North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Sunderland LibDems prepare for take-off

Lest anyone doubt the importance of sense of identity in modern politics, let them consider two issues, which among the problems of Covid as well as all the ever-present economic and social challenges facing the North East, are currently exercising the minds of councillors on Wearside and Teesside – the name of the airport currently known as Newcastle, and the parmo.

In Sunderland, the Liberal Democrats are using their newly strengthened position on the City Council to launch a campaign to change the name of Newcastle International (let’s not forget the International) Airport to reflect the fact that it also services their city.

Councillor Paul Edgeworth told ChronicleLive that renaming the airport Newcastle Sunderland International would be a major boost putting Sunderland on the map as an ambitious city that is serious about attracting new jobs, businesses and investment. It would also help to support and promote the university and tied in with the push to regenerate the city centre and invest in tourism and culture, he said.

What is more, said Councillor Edgeworth: ‘People in Sunderland, through the local council, own a significant share of Newcastle Airport but feel like on this issue, just like many others, our council lets Sunderland be overlooked in favour of Newcastle.’

That is indeed true. Many people in Sunderland, and other parts of the region too, do resent what they see as Newcastle’s overbearing attitude as regional capital. That was one of the main reasons why four North East councils refused to do a devolution deal in 2016, and why Tees Valley was so happy to split from the rest of the North East in 2010 and then do its own deal in 2016.

Local pride may have its good points, but when it turns into envy, resentment and refusal to collaborate, look where it has got us. Newcastle Airport is 51% owned by all seven councils in the area. Is it to be named after all of them? It is not surprising the Newcastle leader called the idea ‘daft’, and for three reasons: it came from his political opponents; it came from arch-rivals Sunderland; and it IS daft.

Meanwhile in Middlesbrough local pride is focused on the parmo…again.

The parmo, for those who don’t know, was once described to this author as ‘a local delicacy, probably about 3,000 calories of pork escallop covered in cheese, deep-fried…best served up after people have had several gallons of beer at 2 o’clock in the morning’.

Tees Valley’s mayor, Ben Houchen, is a champion of the parmo, and it has served him well. In his first election campaign he promised to fight for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for the Teesside favourite. ‘We should be proud of the things we produce, including the world famous parmo’, he told a local paper in 2017. He was elected, against all expectations, and hasn’t looked back since.

But now, it seems, there are some on Teesside who are having qualms about the parmo as a local symbol. Banners to promote Middlesbrough have been hung around the town bearing slogans which some people must have thought would present the town in a good light. One of the banners bears the slogan ‘We are parmo and chips’ – as if a 3,000-calorie parmo on its own was not enough for anybody.

Opposition politicians have branded the parmo banners as stereotyping and belittling the town, and the Middlesbrough mayor (not Mayor Houchen of Tees Valley) has ordered them taken down, saying he had just become aware of their inappropriate content.

Another of Houchen’s successful manifesto promises in 2017 was to take Durham Tees Valley Airport back into public ownership, which he has done to much public acclaim. Teessiders can now fly to domestic destinations including London Heathrow, Aberdeen and Bristol as well as (Covid permitting) such favourite holiday hotspots as Alicante, Faro and Palma de Mallorca, thus justifying the proud name of Teesside International.   

So perhaps, if the Sunderland LibDems’ campaign is successful – and it gained the support of the full council on June 23 – they too will one day be able to claim credit for linking their city’s name to an international airport, with all the benefits that will bring. The local pride generated on Wearside may even be enough to overturn decades of Labour rule, as Mayor Houchen did in Tees Valley with the help of the  parmo.