Tuesday, 1 November 2016
If you follow my facebook roundabout this upload https://www.facebook.com/robert.forsythe.39 in time, you will see Fiona and I spent a short break in the Netherlands (number 8 visit for me) in late October 2016. I revisited places like Arnhem and Zutphen I had only been to once before in July 1971. On another level we have through 2016 been referring to Devolution in the UK and how the North East having been on the verge of a seven authority deal spat the dummy out. Currently in October the news is that Newcastle probably with the support of North Tyneside and Northumberland will go it alone. They will have a brand the Great North City (playing on the Great North Run and the Great North Exhibition (to come for 2018)). Now I must tweak this. The North East is not going to be able to do better than Manchester or even Yorkshire. We should go for what is uniquely us and is a good a brand as any. The epithet should be The Great Northumbrian City. Northumbria has various interpretations as a good place but the Tourist Board for years stretched from the Cleveland Hills to the Tees and across to the Pennine Watershed. I am good with that. However that means not only the dissenting factions around the Wear but the Tees Valley needs to be the whole entity. And it does, to compete the whole natural geographical region of Tees, Wear and Tyne, we need to unite.
This does all tie back to the Dutch visit. The Randstad. There was a time not many generations ago when the Northumbria I speak of would have outshone the Randstad. There are many comparisons. The actual area involved is not much different, both are maritime facing regions, both contain numerous competing cities. However broadly since the 1950s, one has been in continual decline, the other has gone onto steroids. I might suggest each extreme is unpleasant. I can see why for many Dutch the ferry from Ijmuiden is to the promised land, we experienced the opposite a week ago. Our open Pennine landscapes fringing the cities, our rocky environment is magical to the outsider. As I did on Saturday to come into the Tyne, take the coach connection into the heart of Newcastle and then the train to Prudhoe is an inspirational ride and the Dutch can understand that.
A lot of the Netherlands is not in The Randstad. Our short break went well beyond it, only Monday and Friday crossed the Randstad and when we did we saw very impressive modern building, yes, but also a nightmare vision of what development on steroids means. The mass motorways, the railway and metro building, you have to see it to believe it. It is awe inspiring.
I may not want the Randstad for Northumbria and I doubt Northumbrians would but where is there scope to pitch in the middle? I am convinced as plans currently afoot for a Great North Institute in Newcastle suggest, that part of the solution is to understand how the North East exercised genius in the past. A genius which with both the steam and the electric locomotive we exported to the Netherlands. But there is something we can and must learn from the Dutch and which currently the North East with its warring factions is hopeless about. It is understanding that design, detail and integration all matter.
The header photo from Zutphen was of a delicious example of public art on a quayside of a tributary of the Rhine. A simple hydraulic structure to be played with which captures the essence of Dutch genius, hydraulic engineering. Set in an appropriate context, the old quays of a Hanseatic town with a busy railway and barge carrying river behind. The Dutch still try to use all modes of transport appropriately. Who would imagine now that goods should be shipped from Blaydon? Even shipped from Blaydon to Tees-side. We have got right out the habit, even though it is good to say the new North Yorkshire Moors Potash mega mine will ship from the Tees. But we were as good at the transport habit as the Dutch remain, we have to recover it.
Time and again in my blog and on my Facebook, for years now, I have berated the lack of progress with North East public transport. So utterly different to the Randstad. I accept that the devolution plan has itemised many of the items I speak up for but until the devolution is delivered nothing happens. What has been done lately? The A1 Western Bypass upgrade. What a lash up! Destroy the hard shoulders, lanes that vary in width. Ignore every piece of common sense in fast road design when there was a hill through which a tunnel could be driven and through traffic sent through. Lobley Hill. Not difficult. Name the road tunnels of the North East? Three I think: Cradlewell and Tyne 1+2. The Dutch in their flat landscape build tunnels without blinking (TBH they spend vast amounts of money doing it and create much employment).
But leave the infrastructure. For years we have talked about an Oyster card for the North East. The Dutch have had one for years, the OV Chipkaart. We used it for all our travel. And at the smallest detail, in Arnhem, the litter bins wear welly boots. And a city of 70,000 people boasts a two year old library which leaves Newcastle standing. Newcastle's new library is nice, but go to Arnhem's and you will be awestruck. Now much of this difference is because between the Dutch and the Brits for 30 years there has been a pretty large gulph over public society. Our local authorities have been hammered. There have been business successes, Nissan and Port of Tyne prove this.
However unless public authorities can be trusted and given resource, unless the bus companies can be told when and where buses will run, how they will connect with trains (for which Prudhoe is the most laughable example (and so is a new councillor endorsed walking leaflet from Stocksfield station which makes no mention of the train service)), until we can get the North East connected up and given clout to argue its case, the divide and rule which the sceptic will assume is government policy or at least Mandarin think, will remain.