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Gary Younge
Give these people a parliament

There can be few clearer illustrations of how Westminster represents the national interest without reflecting the national experience than the borough of Redcar and Cleveland. People in the area talk of the national parliament as though it is a regional body not only situated in, but working exclusively for, the interests of London and the south-east of England. "The national political debate is totally monopolised by the concerns of middle England," says David Walsh, the leader of the Redcar and Cleveland borough council. "Whether it is families who are worried about their precious house prices or government agencies who are too timid to take on aggressive regional policies, decisions rarely seem to be taken with the north-east in mind."

It is not difficult to locate the reason for their frustration. While the chancellor worries about inflation in wages and house prices contributing to an overheated economy, unemployment in Redcar remains stubbornly high and house prices are falling, leaving many to deal with negative equity. Redcar's young leave in their thousands in search of work. While pundits use just about every national statistic to prove that we have never had it so good, all the indications are that areas like Redcar have never had it so bad. "This area used to be thriving," says Jeffrey, a Labour councillor for South Bank. "There were five cinemas at one stage. There are none now. Nobody wants to live here because there are no jobs. The biggest employer is the Asda supermarket and now they want to move."

And Redcar is not alone. Throughout the country lie isolated economic and social spaces that appear to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of the nation. And with economic alienation comes civic disaffection. The turnout for the European elections in one Redcar ward was just 7%; local elections usually attract around 20%.

This was not supposed to happen. In time the invisible hand of the market was supposed to lift up the likes of Redcar, dust it down and point it in the direction of leaner and fitter sectors. The days when British Steel and ICI employed almost everyone may be long gone; but the era when new industries would come to take advantage of the cheap land and labour that these large companies left seem no nearer. The new technologies that slashed the workforce in manufacturing were supposed to introduce new markets where the distance from London was made irrelevant by cyberspace. But the market has failed. What was laissez-faire in principle has become laissez-tomber in practice. The result is an ageing area where more than 40% of the residents are economically inactive.

One would have thought that sheer self-interest would have forced the borough to the top of the national agenda. It is not as though the area is without friends in high places. Redcar's MP is the government enforcer, Mo Mowlam. Within an hour's drive you could be in the constituency of the prime minister, the Northern Ireland secretary, the trade and industry secretary or the health secretary.

The lack of parochialism in British politics is shown by the fact that these national figures have not exploited their influence to bring goodies back to the regions they represent. If this were America, Redcar's local economy would be stuffed with pork from the barrels of its local heroes. But similarly it says something about their ineffectiveness as local MPs that their own back yards remain so desolate while the rest of the nation thrives.

In the past government has simply blamed the difficulties of boroughs like Redcar on the north-south divide which has been deepening for decades and which was exacerbated by the Tories. There is good reason for this. London and the rest of the south-east is the richest area of wealth and economic activity in Europe. Average salaries in London are £520 a week compared to £350 in the north-east. Over the next 20 years the population of the south-east is set to grow by 13% while Merseyside loses 10%, according to projections from the office of national statistics.

None the less the north-south divide is a paradigm in desperate need of an update. Today, the debate will move on, thanks to an internal government report released at Blair's behest which shows there are great differences within the south and north as well as between them - five of the 10 most deprived areas in England are inner London boroughs. Meanwhile in the comfortable town of Guisborough, which is less than five minutes drive from South Bank, house prices are going up. Anecdotal evidence suggests that those leaving Redcar are as likely to end up in other parts of the north-east as they are in London.

The main issue, then, is not geography, but poverty. The government is on surer ground here than it is on regional policy. The minimum wage, the working family's tax credit and the New Deal have all helped to alleviate some of this pain. But ultimately people in the borough of Redcar and areas like it need more and better jobs, not easier ways to deal with a low-wage, low-skilled, low-tech economy. Since jobs are unlikely to make their way to the area on their own, someone is going to have to put them there. This is more than just an old Labour fantasy. Cities such as Bilbao in Spain have managed to reinvent themselves from an old shipbuilding past into vital economies. To do so they needed not only money but the political autonomy to determine what to do with it.

Herein lies the main paradox for the Labour grandees from the north-east. On a national level they remain doggedly anti-interventionist. Government, they claim, is only there to refresh the parts that freemarketeers cannot reach. But back in their constituencies it is clear that this approach is leaving the very people who elected them on the scrap heap. In short, they cannot practise in the north-east what they preach in parliament.

This will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. As the economic and political experience in England becomes more fractured, the case for regional government becomes more urgent. Some in Redcar are not keen, claiming that it will only add a new layer of bureaucracy to the area and replace London's dominance with that of Newcastle. But such local rivalries miss the bigger picture. Redcar needs more investment. But its long-term hope lies not in subsidy from Westminster but democracy from Newcastle.

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