Mayor Driscoll falls for a government con-trick

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has, surprisingly, joined Newcastle City Council leader Nick Kemp in falling for the government’s attempt to con the people of the North East that ‘pride in place’ is a substitute for levelling up.

‘We should be proud of our region and our sense of place’, the mayor writes in his column in The Journal today. ‘[P]ride, as in house-proud, impels us to make our homeland better. What sort of region do we want to leave for our kids, for those coming after us?’

Well, up to a point, Mr Mayor. There is nothing wrong in principle with being proud of where you come from, or where you live. Many of us have this sense of local patriotism. It’s one reason this website is published.

But ‘pride in place’ has potential drawbacks too.

First, in the context of levelling up, it is being used by the government as a relatively cheap alternative to action on the real requirements of boosting economic growth, living standards and public services, which are much more expensive objectives and will take much longer to achieve. In this sense, ‘pride in place’ is a distraction.

True, Driscoll briefly acknowledges this. He quotes approvingly from the Welsh Labour manifesto’s reference to ‘the bread-and-butter stuff that people see in their everyday lives’, and adds his own comment that; ‘Wherever you are in Britain, or the world, we’re all united by wanting the security of a home and a decent income’.

But then he returns to creating the regional narrative, or myth, that: ‘There’s a feeling too that people are friendlier in the north’ and that: ’We live in an area with an amazing array of towns, cities and landscapes’. So we do, but so do other regions. And many of us live in squalor and deprivation.

Second, ‘pride in place’ is a real threat to the regional solidarity that is essential for the North East to realise the devolution deal it needs to get the most of whatever the government is offering under its levelling-up policy, however inadequate.

Local pride and local rivalries in the North East are not confined to the football field, where they have their proper place. They are rife in the town halls and civic centres, where they can undermine the regional action needed to tackle regional problems. They played an important part in undermining a regional devolution deal in 2016.

Such rivalries are endemic among the wider population too. The scholars Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher carried out a study* following the North East’s rejection of a regional assembly in 2004. They found:

‘There can be no doubting the degree to which respondents identified with their region – 87% said they felt ‘very’ or ‘fairly closely’ attached to the North East – but for many this was an overlap on top of their continuing, equally fierce loyalty to their own city, town or village. This was often articulated in concern that a regional tier of government would weaken rather than strengthen the influence of their own area.’ (Rallings and Thrasher, 2006: 934).

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a study** of the region two years later and found  a lack of common purpose. A belief persists, said the OECD, that there is a strong regional identity representing a vital asset for the region as a whole. But: ‘While there is a strong element of truth in this, the sense of identity is not mobilised for political objectives…Nor does the sense of common culture and history prevent serious rivalry between localities and between organisations’ (OECD, 2006: 204).

Driscoll’s column is littered with Geordie phrases, but as a Teessider he must be aware how much the perception of regional rule from Newcastle – once home to the regional development agency and the government office for the North East – was resented in the southern part of the region. He and Kemp should consider how any attempt to create a Geordie brand would be perceived by the Mackems they will need as partners if they want a regional devolution deal.

‘Pride in place’ has its place, and maybe even its uses, but it can be a two-edged sword. Leaders based on Tyneside should think carefully about what it means on Wearside and Teesside, and in the Land of the Prince Bishops, before unsheathing it.

*Rallings, C. and Thrasher, M. (2006) ”Just another expensive talking shop’: Public attitudes and the 2004 regional assembly referendum in the north east of England’, Regional Studies, 40(8), pp. 927-936 [Online] DOI: 10.1080/00343400600929069.

**OECD (2006) OECD Territorial Reviews: Newcastle and the North East in the UK. Paris: OECD Publishing.