It's Time to Make Our Voice Heard; What's Left for the North East? It's a Big Question to Ask in a Britain Which Is Suffering Its Harshest Economic Downturn in Recent History. It Was Taken Up by Renowned Novelist Richard T Kelly Who Quizzed Figures from Business, Academia and Politics across the North East, with His Findings to Be Discussed Next Month at the Durham Book Festival. MIKE KELLY Reports

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NOVELIST Richard T Kelly likes a challenge. His first, critically acclaimed book, Crusaders, published in 2008, ran to nearly 600 pages. It was set in the North East in 1996 just before Tony Blair and 'New' Labour swept to power. Amidst the economic upheaval the region endured under what was to that point 17 years of Conservative party rule, he came up with a work of fiction that encompassed tangled politics, business and religion. As a result of the issues he covered in it he was approached by organisers of Durham Book Festival and New Writers North to research and take part in a debate titled What's left for the North? As a starting point for our conversation, the title of the event seemed the obvious first question to ask. After 16 months of coalition Government rule which critics would argue has done as much damage as the Margaret Thatcher/John Major Tory administrations from 1979 to 1997, cynics might say 'not much'. But Richard is not an obvious cynic and part of his remit was to try to find a new direction towards an economically stable future for the region. The timing of our chat is interesting as last week there was brief dissension at the Liberal Democrat party conference with mention of a possible 'Plan B' to the 'austerity cuts' which Chancellor George Osborne says are vital for the country's recovery. There was talk of pounds 5bn being used to boost capital projects by Business Secretary Vince Cable, which caused a bit of a bun fight between the coalition partners before all reverted back to the austerity cuts script. But with the economy growing much slower than Osborne predicted and

with the International Monetary Fund predicting the country has a one-in-six chance of dipping into recession again, any suggestions will no doubt be gladly received. Which brings us back to Richard. Although he admits the "augurs and omens look ominous", he went on to say: "We have to stop looking at the Tories as devils who have grown horns. "The North East has been through trouble before. Crisis is nothing new. It's like what happened in the 1930s in Jarrow and in the 1980s when thousands of jobs, sometimes in the space of just a week, were being lost." But, as he says, we pulled through thanks in no small part to our re-invention from the 'it's grim up North' stereotype to a reputation which has garnered much praise and instilled civic pride in cultural and social developments like the regeneration of the Newcastle Quayside area, the Baltic, Sage, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Angel of the North. "The physical transformation of Newcastle and Gateshead has been a shining example in the last 10 to 15 years," said Richard. "It's been very important as it makes people want to come to the city and the region. The talented people want to stay here and resist the worrying trend of a brain drain. "There are a lot of great strengths that are residual in the North East. It makes things and exports them, things like diggers, cars, tractors and pharmaceuticals. In the last couple of years the North East has been running a positive balance of trade. It has a strong skills base." However, he said to progress the region must not just make things, it has to encourage a new breed of entrepreneurs to find more markets. Richard said he was particularly struck by comments made by academic turned entrepreneur Dr Tony Trapp, now involved in the renewables sector. "He said your money stream is not from the taxpayer's pocket, but from your customer's pocket," recalls Richard . The North East is, of course, stigmatised as one of the regions which has traditionally relied most on the public sector for work. But that safety net is now being forcibly removed. "The present Government is committed to deficit reduction. Anyone looking for a public sector solution is going to be waiting for a long, long time," he adds. In the space of a couple of years the whole ethos of how to generate work has changed. "One North East clearly did a lot of good work. …


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