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Recession? That's no news to anyone in the North East

Did we really need the headlines when we can see the economic crisis out the window? 

February 16 2024, 18.09pm

We’re in a recession. You might have noticed, what with the 25% increase in food prices in the last few years, the spiking price of petrol, skyrocketing mortgage rates and astronomical energy bills. But it’s now official, because gross domestic product dropped in the last quarter of last year, marking two successive results of economic decline.

The formal  declaration that we’ve entered a recession is a stark reminder that economic formalities often lag (far) behind lived experiences. But it’s also evidence that – as in all aspects of economic policy – the load isn’t shared equally. Ask someone in the North East of England, where I live, if the UK has only just entered a recession and they’d tell you that it’s been going on for the best part of a decade or more.

Whenever tightening economic times come up in the news, I’m reminded of a vivid anecdote told by Nick Gray, a research associate at Teesside University. In a previous life, Gray worked in local government, and he and a colleague were wowed by the findings of a survey that most people hadn’t noticed the effect of what was then three years of austerity. He wrote: A colleague said, “people are going to get up one day, look around and say this place is a shit hole, what happened?”

The “shit hole theory” is why I, alongside many others, took the news that we’d officially entered a recession with a shrug. We could have told you that things aren’t working long back. The last few years have really brought home how out on its feet the UK – and particularly its regions furthest from London – have been hit by economic torpor.

I last took a train anywhere seven months ago, on a delayed trip to London. What would, five or so years ago, have been a monthly or more occurrence, is now a rarity. Investment into the railways is such that even if you can afford to take a train, and are lucky enough to get one that functions, it’s more likely than not that it’ll break down at some point on the journey. Like all of us, it’s giving up under the weight of economic depression. One study of how regions bounced back from the 2007-08 financial crisis that created the pretext for the austerity drive, found that the further you got from London and the south east of England, the less likely your region was to return to normal even a decade and a half later. 

It’s not just trains, of course. I’m due to speak at an event this Saturday that five years ago I’d have taken the bus to, but those services now seem to define their timetable as optional. The sclerotic Tyne and Wear Metro is similarly laid back, so, instead, I’ll walk for an hour and hope that the hopscotch of loose paving stones - another the result of years of underinvestmen - , don’t kick back dirty water over me on the way.

Other trips on my book tour will be taken by car to avoid the train. But even there, the impacts of recession are all too obvious. Potholes plague the streets I live on, filling with water. I’ll drive past a local council-run leisure centre that closed eight months ago, blocking the pathway of thousands of residents to stay healthy. It’s meant to be taken over and reopened by a community partnership and privately run, but they’re running months behind schedule.

These are all worlds that many of those who inhabit the Bank of England often experience only through spreadsheets. And I’m one of the lucky ones – the One Percent in a part of the world left behind. There are lives being lived – albeit barely – that are incalculably different to those for whom recession is a news item, or even news at all. They know only too well the wearisome reality of trying to make ends meet in a half-forgotten part of the country run by a government that’s already driven us off a cliff, and is now up there again, kicking loose stone, trying to see what else it can chuck down there. 


 Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK journalist who writes for WIRED, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times and more.