The more I go on in politics, taking part in and analysing the public policy debate, the more I reflect on how hard it is to get balance into that debate.
We operate today in a world of headlines and instant news, soundbites and sensation. If you can't sum it up in 30 seconds, don't bother seems to be the rule. And balance in such a short space of time is likely simply to confuse.
So when we launched a report on the North/South divide, I said: yes, the divide exists, but that is too simplistic an analysis. In fact, disparities within regions are greater than those between regions.
First, I was told I had denied the North/South divide existed. Then when I said that's wrong, it does exist, I was told I had U-turned.
Likewise, either I was denying any poverty existed in the North or I was "forced" to admit that it did exist.
The casualty is balance. The North/South divide does indeed exist. The statistics show it. But they also show - as I saw for myself down in Cornwall recently - that there are areas of the South that also need help. They also show city problems are not all the same as country problems.
What we need is a sense of balance. Otherwise we spend our lives in a constant state of grievance, pitting one part of Britain against another, rather than sorting out the problems wherever they exist.
So to the North East. We have had to undergo a massive period of industrial upheaval. It has been hard. Some areas are still deep in suffering.
But let's get a sense of balance. We have also had really great things happening in this region. Newcastle is rapidly becoming one of the most dynamic cities in Europe. The region is pulling together as a region now better than ever before. We have had some strong inward investment here. Unemployment is down way below the levels I knew when I was a new MP for Sedgefield in 1983. Living standards are rising.
There is much cause for concern. But also some cause for confidence. And though the level of Government spending is important, it is not the only issue.
I will get a fair deal for the North East. While I govern for the whole of the country, I never forget the people who elected me are in the North East.
But how we use the money is as important as the overall amount. Let us never forget that creating wealth in the whole of the United Kingdom benefits all the United Kingdom.
The new North East
Sometimes, perceptions and facts diverge.
I believe this is the case in the North East at the moment. The perceptions are often gloomy. But the facts tell a different tale.
Unemployment is falling faster in the North East than almost anywhere else in the country - including the South East. It fell from 7.5% to 6.8% last year. The fall since May 1997 is 19%. The numbers of young people unemployed for more than six months has dropped by 55% in the last 2 years. In the early 1990s around 30 unemployed chased every single job centre vacancy in the North East. Now it is under four - the same as the national average.
More than 400 companies have come to the North East over the last dozen years, creating 90,000 jobs and bringing in ??9 billion of investment.
The future of the North East economy is taking shape: new service industries, new high-tech companies, a growing reputation for research and technology transfer, a strong record of attracting foreign investment.
The Government has played an active role in this recovery.
We have spent ??46 million in the North East getting the employed back to work. While the North East has 4.2% of the country's population, it has so far received 6.6% of New Deal funding, reflecting the region's special needs. This has already got 8,000 people back into jobs.
We are also promoting innovation and investment. Since May 1997, the DTI has provided over 500 Regional Selective Assistance grants totalling ??80 million. This has brought in over ??700 million in private investment and is expected to create more than 13,000 new jobs and safeguard a further 4,700.
And we are backing high-tech start-ups in the region. We recently announced grants for 29 small companies to help them with R&D. These grants, under the SMART scheme, will help companies such as Visitech International develop a 3D imaging system for the pharmaceutical industry.
Providing overall strategic direction is One NorthEast, the Regional Development Agency of the North East. It is now implementing its regional economic strategy, backed by ??500 million from the European Union.
That is why I am delighted to be able to announce tonight an example of how One NorthEast is increasingly making a difference.
Thanks in part to One NorthEast's efforts, a major ??150 million joint venture is being launched in North Tyneside next month, creating 400 high-calibre new jobs. Equinox, a joint venture between Ernst and Young and Jardine Motors Group, will provide business support services, including IT services, to the motor retail industry. This is just the sort of high quality, information-sector enterprise the region needs.
Yes, we have lost names like Fujitsu. I know too the real problems the level of the pound causes. But with support from One NorthEast and others, companies are consolidating, beginning to fight back and bounce back.
As the British Chambers of Commerce report a few days ago confirms, North-East companies are bucking the trend. Growth is higher than in other parts of the country.
This is beginning to feed through into business confidence.
