WHERE do you live and where do you come from? If you’re on holiday and someone asks where you are from, what do you say?
The reason I ask is that last week James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, said that the North-East didn’t really exist, didn’t have a distinct regional identity and was “a political construct” and a left-wing label.
To be fair to James, he is interested in the issue of identity and used his maiden speech in Parliament two years ago to describe his belief that Teesside didn’t exist and wasn’t somewhere that normal people could identify.
To some extent, I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I can’t think many people in Hartlepool believe in the notion of themselves as Teessiders.
Equally, it would not be in the interests of the town to become part of a Teesside Metropolitan Council, although I fear that financial pressures are pushing us that way.
But, with the greatest of respect to James, my Parliamentary colleague, to suggest that there is no such place as the North-East is simply rubbish.
I find it fascinating to see what constituents put on their letters and emails to me. The vast majority tend to do what I do, and just put Hartlepool and no county.
This is because I think they believe, as I do, that Hartlepool is a standalone town, confirmed by a unitary council. A surprisingly high number of people still put Cleveland as their address, even though it hasn’t existed since 1996 and I don’t think has ever really captured the people’s imagination as a real place.
An astonishingly high number put Tees Valley, even though I don’t think anybody agrees with such a term. A growing number put Co Durham, which I can very much relate to.
Hartlepool is proud and stands alone, but I think we are also part of a region with a strong history, culture and sense of identity.
The North-East probably has the strongest regional identity of any place in the country, although I’m sure Yorkshire would probably want to fight us for that title.
People have distinct thoughts when it comes to thinking about the North East: often clichés and stereotypes, but they are still important pointers to gauge your history and values.
A sense of history, pride at the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, a greater sense of community than exists in other areas and a belief in standing up to adversity and authority.
Regional identity does not mean everybody being the same, nor does it stop rivalries.
I would imagine that Pools fans, as well as the small handful of fans who support a non-league team in the town of Darlington, can describe themselves as from the North East, whilst being fierce rivals. The same can be said from slightly less important football teams from Newcastle and Sunderland.
Last week I was at an event with civil engineers, who stated quite clearly that infrastructure matters for the economy and the North-East needs to speak with a strong, unified voice to help achieve those investments.
They didn’t deny the existence of the region, nor did they see it as a left-wing political construct.
I am afraid that, although James holds these views on identity in quite a serious way, the Government sees the North-East as a no-go area so they say it doesn’t exist.
That is quite wrong.
We have a strong identity, based largely upon our proud history, challenges faced and values cultivated. We also have a great future if the North-East can act together.