Andrew Vine: What the EU has done for Yorkshire

EU funding has helped fuel the regeneration of Sheffield and South Yorkshire.
EU funding has helped fuel the regeneration of Sheffield and South Yorkshire.
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By staying in we can steer Brussels away from its worst excesses and back towards the good friend it has been in the past.

WE CANNOT know for sure if the rancour of the EU referendum campaign is a factor in the tragedy that has shocked Britain.

Until the alleged killer of Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox stands trial, the reasons why this outstanding young politician was shot and stabbed, leaving her husband widowed and their two young children without a mother, will remain unclear.

Yet if the distortions and half-truths about immigration, the economy and sovereignty spouted by intemperate voices on both sides turn out to have been factors, politicians must search their souls about the way this country conducts its debates.

Mrs Cox will be on the minds of many in the polling booths on Thursday, exactly a week after her death.

She was a passionate campaigner for Britain to remain in the EU, and I hope the majority of voters agree with her.

That’s the way I will be voting, and not because of the bitter, divisive slanging match that has passed for the debate.

But because of something that has been disgracefully absent from the campaign. Evidence.

Solid evidence, right here on our doorsteps in Yorkshire, that the EU has done us infinitely more good than harm.

In an hour of desperate need for Yorkshire, the EU proved to be a staunch and generous friend.

For all its many flaws, it came to the rescue of communities that were at rock bottom and helped them rebuild a future from the wreckage of the past.

It proved its worth, and gave a glimpse of the force for good it should be.

Memories can grow short as we look around the Yorkshire of 2016, with its optimism, business acumen and forward-looking, can-do attitude.

But a quarter-of-a-century ago, at the dawn of the 1990s, parts of Yorkshire looked very different.

The industrial upheavals of the 1980s kicked the stuffing out of communities, and South Yorkshire was amongst the worst hit.

History may have proved Margaret Thatcher right in the need for the economy to be administered a strong dose of nasty medicine if the country was to recover from being the sick man of Europe, but the side-effects were horrible.

In the east end of Sheffield, forges and engineering firms went bust, but the city’s losses were dwarfed by the calamity that hit the Dearne Valley as pits, coking plants and the industry that supported them shut, sending unemployment soaring and communities into despair.

The Dearne earned the unenviable distinction of being labelled Europe’s biggest industrial wasteland.

Boarded-up rows of houses and shops were everywhere. There were derelict factories with every window broken, and overgrown wildernesses of contaminated industrial sites, fenced off to keep the public out.

Parts of the valley that had done so much to drive the Industrial Revolution were so blighted and forlorn that they could have served as the backdrop for a Hollywood blockbuster set in a post-apocalypse landscape.

Government policy was blamed by the Dearne’s people for what had happened to them, and insult was added to injury by Whitehall’s apparent indifference to helping the area get back on its feet.

It was the EU that threw a lifeline, supporting a recovery plan put in place by the local authorities in Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, which were faced by the grim fact that without a radical rebirth, the area and its people had no future.

The EU was the midwife to that rebirth. In the early 1990s, it poured £750m of aid into South Yorkshire – a vast sum even today, but then a colossal investment.

It was far-sighted enough to see that the area’s scars would take decades to heal, and so between 2000 and 2009, it provided a further £820m.

And the evidence of the EU’s worth is plain to see in the Dearne today, its wastelands now just a memory.

It is to be seen in the new road network, the office blocks and industrial units, the rows of terraces that have got their dignity back, and the new houses that have sprung up because it is once more an inviting place to live.

It is there in the new jobs that have been created, and in the career paths now available to the children going through schools.

The question often posed during this campaign is: “What has the EU ever done for us?” In the case of South Yorkshire – and particularly the Dearne – the answer is an unequivocal: “Made all the difference.”

Yes, the EU needs a comprehensive shake-up, and if David Cameron gets his way on Thursday and Britain votes to remain, he should regard that not as the end of a difficult journey, but the beginning of one that may prove even harder in pressing for reform.

We owe the EU a debt of gratitude. We also owe it to the EU to remind it of the good it can do, and by staying in steer it away from its worst excesses and back towards being the good friend it proved.