The latest DHL Quarterly Export Indicator shows a 100% increase in long-term export confidence. This is a major turnaround. A year ago, long-term Northern export confidence was at a 6 year low.
Stability for the nation
We need to consolidate and build on these gains - not lose them in yet another bitter British recession. So how do we strengthen the economy, not just of the North East but of Britain PLC? The first requirement, the foundation of the Government's policy, is stability in economic management.
This Government has put stability at the centre of our economic strategy, not for its own sake, but because it is the pre-requisite for everything else. For a strong economy and new jobs. For long-term growth. For getting money into public services.
The budget this month will reinforce this approach. It will be a budget for enterprise and employment. I am confident business will welcome it. But it will also help hard-working families in areas like this and extend opportunities to those who have been deprived of them.
The New Labour Government's economic policy is an attempt to break sharply with both the policies of the old left and with the laissez-faire of the right.
Britain's current macroeconomic stability is unprecedented in our post-war history. For the first time since the war, we have gone through an economic cycle without going into recession. Made possible by reform.
I understand your concerns about the high exchange rate. But the key to long-term exchange rate stability is economic stability at home. Any artificial solution would quickly return us to the days of boom and bust.
Until recently, our economy was one of the most unstable major industrial economies in the world. Unsustainable booms would be followed by inevitable busts. And each time, we lost jobs that we never made up. British performance lagged behind that of our competitors. In the 1970s, average growth in the UK was 1.9%. In France, it was 3.3%. In the 1990s, average growth to 1997 in Britain was 2%. In Germany - despite the costs of unification - it was almost 3%.
We ignored one of the basic laws of modern economics. Something our competitors realised years ago. That if your interest rates don't promote stability for the whole economy, the markets will punish you. That the price for unrealistically low interest rates today is higher interest rates tomorrow.
Remember the days in the early 1990s when interest rates were 15% for a year, 10% for four years or more?
The result of chronic instability has been low investment over the long-term. Over the decades, we have fallen behind on productivity and technology.
Breaking this corrosive cycle of instability has been one of this Government's key priorities. Tackling it has involved tough decisions and radical changes.
We have put in place a new monetary policy framework, giving the Bank of England responsibility for setting interest rates in the long-term interests of the country as a whole. We have convinced the markets that the days when monetary policy was manipulated for political gain are over. That is why long-term British interest rates are now at their lowest for over thirty years.
We have put in place a new fiscal policy framework based on the principle that you don't spend more than you earn over the economic cycle. And as part of that, we have put in place a new public spending framework which encourages long-term planning and investment
This is the solid foundation upon which we are now building the new British economy. Macroeconomic stability is necessary for a step change in Britain's economic performance. But by itself it is not enough.
A step change in performance
To achieve a lasting step change in Britain's economic performance we have been putting in place a radically different approach to policy across the board.
I believe the role of government today is to equip people and business for the new economy in which we are going to live and work. To improve education and training; to broaden access to technology; to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship; to reform our labour markets and welfare systems.
Full employment is within reach for the first time in our generation, if we have the will to push through the necessary reforms.
Education and training
It is a truism to say that people are our greatest resource.
That information and ideas the raw materials of the new economy. That in the knowledge economy, education is an economic policy.
But for too long, education has not been part of our overall economic strategy.
That is why we are now putting education and training at the heart of our approach and introducing measures to boost enterprise skills from school to adulthood. Making nursery education the foundation of a new culture of learning. Putting literacy and numeracy at the forefront of primary education. A new concept of comprehensive secondary schooling based on equality of opportunity rather than uniformity. Specialist schools to nurture special talents and increase the skills available to the country. Making higher education the right of the many, not the preserve of the lucky few.
For too long we accepted low standards and low ambitions for all but a small minority. This cannot and must not continue. As employers have been saying for decades, this is a waste of talent and resources that has put Britain at a severe disadvantage compared to our major competitors.
Education is the best way of preparing people for a job. But the bottom line is that new jobs require new investment.
Governments can and should play a role here.
The difference today is that we are doing this by creating an attractive environment for private investment. Helping the small businesses that are the main generator of new jobs in today's economy. Not trying to shore up failing industries with public money in the face of economic change.
We have introduced a new lower 10% starting rate for the smallest 270,000 companies and are encouraging investment in innovative, high-risk companies, through a new Venture Capital enterprise fund.
