regional institutions but a loose collective, enabling local action and initiative, building coalitions wherever we can. Adding ginger to the mix.

Indeed this could be new politics. Real politics; far removed from pathetic slogans and back-biting, always being ‘right’ and always protecting your friends. Comfortable with public apathy, never really moving on, spinning too many yarns, making too many deals.

There are Euro elections across the whole North East Constituency next May. Democratic politics in all its mess, but sometimes all its glory can change the world. Yet how can anyone doubt that we need a new approach when last time 70% of us didn’t use our vote?

Over the past week I’ve also talked to social workers about the challenges they face in protecting children, worked with a family preparing a funeral ceremony for their Mam and met with a group of ladies in Longbenton to discuss family history and whether or how they would want to be remembered in 100 years.

Working with people is an incredible privilege. Forever learning from the unique vitality and fascinating complexity of people’s lives it requires reflection, drawing on all sorts of resources. .One of many for me is Emily Dickinson who resided in Massachusetts 100 years before the Kennedys and lived a quiet, reclusive life far removed from theirs. She left behind a large number of short, spare apparently simple poems. When I go back to them I find words full of meaning, glowing off the page.

‘A Country Burial’ is an old favourite; revisited these past few days.

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgement break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground (i)

Most people live lives as unnoticed as Emily Dickinson’s but which in family, in work, sometimes in very small, shifting communities embody profound statements about what it’s like to be alive, making sense of past present and future. The feeling never leaves me that if people could properly engage with democratic politics that we’d see a transformation of our world. We don’t actually need leaders like Kennedy or Blair because we can make democracy work ourselves.

However, one immediate thing we can all do is respond positively to the Government’s consultation on the proposal to establish a combined authority for the area of Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear .The proposal doesn’t cover the entire region, the authority would be at one remove from direct democracy but in bringing some important decisions closer to home it might help move us on. It’s a ghastly, condescending document but we badly need some progress here.

One positive for me is that the first Leader of the proposed new body would be Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham Council. Now older, no doubt more care worn than the young chap from Lancaster who called me 18 years ago; I wish him well.

An existential regional identity

As the first place, apparently anywhere in the world, to be building a community family tree of everyone who ever lived there Newbiggin by the Sea is generating some notable pioneers. It’s also producing some fascinating stories out of the so-called ordinary lives of people from a small town which has spent most of its history being overlooked.
Last week we began to tell some of those tales through drama. Visiting Newbiggin Maritime Centre were Tyneside- based Cap-A-Pie theatre company with a play, ‘Under Us All’ based upon the real lives and words of 3 generations of an Irish family living in Hebburn. The links with our genealogy project are obvious so before the performance members of the company led a workshop to explore how our family tales might be turned into theatre.
It was a considerable success. Working with a group whose ages ranged from 8 months to 88 years the theatre company provided a stimulating experience upon which we are keen to build. Even the warm-up was instructive. Invited to place ourselves around a large room according to where we now live I found myself waving from the northern extremities of Warkworth at colleagues from Whitley Bay, Consett and the cities of Durham and Newcastle over the heads of the majority from Newbiggin. It was, it turned out an exercise which emphasised notions of identity, solidarity and sheer bloody-minded community resilience.
This prompted me to consider demography. At the last census in 2011 Newbiggin had almost 10 times as many people (6308) as at the first in 1841. However this apparently steady rise masks huge fluctuations with large increases in the post war years being completely offset by downturn during the decades of industrial decline in the ‘30’s and ‘90’s. Newbiggin has a considerable ‘diaspora’ of people who have moved away across the world to find work and this reflects the North East. Here we have the region with the smallest population, increasing at the lowest rate in England ; its most notable rise being in the group of people over the age of 65.
Some of the comments I’ve had since beginning this column have questioned the whole notion of a North East region arguing that it’s nothing more than a political construct employed by those who relish statistics.
Personally I don’t believe that ‘the North East’ is any more a political construct than ‘England’. It certainly has greater historical provenance. Although the Romans tried to divide us with the ultimate physical device of a wall the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, ruled from Bamburgh, united Northumberland and Durham, absorbed them into a Northumbria stretching from the Firth of Forth to the Humber and for a few years held power over most of what eventually became ‘England’. Moreover, that great arc of Christian culture – Lindisfarne- Jarrow- Monkwearmouth –Durham provided the greatest learning and art of the time.
We all know the North East has history on its side but what I’d argue really binds us is the lived experience of being here, the shared, mutuality not only of economic circumstances but of the whole of life amongst this landscape and language and people. Regional identity is an existential concept irrevocably tied up with how you see yourself which is inextricable with how you live your life –wherever you live it and however long you’ve been there.
Why there so many Sunderland supporters in Newbiggin by the Sea is a common issue for our group – perhaps most for those who think that football allegiance should be closer to home. Part of the answer is that somebody had the sense to put on a supporters bus; originally it was a result of droves of Durham miners who came to open our pit. 100 years on there are many who live that unspoken, unacknowledged heritage with pride.
We read in last Thursday’s Journal that the Leader of Newcastle City Council believes that the North East requires the same level of devolution as Wales. On Saturday we heard of the opening of consultation on proposals for a North East Combined Authority. The latter proposal is welcome, uniting local authorities across the region on the big strategic issues However it is no substitute for, indeed could be a distraction from the devolution of democracy, the empowerment of people here.
I agree with Councillor Forbes. Working recently in Wales, negotiating with the Wales Government and Welsh politicians of all parties I was struck by their energy and determination to pursue distinction and excellence for the people of Wales.
However Wales did not achieve their devolution easily through the benificence of others. We now lag behind them because of the nagging campaigning of a Welsh Party rooted in Wales, focused on the interests of Wales. Plaid Cymru has been an effective ‘thorn in the side’ their efforts engaging, resonating with people.
Do we need a new political party to battle for the North East in a similar way ? The debate starts next Monday November 18th 6-8pm at the Lit&Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne.
It would be great to see Councillor Forbes there.
Hilton Dawson

A powerful voice for North East England ?

A Powerful Voice for North East England ?
Lit & Phil
23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne N1 1SE
Monday November 18th
Look at the strides made by the people of Scotland and Wales in recent years as they have embraced devolution, strengthened their own democracies and gained confidence in promoting themselves to the rest of the world.
Compare them to the North East where we outstrip every other region in England for poverty, unemployment and poor services with our decisions made 300 miles away by people who neither know nor apparently care for what really goes on here.
The battle for devolution in Scotland and Wales has received as many setbacks as the campaign for regional government in the North East. Perhaps the only difference is that they have had dedicated political parties solely focussed on the needs of their areas rather than wider national agendas.
Perhaps it’s now time to establish ‘Wor Party’, a new progressive political party for the North East which can challenge the old institutions to bring real decision-making, real power here ?
Whatever your views you are welcome to join the debate. It will be chaired by Hilton Dawson – Journal columnist, amongst other things a former Labour M.P and Councillor but whatever is said – and where the debate eventually leads – will be up to you.
Further info :