progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Managed dynamism?

Tonight I attended the inaugaral Darlington Debate, "The economic future of Darlington - Dynamism or Decline?". Held at the Lingfield Point business park in the grand Lingfield House, the event was sponsored by Lingfield Point, the Northern Echo, and the Darlington Partnership.

I went in my capacity as Press Officer for Darlington Friends of the Earth - so that means I wasn't drinking wine and eating nibbles in a personal capacity...

The Question Time style debate was chaired by Peter Barron, editor of The Northern Echo.

On the panel were:

* Alastair Thomson, dean of Teesside University Business School, former MD of FTSE 250 and FTSE 100 businesses, now of the North East Institute of Directors.

* John Orchard, director of Marchday plc the company which has owned the Lingfield Point site for 10 years.

* Pat Ritchie, the regional director of the Homes and Communities Agency, formerly of One North East, the regional development agency.

* Alasdair MacConachie, owner of Sherwoods and Chair of the Darlington Local Strategic Partnership.

Howdy partners
The debate opened with praised being lavished on the local authority for its partnership working, drawing together public services, voluntary organisations, and private businesses through the Local Strategic Partnership.

I imagine this was a relief for the Chief Executive, Ada Burns, and the Leader of the Council, John Williams, who were both in the audience, along with prominent Cabinet members.

Alan Fielder from Yorkshire Bank made a good point from the floor about the town's demographics and the impact of an aging population.

This led nicely into a question about Teesside University, which is establishing the Darlington University in the next few years, and already has courses operating at the Eastbourne School building. John Orchard stressed the potential for new start-up enterprises and for the town to project a youthful identity.

The next question was about the Tees Valley concept and there was a debate about the levels at which economic development strategies operate - local, sub-regional, regional, or all three? Peter Barron noted the perception of competition between the towns within the Tees Valley. John Orchard admitted that before coming to work in Darlington he had not been familiar with the Tees Valley concept and that the North East could be percieved as a fragmented region.

The importance of south-west Durham and North Yorkshire to the Darlington economy was highlighted, suggesting that although it is necessary for co-operation and co-ordination with other local authorities and local strategic partnerships in the Tees Valley, other links cannot be ignored.

Social enterprise?
Karen Grundy from eVOLution, voluntary services support organisation, asked about the level of private sector support for the third sector.

The academic interest in this growing sector was noted by Alastair Thomson, who made the (rather Thatcherite) point about who writes the cheques.

(It was at this point that I regretted not having written a question on my entrance slip to raise the subject of "not for loss" social enterprises - surely everyone understands the co-op concept?)

Karen Grundy spoke about the need to share skills and that it wasn't all about money. Private companies could exchange skills with voluntary organisations - it could be enriching for both sides.

Steve Rose spoke strongly of the need for social justice in developing the economy and argued that the third sector had the potential to deliver in this respect. I think he was getting at what I was thinking about social enterprise, so I'm glad he made those points.

Sadly, Alasdair Thomson again made a very Thatcherite point - it's all very well talking about social justice, but someone's got to write the cheques. Naturally, social enterprise - fair trade - is somewhat alien to the Institute of Directors! Many costs are bourne by society from the competition to maximise profits and in some instances (poverty, homelessness, unemployment) that's why there are voluntary services in the first place.

Corus of disapproval?
The discussion of the Corus plant in Redcar which has been given a stay of execution was rather pessimistic. Many speakers felt that there was inevitably going to be job losses and that the best thing would be to focus on quickly getting those affected into new jobs.

The need to focus on an industrial strategy for the region was expressed by, of all people, a Tory! Alan Coultas, who has a background in engineering having been a director at Whessoe, and is now a strong supporter of voluntary services in the town, highlighted the desirability of a balanced economy structured around advanced manufacturing.

That the UK has been without a coherent and meaningful industrial policy for the past three decades was ignored, and Alan reserved his remarks for the Labour administration rather than the Tory governments of the 80s that brought in the policy of "managed decline" of manufacturing and the free movement of capital out of the country.

The realisation, in the wake of the financial crisis that the UK economy requires an industrial strategy to secure long-term investment, is easy to mock. But here, I'm with Mandelson - there needs to be a politics of production. The local strategic partnership will hopefully be able to implement some "managed dynamism" in advanced manufacturing...

Future debates
At the end of the hour I felt that though some important issues had been touched upon, everyone had been rather restrained.

The presence of cameras obviously stifled the kind of questioning that might otherwise have taken place.

An interesting question raised from the floor about the impact of migration on labour markets was swatted away by panellists. The importing of labour acts in concert with outsourcing of jobs to displace workers and leads to social tensions between different communities. To talk about increasing skills one minute and then defend importing skilled workers the next shows a lack of coherence...

I would like to see a future debate specifically on the potential of green services and manufacturing industries in Darlington. And perhaps next time there will be representation of workers interests on the panel, such as someone from the TUC or a Darlington trade union activist?


  1. Maybe they could have invite trade unionists next time!!Am sure that if the TUC were asked they would have sent someone along, especially when there is a team working specifically on learning and skills based at Dton College!

  2. I will keep an eye out for future debates and put the word out so that there can be more local voices heard, Granty...