It is almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on a news bulletin without finding some fevered commentary about house prices. So when I came across another headline on these lines – revealing that housing in Kensington was now costing over £11,000 per square metre, I was wearily moving onto the next item. Then my eye – trailing across the second paragraph – fell on the information that, in contrast with royal borough, the least expensive place in the entire UK, is Stanley in County Durham.
It just happens that Stanley is where I was born and raised. The story of why my home town now languishes at the bottom of the entire national property league highlights - in microcosm - the way that policies to turn around declining areas have been found wanting for a very long time. Given the renewed focus as we approach the general election, from politicians of every stripe, on stimulating regional growth– Mr Milliband this week, Chancellor Osborne last week and next week- maybe there’s a salutary lesson for all of us to draw from the experience in the north-east.
Stanley’s most significant export in recent years seems to have been jobbing footballers ( and even less talented economists) but Wikipedia assures me that Hilary Clinton’s great grandfather has an association as did two brothers who founded Hollywood – which I didn’t know when I lived there. Maybe the lesson is that you need to get a long way from Stanley to succeed - the footballers tended to move no further than Sunderland or Newcastle ( and maybe I didn’t go quite far enough either)
A century ago it exported coal. The Durham Coalfield, of which Stanley was a thriving centre, employed 170,000 people in the nineteen twenties. From the middle of the previous century, coal was the major driving force of the nation’s economy. No less a figure than George Orwell noted that our entire civilization was founded on the stuff.
By the 1950’s the mining industry thereabouts was in rapid decline. When I left junior school maybe one colliery was left of a dozen or fifteen that had been working only five years earlier. Miners travelled to the coast to work more economic seams under the North Sea – some transported themselves to new mining areas altogether. (I found myself living in south Nottinghamshire in the early 1980s near to the mining village of Cotgrove where the community of Durham miners exiled for some twenty-odd year still spoke pitmatic ( not Geordie) - languishing a bit like the Welsh in Patagonia.)
The response of Government in the 1960’s to Stanley’s problems – illuminated no doubt by Harold Wilson’s ‘ white heat of technology’ – was to encourage the development of a massive dry cell battery manufacturing plant. At its peak this employed well over 1000 people with recruitment in the early days exclusively reserved for ex-miners.
Through the next thirty years sadly this plant presented a case study exhibiting every last one of the challenges that UK manufacturing faced in this period – with the notable exception of major labour problems. There was underinvestment in research and development, then investment in inappropriate new products; a failure to keep up with changes in the retail market – particularly the role of supermarkets; there was initially a failure to respond to the emergence of a global market for the product and then the loss of a vital import licence; the business was acquired by the Hanson Trust who rationalised it in their own inimical way. Finally there was an American owner who after striving to turn it around finally switched it off in 1996. And another major employer was gone.
And now Stanley is - other than its bargain basement property prices – best known for the Beamish Open Air Museum which is close by. It is one of the North’s most popular visitor attractions and its success means that in the course of one working lifetime the town has bizarrely seen its prime economic purpose shift from mining, through manufacturing to tourism.
That single beacon aside, though, terms of unemployment and wider social deprivation the challenges that the place faces are all too manifest and a raft of national and local programmes have had scant impact.
In this it is far from alone. There are many communities in the Midlands that have very similar difficulties. All of them contending with a bitter downward spiral of out-migration, failing aspiration and shrinking resources in the wake of an initial economic shock. The point is – as Stanley’s story highlights – it’s a very long haul back. Half a century and more from the beginning of decline there is still a need for real action.
Stanley’s message to Messrs Osborne and Milliband ,echoed by so many other places , surely needs to be – a regional policy is not just for the Election, it’s for our lives.