Higher Rock Education - Economics Blog

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sunderland England - A Remarkable Change

What is the “raison d’être” of your home town? It probably relates to its economy. I love economic history, particularly for small towns. How much has the economic history of your community affected your life? I bet the influence is significant. Cities change. They thrive if they take advantage of economic trends, but suffer when they fail to adapt. Our British contributor writes of how the economy has affected her town, Sunderland England.

Sunderland is in Northern England on the North Sea. Its “raison d’être” is ship building and coal mining. Today, the shipyards and coal mines are closed, but they are still an important part of Sunderland’s heritage and helped shape it into the community it is today.

I grew up in Sunderland England. My mum was a teacher and my dad worked for a construction company. Sunderland has been transformed during my lifetime, as the economy has shifted from heavy manufacturing to service-based. There are few places in the UK which have experienced such a sensational change.

When I was young, the city of Sunderland was an industrial town, with coal mines dotted throughout the area, a huge brewery right in the centre of town, and a shipbuilding core along the River Wear. In recent decades these enterprises have closed. Shipbuilding remains in our heritage even though the last shipyard closed in 1988. Our first shipyard was established in 1346 and the industry grew to a point our region built 25% of the world’s tonnage in the middle of the 19th century. England depended heavily on its ships during the World Wars.

Sunderland’s first coal mine opened in 1822. Eventually four mines were established in the area. They were some of the deepest and most productive mines in the world. Thousands of men and boys worked in the mines. The work was hard and dangerous, but essential in the war effort. The Germans recognized Sunderland’s importance and bombed it heavily during WWII. View the pictures of Sunderland during the War. (BBC) Alternative sources of cleaner energy reduced the demand for coal and our last coal mine closed in 1993.

The town was reconstructed after the war with predominantly drab, concrete, brutalistic architecture. It had a reputation (not entirely unfounded) of being somewhat of an unpleasant environment. (On the off chance that you believe my grandparents, this wasn’t the case pre-war, when the Victorian core of the town was actually quite beautiful). Some of my initial childhood memories of the town are of riding the double-decker, bright yellow “Sunderland Busways” buses into the depressingly utilitarian transport station on Crowtree Road, at that point strolling down the solid wind passage to the shops.

Before the 2008 recession, the city's economic yield per occupant was higher than the average of North-East and had been increasing faster than the national average. Notwithstanding, the gap between the national average and Sunderland stayed significant. But as in the past, our economy was more vulnerable to recessions than most other communities and following the 2008 financial crisis the spread again increased and caused widespread joblessness in the city.

Fast forward to 2017 and large parts of the town are indistinguishable from their past. It’s incredible that we regularly grumble about the glacially slow pace of progress in the city, with the council apparently taking a long time to decide anything. Be that as it may, when you look back only 30 years and compare it with today’s Sunderland, the difference is startling.

The city has attracted major international businesses, such as Nissan, Barclays, Nike and Berghaus, to name but a few. It has also developed strengths in new industries. Customer service industries have led the growth in jobs with companies such as Development Tester, Credit Risk Analyst, Global HEAT – ITSM Administrator, Cool Designs Limited, and JBT Waste Services (Bedlington).

Pedestrianization and regeneration of the urban city have (gradually) transformed the city. Entire streets have vanished and been replaced with glass-roofed shopping centres, paved squares or been swallowed up totally by different structures. The shipyards have all gone, replaced with a landscaped riverside, a University, museums, and a marina. Our coal mine has been replaced by Stadium of Light, the home of Sunderland A.F.C.

While manufacturing has not disappeared completely (Nissan opened the biggest car factory in Britain in Sunderland the mid-1980’s), the town has, overall, undergone a root-and-branch change in mindset. People now work in universities, industrial parks, research centres and places like the software city technology centre. The changes certainly haven’t been problem free, and some would argue the changes haven’t all been for the better. There’s little doubt that a Mackem from the 1950’s / 1960’s would look on at a Mackem of 2017 and barely recognize him. I know you are wondering what the word “Mackem” means. Mackem is a word that is associated with the people of Sunderland. The Sunderland’s people were known for shipbuilding and had a unique way of pronouncing the word “make” that differentiate them from the way the people of Newcastle say the same word. Thus, the people of Newcastle began calling people from Sunderland as Mackem, which was from the word “make them.”

Nevertheless, the city (which it became in 1992) now feels cleaner and wealthier than when I was younger. In fact, it was recently recognized as “The Best City For Business” by the Local Futures.

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