James Kirkup

Why Net Zero has to help towns like Blyth

Why Net Zero has to help towns like Blyth
Blyth harbour (photo: iStock)
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It is reported today that a company called Britishvolt will build a huge ‘gigaplant’ making electric car batteries in Blyth in Northumberland. There are huge numbers attached to this: £2.6 billion of investment, 3,000 people directly employed and another 5,000 jobs promised in the supply chain for the factory.

I really hope that this stuff happens, even in part. That’s partly because I’d love to see more proof that the transition to a lower-carbon economy really can translate into tangible economic benefit. Though I’m in favour of Net Zero and decarbonisation, I do worry that the political case for them is sometimes being sold on promises of economic gain that will not always deliver tangible benefits to the voters whose consent for low-carbon policies will always be needed. I also get very suspicious when I see big, round numbers being quoted for jobs created in the supply chain for promised developments.

Put more simply, if the grand promises being made today about that gigafactory don’t actually stack up, voters, especially poorer ones in poorer parts of the country, might just start to wonder whether Net Zero just means more expensive non-petrol cars, expensive new home heating (are you keen to pay £6,000 for a heat pump to replace your gas boiler?) and not much that actually makes their everyday lives better.

But mainly, I hope those grand giga-promises are met for the sake of Blyth.

Chances are that you, dear Spectator reader, are not familiar with Blyth. If you know about it at all, it’s possibly as one of the Labour seats that turned blue last December and is lumped in with the Red Wall, even though it’s north of the actual ‘Red Wall’ – and of Hadrian’s pile of bricks too.

But I know Blyth, or used to, a bit. When I was growing up in greener, luckier parts of Northumberland in the 1980s and early 1990s, Blyth was a grim, sad place.

For Blyth had lost not one but two industries. The first was coal. For generations, my grandparents among them, mining underpinned not just the economy of south-east Northumberland but its culture too. And the coal that was mined in Northumberland needed to travel elsewhere, so Blyth became a port town, once the biggest coal port in Europe. From that grew a shipyard. Coal and shipbuilding: you know how both those stories ended.

A cuttings check I did for this piece shows that in 1990, a survey named Blyth as England’s worst town on the basis of education, health, crime and employment. I don’t remember the survey, but I doubt anyone seriously challenged it at the time.

About the only thing that seemed to be on the up for Blyth was drug use: stories of the dealers who dominated the place reached us a few miles away at school in comparatively prosperous Morpeth. The town and the nearby pit villages in the Blyth Valley were once rumoured to have the highest per-capita rate of drug deaths in western Europe. In 1997, Panorama ran a whole programme on the fatal use of methadone in Blyth.

Arguably, that Blyth, the one I dimly remember, prefigured a great deal about British and even US politics in recent years: a peripheral post-industrial town where white working-class lives too often ended in what are now called ‘deaths of despair’.

Much has changed since then, though I can only see that from a distance: I left Northumberland in the mid-1990s, for Edinburgh then London. But I’ll always be from there. To use the analysis of David Goodhart, I may now live the life of an ‘anywhere’ but I’m still from ‘somewhere’ and always will be.

And Blyth has changed. Like many of the pit villages of south-east Northumberland, it’s more and more of a commuter town for Newcastle, where there are a good number of well-paying jobs, largely in the public sector. The slow economic transformation has changed politics too. Last year saw the startling election of a Conservative, Ian Levy, as Blyth’s MP, replacing Ronnie Campbell, a man who, with his family, was woven into the story of Blyth’s post-industrial pain and pride. Two years earlier, old pit villages like Pegswood went Tory too: 2017’s local election results were a pretty clear signpost to the fall of the Red Wall, for the few of us who pay attention to Northumberland.

But commuters shuttling to public-sector jobs elsewhere aren’t a substitute for good local jobs and a strong private sector, the things that make a place grow and thrive and feel proud. Those are the things that the green industrial revolution is now promising to bring back to Blyth. I truly hope those promises are met.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

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