Reading about the recent Stoke diaspora meetings attended by luminaries such as Tristram Hunt, Kate Barker and EY Chief Economist Mark Gregory set off some questions about my own home town of Middlesbrough.
- Should there be a Middlesbrough diaspora trying to help?
- Is there one already?
- Could it work as there isn’t anyone named Tristram from Middlesbrough?
- What would we talk about?
Going straight to the last one I guess we would reflect on the fact that Middlesbrough is the only North American city in the UK. A genuine pioneer town created within 50 years after some clever ambitious people realised that with the invention of the railways and the Bessemer process it was pretty handy having iron ore reserves within easy access of a river. From a population of 40 people in 1830 Middlesbrough grew to 40,000 in 1870 and then to 90,000 in 1900.
So riverbank farms and fields quickly changed into the town described by William Gladstone as the “infant Hercules”. It’s nickname was Ironopolis. An industrial success story to match Mr Carnegie or Mr Ford and accompanied by unprecedented levels of migration. Mainly families like mine from Ireland, arriving to serve the mighty steelworks and shipyards. In 1880 there were more Irish people living in Middlesbrough than London. Only Liverpool accommodated more.
Then more clever people realised that the salt marshes on the other side of the river meant it was a great place to make ammonia – a core component of fertiliser amongst other things. ICI started manufacturing fertiliser at Billingham and liked the area so much they then opened a second massive chemical complex downstream at Wilton to make newly invented products like polythene, polyethylene and perspex. The migration continued.
In 1945 Max Lock (perhaps the leading town planner of the day) produced the Middlesbrough Survey and Plan. A grand vision of vast industrial complexes, low density private and public housing estates and miles of new distributor roads. All were faithfully constructed exacerbating the US look and feel of the town.
But then the problems started.
Globalisation and automation led to huge job losses and meant that Middlesbrough had too many people for its economy. The area remained economically successful exporting vast quantities of different products around the world but there weren’t enough jobs to go round. With high unemployment the statistics give the impression of an economic backwater.
The reality is quite the reverse. Even as ICI and British Steel gradually reversed out of Teesside global industrial conglomerates like Sabic and Huntsman have moved in. Not to mention the opportunities created for entrepreneurs like Steve Gibson with his Bulk haul business picking up the old ICI distribution routes. The area remains a world-class centre for the process and chemical industries. The port is one of the best in the UK and was a key reason for attracting Hitachi to nearby Newton Aycliffe.
But the problem of too many people stubbornly remains. And it skews the economic status and statistics for the town because without sufficient employment opportunities many in the community unfortunately fail to realise their potential.
Clever sociologists might be able to explain why so many people were prepared to migrate to Teesside when jobs were available but, generations later, their ancestors stay when the opportunities are so much diminished. Indeed out-migration tends to be higher amongst the most qualified rather than least. One thing is sure – a Detroit-style mass migration out of the town would inevitably leave Detroit-style issues of urban decay, abandonment and social fragmentation. Albeit we should remember that Detroit now, at last, seems to be resurgent.
Another thing is sure – if there had been a planning system in the 1870s Teesside (and me) would not exist. Vast areas of land were needed to build the new industries and homes. Development and growth at a rate inconceivable in the UK since 1947 and impossible since the abandonment of the New Town concept.
In today’s planning environment local plan proposals are derived from the household projections which are based on what has happened in the last five years. In stark contrast Middlesbrough grew on the basis of new inventions, new industries, new means of transport, new ways of raising finance and a new spirit of entrepreneurialism and ambition. Steel rails from Middlesbrough were laid across the globe. The current approach of “rationing” growth and forbidding development outside the local plan would have killed Middlesbrough at birth.
So no easy conclusions or answers. The home town remains a jewel in the UK’s industrial, manufacturing and exporting crown. A long-term economic success story accommodating huge numbers of highly skilled business leaders and workers exporting to the world. But the problem remains that it is home to more people than its modern manufacturing economy can support. As a result too many are leading wholly unfulfilled lives due to lack of opportunity and the statistics perhaps deter talented young people from moving to (or staying in) the town. The solution to that appears far from easy.