W are also launching a Small Business Service next month to lower the barriers to entrepreneurship still further. It will help small business get the access to advice and finance only previously available to big business. The CEO is David Irvin, known to many of you from his Project North East achievements.
One of the key roles will be tackling unnecessary business burdens and regulation. That is why we are putting through a new Bill allowing rapid de-regulation as part of our current legislative programme.
Good public infrastructure is a precondition to private investment. That is why we are investing in modernising our infrastructure. And no more so than in the North East. Last December, we announced funding for the ??100 million extension of the Metro system to Sunderland. And over the current financial year, Government funding of local authority transport schemes in the North East rose by 34% compared to 14% nationally.
High unemployment areas face special problems attracting investment. We are tackling these directly, through our national strategy for neighbourhood renewal and our regeneration programmes. Through the Regional Development Agencies. Through our new Phoenix Fund.
We will also work with the Social Investment Task Force when it reports in the autumn, to look at new ways of bringing enterprise to disadvantaged areas - for example, through new tax incentives and a new venture capital framework to give start-ups the access to the affordable finance they need.
As the economy becomes more flexible and adapts to global economic change, so our labour markets need to become more flexible and adaptable.
I have always been clear that we can bring more people into the labour market and cut unemployment at the same time. That we can both create a fairer Britain and cut the cost of social failure through welfare reform.
Already we are spending around ??3 billion less on benefits than the previous government's spending plans predicted. The New Deal has helped nearly 200,000 young people into jobs. Youth unemployment is at its lowest for a generation. Job vacancies are at record levels.
Many more people are now benefiting from a fair wage - with the combination of the minimum wage and the Working Family Tax Credit. We are making work pay.
With new support has come a clear expectation that people should take jobs.
Where there are barriers to work we are tackling them - whether they are lack of basic skills, childcare or transport or the dead hand of benefits.
We are acting:
* by helping more people to enter the labour market through extending the New Deal to the over fifties, as we're doing next month;
* by providing help with skills, job search, transport, and using specialised help to link the people who need jobs to the employers facing skills shortages;
* by supporting not just the unemployed but also lone parents and the disabled.
This is what I call the new supply side revolution. Pushing through the educational, fiscal and welfare reforms necessary to create an environment that supports small business, entrepreneurship and job creation.
I would also like to mention one other subject vital to Britain's long-term economic prosperity: Europe.
I hardly need stress the importance of Europe to a North East audience such as yourselves. The European Union is our largest market, taking nearly 60% of our exports. Over 140,000 jobs in the North East depend on exports and investment linked to Europe. Nissan came to Sunderland because it is one of the best places to do business in Britain. But they came to Britain because it gives them unfettered access to Europe's Single Market.
We would be foolish to put that at risk. To raise doubts in the minds of inward investors as to our commitment to Europe. To give them reasons for investing in Spain, or France or Portugal rather than Britain.
That is why this Government is pro-Europe, pro-reform. That why we have not ruled out joining the Euro. The test will be the national economic interest: the impact on British business, British jobs and British investment.
We will work to change Europe, but change it from the inside. Constructively, pragmatically. Not carp from the sidelines.
Because that is what is best for Britain.
To conclude, I believe our approach to the North East underlines what I am convinced is the proper role for Government in the economy today.
At the macro level, providing stability to plan for the long-term. At the micro level, tackling the barriers to investment and jobs and focusing enterprise on the areas that need it most. Not hand-outs but hand-ups.
And North East solutions for North East problems.
Living standards are rising here and around the country. The economy is in balance, more people are in work, the bill for social failure is falling. More money is now going into strengthening public services in a sustainable way.
Supply-side reforms such as the New Deal, welfare reform in benefit rules, the Working Family Tax Credit, the encouragement of new technology are paving the way for step change in Britain's economic performance.
Reform is unlocking Britain's potential.
There are still obstacles facing full recovery in the North East. But I believe confidence is now the main missing ingredient. When the conditions are right, business optimisim is a self-fulfilling phenomenon.
I believe the conditions are now right for a full recovery in the North East.
I am not going to pretend there are not problems. There are. Big problems. But equally, I believe that we are making a difference.
That we can be confident the North East has a future of greater prosperity and opportunity than the past.