Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lost North jobs still seen as a 'price worth paying'

Youth unemployment topping 1m. An additional 129,000 people out of work in the past month. The overall number of jobless at its highest level since 1994. This week’s unemployment figures told their own story.

If people were not already sufficiently well-appraised of the dire state of the British economy, Wednesday’s figures, coupled with more downbeat forecasts from the governor of the Bank of England, will surely have removed any lingering doubts.

Yet in the North-East, as is customarily the case when the economy as a whole is struggling, the picture is even bleaker still.

As The Journal reported on its front page the Monday before last, this region has seen a staggering 32,000 public sector jobs lost in the past year, while, public spending cuts notwithstanding, the number in London and the South East has actually risen by the same amount.

It is now more than a decade since the launch of The Journal’s original Case for the North campaign aimed at closing the economic divide with the South.

At the time, it was estimated that if economic growth continued at the same rate, it would take around 30 years to bridge the gap – a state of affairs which many of the region’s MPs and other political leaders regarded as intolerable.

I have to confess I don’t know whether any subsequent analysis has been carried out as to how long it would now take, but I don’t find it easy to hazard a guess as to how many more decades might have been added to that figure.

Back then, I wrote that the North-East cannot be expected to tolerate as a matter of course systemic imbalances in economic growth between regions, but in fact that has since become the unspoken policy of the British Government under both Labour and Tory administrations.

All of which makes the continuing debate over the direction of the economy perhaps more pertinent in this region than in any other.

For months, this debate has been stuck in a kind of stasis in which Labour endlessly and increasingly fatuously calls on the Government to adopt a ‘Plan B’ while the Government equally stubbornly insists it must stick to its course.

But this is now becoming more than just an arid intellectual battle between rival economic theories. People’s jobs, businesses and livelihoods are at stake.

The plaintive tone of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on Thursday certainly conveyed the sense that a crisis point has been reached.

"Austerity at home, collective austerity abroad is no solution to the problems of jobs, growth or the deficit,” he said.

“Don't believe those who will tell you that any change in course will make us like Greece. The markets are as worried about the lack of growth in the economy as they are about debt levels.

"Knowing what we know now, about our economy, about growth prospects, about unemployment, about higher than expected borrowing, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the government to carry on regardless.

"I urge David Cameron: change course now, change course for the sake of our young people, change course for the sake of the country."

As it is, Mr Miliband is pushing at a partially open door in seeking a shift in the Government’s emphasis from deficit reduction to growth.

Chancellor George Osborne is understood to be working on a package of pro-growth measures to be unveiled in the autumn statement later this month.

They are likely to include a new job-creation initiative for the young unemployed, incentives for private companies to invest in big infrastructure projects, and a scheme to under-write mortgages for first-time buyers.

There may also be a rebate for high-energy using industries to alleviate the impact of green taxes, blamed by RTZ Alcan for Thursday’s decision to close its plant in Northumberland.

Some of that will doubtless help the North-East, as will Thursday’s announcement that Virgin Money, newly-enlarged with the acquisition of Northern Rock, will have its headquarters in Newcastle.

But it scarcely amounts to a regional economic policy, still less a strategy for tackling the enduring North-South divide.

Thirteen years ago, lost North-East jobs were seen by the then governor of the Bank of England as an “acceptable” price to pay for preventing the South-East economy from overheating.

Now it seems they are once again being viewed as a price worth paying.

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