Regional news

Two weeks ago Tony Blair hit the road, travelling to the West Country as
part of a series of regional tours to seduce the electorate before next year.
While acknowledging farming is in crisis, his message was that "there are
villages, towns and cities in rural parts of Britain that face the same
problems as the rest of Britain". The answer, he believes, is not to
divide the country but to bring it together. In our own tour of Britain’s
employment environment, the huge regional disparities found leave Blair looking
like a fast talker

Aberdeen

While Manchester remains the suicide capital, Aberdeen sees one in five of
its inhabitants suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) during the
dark winter months – a fact which has brought it a reputation for being the
most miserable city in the isles.

The granite city has cornered 8 per cent of Scotland’s income with only 4
per cent of the population – thanks to its 30-year love affair with oil – and
has become relatively wealthy on the back of it. Despite perpetual speculation
about when the oil will run out, estimates give it another 30 to 40 years,
keeping 40,000 employed until at least 2006.

Yet Aberdeen’s future is in doubt as between 1,000-1,500 oil jobs are being
lost every year. Consequently, the city is a little unhappy with its reputation
for being rich because it loses out on development money from Europe and the
Scottish Executive. "It is wrong to think of us not needing financial
help," says a distinctly un-sad sounding spokeswoman for the council’s community
development department. "It is not just about oil and we have a lot of
work to do with re-skilling and preparing for the information economy."
Regeneration efforts are consequently being aimed at IT skills.

Officials hope that victory in the battle to house the new Food Standards
Agency’s Scottish outpost above the equally dour Dundee might mark a turning
point. The city still remains a major fish processing centre and is also home
to Britain’s oldest company, the Shore Porter’s Society, founded in 1458.

Cornwall

When boasting, Cornwall says four million tourists flock there every year;
when self-pitying, it says it vies with rural Portugal for EU assistance money
as the poorest county in Britain. For the 480,000 people who live there, unemployment
remains unaffected by the national improvement and stands at a mammoth 24 per
cent in some parts during winter.

The decline of the traditional tin mining and china clay industries have not
helped. Wages are 78 per cent of the UK national average. The mean household
income is £17,400 – £4,200 beneath the national average – while GDP per head is
just £7,511. A major coup occurred last October when the county won Objective I
status from the European Union – a maximum of £600m in regional development
grants. The money (they do not know exactly how much yet) is set to be invested
in a multi-pronged attempt to improve communications. First there are the
roads. "The perception that Cornwall is a long way from anywhere is
immensely damaging," says Doris Ansari, Liberal Democrat Leader on the
council and regeneration spokeswoman.

"Businesses in the west face long journey times to get things to
Southampton, the nearest major destination." Next there is rail. The
council wants to push more freight on to rail and greatly improve rail links,
almost all of which is single track. Then there are plans to expand the airport
at Newquay to facilitate a gateway into Europe. And then the plans to turn
Falmouth into a major ferry route to Spain – initially for freight, but
thereafter for passengers. And finally, the council wants to set up a joint
campus with the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in Cornwall (it has no
university at present) with a view to developing IT expertise and attracting
inward investment. "People will only think of moving their businesses here
if we do something to improve the infrastructure," says Ansari.

Chester

Thanks to a combination of Tony Blair choosing the city to deny the
existence of a north-south divide and Posh and Becks living in a mansion not
far away, Chester has never been more high-profile. Or more smug. Despite many
a devastated conurbation lying within a short drive, Chester is doing very
nicely, thank you, and has become the address of choice for the North West’s
glitterati.

House prices here resemble London’s property fever. A three-bedroom
conversion near Chester is worth upwards of £325,000. Eighty per cent of
employees have some professional or skill-based qualification with more than 50
per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds going on to further education. Development has
taken place in a slightly topsyturvy manner in Chester.

A traditional strong service sector has been built on by some of the new
manufacturing firms, which still only account for about 7 per cent of
employment, but are growing. Hotel and retail accounts for some 63 per cent in
the town. The council’s web site likes to appraise browsers of recent
successes. US pharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb is the latest arrival to
a list, which boasts MBNA Bank, M&S Financial Services, Shell, Kemira,
BNFL, Strix UK, Prudential and Advanstar in the city.

Meanwhile, close by are British Aerospace, Vauxhall, Toyota, Sharp and
Brother. Many of these have taken advantage of one of the several large
business parks which the council and regional development bodies have wooed
them to. It has worked. Unemployment is just 2.5 per cent; and crime is 74.72
per 1,000 – low for an urban area. In another of those telling facts, little
Chester boasts seven golf courses.

Richmond, Yorkshire

According to the chief executive of Richmondshire District Council,
"things have got as bad as they can possibly get." With farmers
living on a disposable income of £40 a week, they have begun killing their
animals, rather than keeping them alive. Similar to Cornwall, the whole of
Yorkshire has pursued Objective II status, while it too suffers from the
seasonal nature of tourism.

