Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:56 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative 12:56 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for this debate. I want to concentrate on the north-east.

In 1954, I went to live and work in the north-east. I lodged at 195 Durham Road, Stockton-on-Tees, with a Mrs Aucutt. Mrs Aucutt was a very significant figure. She worked for the council and controlled coal rationing. There is a certain irony in that when we think about the state of the coal industry in County Durham and along the coast of the north-east. There is not a single deep mine left. Much the same has happened in our part of the country to shipbuilding and to those firms that participated in the nuclear power industry in the days when we were building gas-cooled reactors. Global economics and political decisions have changed the scenery dramatically. Even steel is in trouble.

At that time, there were many headquarters of companies operating in that part of the north-east. Of course, they had with them many professionals who lived in the area. At much the same time, I bought myself a bicycle and bicycled across the wilderness between north Stockton and Middlesbrough. The visibility was not always very good and there was a strong smell of burnt cheese most mornings. To the left was ICI Billingham. What has happened to ICI was then unthinkable.

When we think about these things, we should remember—because it is much more important to think about the future than about the past—the huge changes that have taken place and consider the legacy. Middlesbrough is the third-largest port in the country. The chemical industry, which is born of companies such as ICI and Billingham Synthonia and so on, is going ahead strongly. There is the North East of England Process Industry Cluster, with a fantastic website which I recommend. It is doing extremely well both domestically and in exports, with very good success in building its supply chains effectively. One member of the cluster is an American corporation called Huntsman, valued at $5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. It has among its subsidiaries a business that was called in my day British Titan Products. That was a very sound, steady British business bought in the late 1970s by Huntsman, which is a truly global corporation with subsidiaries all over the world. It still has a manufacturing plant on Teesside and an innovation centre. We should work even harder than we do to attract inward investment from such corporations which have had a successful time in the north-east of England. So not all is gloom.

The north-east also has iconic places; this is important because, if you want international business to come with middle-sized enterprises into the north-east, it must be attractive. There is Durham; Shakespeare and the opera come to Newcastle; there is the Beamish museum; there are Jonathan Ruffer’s great efforts in Bishop Auckland; and there is the Bowes Museum. Why is the Bowes Museum not a national one? The idea has been about for a long time; it meets every standard. Is it just because it is in the north that it has never been made a national museum? Such recognition would be a great boost—a psychological move maybe, but that is not to be despised. We all need confidence, and recognition helps.