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.