DISCUSSION Can the might of Redcar be unlocked again?

by Michael Wise _______29th October 2018
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There’s a synchronicity to events sometimes. So it was a month or so back when I noticed a BBC2 documentary called ‘The Mighty Redcar’. This was only a couple of weeks after visiting the town myself, as part of our ‘Voices of Progress’ inquiry.

I half expected the man I went to speak to, Frankie Wales, to feature in the documentary. After all, there are some people who have the sort of character that demands a big stage. A former steelworker, Frankie set up Redcar Development Trust 18 years ago as a boxing club. Youngsters still practice noble art there but RDT has, as they say, diversified. The day I visited, pensioners were enjoying a coffee morning, while they also put on music events and provide affordable living accommodation and rents for start-up businesses.

The point is to try and foster a community spirit while helping give young people the attitude, resourcefulness and skills they need to make their way in the wider world.

It was no surprise that such concerns formed the narrative threads of the four-part series, which focused on the steps, and mis-steps, made by youngsters trying to reconcile hopes and dreams with the reality of life in a town dealt a clanging blow three years ago when its steelworks – the main source of employment – closed down.

There was James, for example, a sort of Teesside James Dean, with great hair and a sullen manner, whose Dad’s in prison and who blows a chance of a telesales job when he’s convicted of burglary. And Saffy, who wins a netball scholarship but can’t afford the travel costs to her new school. “You’d think that for the people with the best ability or capacity, life would be fair,” she said. “But sometimes it’s just not possible.”

The main theme to emerge was the belief that, in order to achieve anything, it’s necessary to move away – to private school, to Greece (where three of the documentary’s subjects ended up) and, predictably, to London.

One of those moving to the Mediterranean – Jade – pointed out that building a fulfilling life in a place like Redcar is the right thing to do for the town’s sake – if it’s to stand the best chance of finding future prosperity that is. It was a mature and insightful thing for a 20-year-old to say, since, at that age, if you have any curiosity about the world, wanting to go out and see it is as natural as falling off a log.

And while the lure of London has been a strong one since forever, from certain vantage points it’s not hard to envision the capital, far from providing the lifeblood of the UK economy, as instead representing a tumour that’s growing out of control and sucking the lifeblood out of the rest of the country.

Young people might be dazzled by the bright lights and all the rest of it, but lots would want to stay put if there were more opportunities back home. And more still would surely come back home – after spending a few years away seeing the world and gaining skills – if the opportunities existed.

Spending a couple of hours with Frankie, I got the impression he could make an opportunity out of fresh air. “All I’m doing is just giving them real-life options and sustainability for themselves,” he told me. But it was his attitude – squaring up to life’s problems redoubtably and with humour – that lodged itself. Disadvantaged kids might be passing through the door, but what a role model they have.

Certainly I can’t remember meeting such an inspiring person at any company I’ve worked for. Then again, listen to Frankie and you realise why, for all his dynamism, such place might struggle with the attitude that comes with it:

“I met this guy from a local authority. I won’t name him, but he came to see me to talk about social isolation. We showed him a video and he said, ‘Well they don’t really look socially isolated’ and I said, ‘They’re not now because we’re doing something with them’.

‘Hmm. Well…mmm. So err where’s that? The Memorial Hall?’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know where that is.’ So I said, ‘Where are you from?’ And he said, ‘I live in Harrogate’.

“I said, ‘Right, let me just put this into context. You’re probably on about £100,000 a year. You don’t know what we do, you don’t know where we are. You don’t think those people are socially isolated. I’m not being funny, but what the f*ck do you do?’ And he was like ‘Huh?!’

“You’re completely clueless, you don’t know anything about the local issues, and it’s like, ‘Why are you in charge of the community when you don’t know anything about the community?’

“For me, it’s infuriating: that we still go, ‘Let’s build a new building, yay! Oh…we haven’t got any revenue to run it. Oh sh*t, I hadn’t thought of that. But we’ve got a new building though!’ That nobody uses…

“Who’s making these decisions? They’re obviously very well educated. But sometimes, when you’re very well educated, you haven’t any common sense.”

The point here is a strong one: is it to the benefit of places like Redcar, or to the benefit of an institution or company for that matter, to be administered by those at a remove, both physically and culturally? Those who, as a result, cannot fully understand the needs of those they administer?

Hopefully, it won’t be for a lack of willing or intelligence on their part. But if there isn’t a lived experience, or bond of some kind, then even the greatest level of educational attainment won’t engender the wisdom needed to make the right decisions.

It might be a company, it might be a country, yet the feeling persists that the fundamental problem – essentially one of wasted resources, whether financial or human – will not be improved without a fundamental change in the systems and structures that are in place. And such changes only happen when people with the power to make them start to see the world differently.

By shifting the perspectives and challenging the sensitivities of those who administer at a remove, people can be empowered at a local level. More trust should be placed in them…in us. It’s us who really know what’s best for our locale. Then we should be left to get on with it.

In this way, real skills, experience, purpose and confidence can be gained, by helping to build and improve things with the knowledge that our influence is being recognised. Resources will inevitably be put to better, more efficient use by those who have a real knowledge of what is to hand and where it might be needed.

Wealth can be created from less, almost from a standing start in some instances. Frankie told me that one of the shops they had renovated for next-to-nothing spawned a business that was soon generating a £250,000 per year turnover.

Hearing such anecdotes, it’s quite natural to question, ultimately, for whose benefit a company, or a country, is run. Are the former better served by senior managers and directors who have spent time in the trenches, learning the ropes, who have been drawn from the same well as most employees (and customers for that matter) or by those who are resolutely ‘on the fast track’ but who have little or nothing in common with the wider stakeholder, no matter how much they claim otherwise?

Pretty much the same question might be asked of the country’s governance. It will come as no surprise to learn that, in Redcar, the Brexit vote was 66 per cent in favour of ‘leave’; is there then a case for more devolution – not only from Brussels to Westminster, but also from Westminster to the regions?

Of course, talk is cheap. Those with power naturally find it hard to divest their bounty while cultural change happens in slow motion – particularly those changes which are misconstrued as backwards-looking.

“When I was a kid, Redcar was like the Wizard of Oz,” someone said in the documentary. “It was like walking through the door into the colour world.” Might it be possible to unlock the real might of places like Redcar again?

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