Report: Could a jump-start give Sunderland a burst of energy?

What are the big issues facing the people of Sunderland? Can politics do anything to fix them? And will it be easier or harder to do so if we quit the EU?

These were topics eight constituents debated with local MP Bridget Phillipson and CommonGround on February 2, just hours before Nissan abandoned plans to build its X-Trail model at its vast plant in the city– citing Brexit uncertainty as one of the reasons. Sunderland famously voted Leave in 2016, despite its exposure to the car industry.

Problems, problems

The constituents spent the first half of the two-hour session identifying issues. The “B word” was mentioned a few times. But most of the passion concerned a litany of other problems: the “dying” city centre, the city’s image in the rest of the UK, child poverty, privatisation of the NHS, homelessness, empty homes, universal credit, food banks, people leaving the city, no job opportunities for graduates, lack of aspiration, loneliness, zero hour contracts, brownfield sites, and public transport.

Quite a lot was said about transport. Parking was a “mess” in the city centre. New estates were built without public transport links, meaning people needed cars. Some bus services stopped at 6pm. One bus took such a roundabout route that you needed to “take a packed lunch” on it.

There was also a sense of unfairness. Sunderland didn’t get much public money unlike cities in the south of England. It wasn’t even doing as well as nearby Newcastle and Durham. And without public money, it wasn’t getting much private investment. Locals weren’t staying and outsiders weren’t coming.

A young man, studying politics at Leeds University, said he didn’t think he’d come back to settle in the city. A woman said all her kids had left for London and Edinburgh. She added: “People won’t come to work in Sunderland if they have the choice of leafy suburbs in Surrey. You can’t blame them.”

What about the good things?

So lots of problems. But what about the city’s good features? Friendly people is certainly one – “more than down south where people are stuck up their own behinds”. The people are one of the best things “proud, caring and hard working”, said the student. Resilience was another quality people mentioned: “We’re strong, we come back.”

Other good things? The football club, the beautiful sea front and lovely beaches, the bridge, a fire station that has been converted in the city centre, an old pit now used for events (but not often enough), the once-a-year air show, the thriving software hub, the university and the medical school about to open. But two people couldn’t think of anything good about the city.

We had a brief discussion about immigration. One man said there was a small Bangladeshi community that didn’t always integrate. One woman said Sunderland had lost out on the chance to be the city of culture because it was not ethnically diverse. Another said they should invite other cultures to display food etc at events such as the air show.

One woman said immigration had been an issue in the referendum but “it was the perception of immigration because we don’t have any here.” A few said that the far right had tried to stir up racial hatred with marches in the city. One man said: “Noone’s 100% British. We’ve all got different blood in us, including Viking blood.”

Solutions

What about politicians? Could they help solve the problems the group had identified?

One view was that politicians don’t care, “they are in it for themselves”, they are “too scared to step out of the party line” and that they “don’t answer the question”.

Bridget Phillipson then explained her frustration as a local MP. She could sometimes help individuals but she couldn’t do much about structural issues. She also said that often issues were complex and it was unrealistic to give simple yes/no answers to questions.

On reflection, almost all round the table said they didn’t have such a negative view of politicians after all.

CommonGround then presented the three main ideas in its report, Tackling the Causes of Brexit: a Jumpstart Fund for areas that had been deprived of investment, more cash for the NHS and a migration and communities fund.

It was the Jumpstart Fund that captured the imagination. The idea is that with significant public money, communities such as Sunderland might be able to break out of a negative cycle. Private investment might follow, the brain drain reverse, local government finances improve and the city’s public image recover.

“Spot on” said one participant. “If you jump-start, the other things would fall into place,” said another. The top priority was the train station, an “eyesore” which gave a bad impression to visitors, according to one. Joined up transport, said another. But one man cautioned that it was necessary to put money into the areas around Sunderland, not just the city centre.

“You need something that gives a burst of energy; it can be an amazing place,” said the woman who previously couldn’t think of anything good in the city. “There’s no reason Sunderland can’t be like Newcastle.”

Is Brexit the solution?

So what about Brexit? Would that give the city its boost of energy?

Of the eight constituents, two didn’t say how they voted in 2016 and one, the student, was too young to vote. Of the remaining five, two voted to leave the EU and three voted to stay.

The student would vote to stay if there was a new referendum. Young people were “going to have to deal with the repercussions [of Brexit], get on the property ladder, start families, when the backlash comes.”

One leave voter, the woman who wanted a burst of energy for the city, said she didn’t understand Brexit in 2016. It had “opened a can of worms. I’m scared… If there’s another referendum, I’d vote ‘Remain’.”

The other leave voter said: “We should honour the referendum and come out.” He thought the EU was dictating our laws and borders. But he was equivocal. If he knew then what he knew now he might have voted ‘Remain’. “It makes you wonder whether it’s worth it.”

As for the others, one hoped she would “wake up and find it was an awful nightmare”. She was anxious we won’t get a good deal. “If France wanted to come out, we wouldn’t give them a good deal. We’re not holding all the cards.”

Another said she voted ‘Remain” for her children and grandchildren. But she was worried that if we had a new referendum, there might be the same result.

One ‘Remain’ voter was scared because his inhaler comes from Germany but still thought we should “just get on with it”. On the other hand, the student said that, even though there was a backlash, he would like to go back to the people.

One voter who didn’t say how he voted in 2016 said he was worried Brexit would damage the university by reducing the number of EU students – and that there were questions about what Nissan would do. Since we met, dark clouds have been gathering over the UK’s automotive industry, with Honda announcing plans to close its Swindon plant completely.

The people of Sunderland are resilient. But they will need all the help they can get to give their city a burst of energy.

CommonGround was last in Sunderland in 2017.

By Hugo Dixon