Hartlepool fights back against ‘decaying town’ article in The Economist

Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend (SUNDAY) and the weather is beautiful. Hartlepool Marina.
Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend (SUNDAY) and the weather is beautiful. Hartlepool Marina.

A TOWN business expert has issued an invitation for the author of a damning article on Hartlepool to come and see for themselves that the town is on the up.

It comes after national politics and business magazine The Economist published a report branding the town as “decaying”, “despite dollops of public money and years of heroic effort”, and urging the Government to turn its back on Hartlepool.

The BHS store in Middleton Grange, Hartlepool. Picture by FRANK REID

The BHS store in Middleton Grange, Hartlepool. Picture by FRANK REID

Key town figures have reacted angrily to the “misguided and ill-informed” article and comment piece, which urges ministers to abandon towns like Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Hull and instead concentrate on helping locals get jobs elsewhere.

Although acknowledging there are things still to be done, they say the town is far from being written off.

The Economist’s article called “Rustbelt Britain: The urban ghosts”, says Hartlepool has “precious little sign of improvement”, citing high unemployment, “appalling” schools’ performance and empty shops among its “failings”.

But Hartlepool MP Iain Wright said: “It’s really lazy, prejudiced, ignorant journalism, it fuels the tired cliche of ‘it’s grim up north’.”

He acknowledged problems around youth unemployment and skills, blaming Government cuts for sucking money out of the town’s economy.
“There are real concerns about the idea that Hartlepool is a town that should be allowed to die with grace and dignity,” said the MP.

“It shows such a profound lack of understanding about the resilience of the place and how fantastic the people are.”

Colin Griffiths, a business consultant based at Stranton Business Centre, replied to The Economist online, inviting the unnamed author to the town.

“Has he ever been north of the M25 to see what the rest of the country has to offer?” he asked.

“There has been some great investment in the town over the last 15 years and yes it has had to get over some difficult times, caused by the banking industry in London.”

The town’s Middleton Grange Shopping Centre is described as “an ugly grey 1970s box that dominates the centre of town” in the article, which cites “gaps where firms have disappeared”.

But centre manager Mark Rycraft said: “I’m disappointed. There has been a lot of investment by retailers in the past two years at Middleton Grange in the way of Home Bargains, Sports Direct and BHS and PPG has invested millions in new ceilings, rebranding and cladding the outside.

“The centre remains vibrant and footfall is up year-on-year.”

North-East regional consultant and blogger Graham Soult said the article was not “realistic” and said although there are empty shops, plenty of businesses are investing and opening up in town.

Vikki Jackson-Smith, managing director of J&B Recycling, which won Hartlepool Business of the Year in this year’s Hartlepool Business Awards, said the article sends out “completely the wrong idea when we are trying to attract investment”.

The Economist says even the most ambitious people still leave towns like Hartlepool as “their size, location and demographics mean they will never offer the types of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like”.

But town restaurateur and tourism champion Krimo Bouabda said the hospitality trade is beginning to rise, particularly after the success of the Tall Ships Races in 2010.

Hartlepool Council leader, Councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher, said the picture painted by the magazine “bears little resemblance to reality”.

He said schools perform well, the council is exploring new ways of attracting public and private sector investment and helping to combat youth joblessness.

He said there are plans to revitalise Seaton Carew including new housing, community improvements and major regeneration of the main seafront area.