Twenty years ago Richmond was the ultimate in genteel, prim, upper crust,
farming opulence; now the national farming crisis has brought it to its knees.
This area has felt the much-hyped 74 per cent drop in farming incomes
particularly badly. More than half the surrounding country is upland farming
land dealing with livestock prices that have tumbled to £15 per sheep. Because
its problems are either national or international, officials say local
strategies are limited in their effectiveness.

Unlike Teeside to the north, where Glaxo is the major employer, Richmond has
no big names to call its own, with the possible exception of Catterick
garrison, one of the biggest in Britain. This accounts for a substantial slice
of employment, along with the public sector.

A new Tesco is set to open at the garrison in April, which is set to have a
major impact on the local shops. According to principal policy officer Paul
Steele, the town is enjoying a more positive mood at the moment with many of
the shops that were boarded up opening their doors again in recent months and
finding lucrative niches. The average house price is about £83,000 (1997-98 figures)
which is some 11 per cent above the national average due to the preponderance
of detached houses.

Portsmouth

Portsmouth’s current economic woes vie with its proud maritime heritage for
the city’s claim to fame. The Mary Rose, the oldest surviving battleship from
the 16th century and Henry VIII’s favourite, may be a plus point, but the 8.7
per cent unemployment rate, the highest in the South East, is certainly a
minus. City officials say such figures are misleading and are distorted by
pockets of deprivation in the city centre.

The travel-to-work area has 3.1 per cent unemployment and, if measured by
the old claimant count, just 3,700 people in Portsmouth are on benefit, which
doesn’t sound so bad.

Recorded crime jumped by 12 per cent here between 1997 and 1998, but again
officials say that changes in calculation technique are partly to blame. The
crime rate of 108 per 1,000 people is exactly the same as Brighton and less
than Southampton (110 per 1,000).

While the naval base employed 25,000 straight after the war, it now employs
just 1,100 and much employment is seasonal. Unemployment can be partly
explained by the big-name employers in the region – IBM, Zurich Insurance,
Marconi and Vosper Thorneycroft – operating in sectors that have been shedding jobs.
The city has yet to manage to attract companies operating in industries which
have created the rest of the South East boom despite attempts to eliminate
uneven development.

Portsmouth is a densely populated city with a large proportion of terraced
housing, which has led to an average house price of £66,440.

Ely

In seven years, the number of people living in Cambridgeshire has risen by
10 per cent – but Ely dwarfs this with a spurt of 20 per cent. The silicon fen
phenomenon is largely to blame. High-tech and pharmaceutical firms have pushed
property prices in Cambridge to London levels: a small 2-3 bedroom terraced
house can cost £150,000.

Medical firms want to be associated with Addenbrooks and Papworth hospitals,
both big employers in their own right. Computer firms have excellent links with
the university’s brightest and best, and then there is the easy commute into
London. Big name employers include Marshalls, the high-tech engineers, and ARM
(Advanced Risk Machines), while the Welcome Foundation and Microsoft have both
announced big European research centres.

Good tertiary education in the county means that a hefty majority of 16 to
19-year-olds stay on at school. Because Ely is cheaper the Cambridge, it has
been expanding massively – 89 per cent of its residents work outside the
district, a fact which has started to displace the locals. Labour shortages are
starting to emerge in occupations such as plumbing; unemployment is just 2.3
per cent. In two years, a typical house costing £77,000 is now worth £110,000.

The council is attempting to encourage more firms in through a managed
workspace scheme and an innovation centre offering facilities and business
training. Ely has yet to experience the huge traffic problems of Cambridge and
is currently one of the lowest crime areas of the country.

Leicester

Leicester would love to be the new Leeds. The problem is that while the
signs of enterprise culture are strong with good business survival rates, it
has not managed to balance its economy and is still largely manufacturing
based. Craft-related occupations account for the majority of the population;
manufacturing accounts for 20.6 per cent of the economy. Thus over the last 30
years, Leicester’s population has shrunk by 3 per cent to 272,133 at the last
count.

There are pockets of serious poverty. Average hourly earnings, at £7.91, is
some way below nearby cities: Derby is £8.65, Nottingham is £8.10 and the East
Midlands as a whole is £8.06. Average house prices are also low at £66,307.
Unemployment is 7.2 per cent – far from terrible for a big city and comes
against a background of 4.2 per cent for the whole of the East Midlands.

However, almost a quarter of Leicester’s population is of Asian origin and
unemployment among this group is more serious. Leicester’s workforce is well
educated with 72 per cent of adults having at least five GCSEs and 67 per cent
of 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education, and yet Leicester has a serious
problem with violent crime. The rates for the city match Tower Hamlets and Lambeth.

Excellent transport links by road and rail mean prospects are good. The top
five employers in the county of Leicestershire are the Midlands Co-Operative
Society (5,200), Pedigree Petfoods (3,100), Ibstock Building Products (2,100),
Sketchley Textile Services (2,000) and Royal Mail (1,950). GDP per head is
£10,791. The aim of Leicestershire Development Agency is to continue attracting
major employers to locate there and investing heavily in redevelopment.
Investment has reclaimed derelict brownfield sites, while the circumference of
the city is dotted with business parks.

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