Sunday, 10 June 2018

The North's biggest assets are not its big cities - they're its problem

Most analyses of England's "North" start and finish with industrial decline and the ever-deepening divide between North and South. I fear that our analyses suffer from a fatal flaw in that they focus on the idea that the future for The North lies in those former beating hearts of industrial England and especially the transpennine cities - Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield.

The result of this analysis is a false imaging of The North as a peculiarly working-class place - once of flat caps, whippets and tea from chipped pint mugs while sitting on a box at the allotment, now of urban wasteland, sportswear, obesity and despair. Here's Phillip Blond concluding his analysis:
The more that the North escapes its working-class monoculture by bringing back the people who left, the more the working classes will benefit, because a diverse social mix is exactly what will create opportunities for the young people currently and cruelly being left behind.
Now I live in The North, in a lovely village an hour from Manchester and 20 minutes from Leeds and Bradford. It's a short drive to Skipton and beyond to the Yorkshire Dales. I simply don't recognise Phillip Blond's caricature of Northern culture or believe that this is the reason why people leave The North. You need to have a spectacularly narrow view of The North to say this:
The North has to become deeply attractive to the people it needs to bolster its technical, entrepreneurial and educational reach. And culture in its broadest sense is the pull for such people, as it is what makes a place worth living in. But educated families and skilled people won’t remain in, or relocate to, the North unless it has the institutions and culture they expect to enjoy.
And then to suggest that the reluctant move of a bit of Channel 4 to somewhere outside London is how you resolve this void. It all reads like "there's nothing do do in The North", it's a cultural wasteland dominated by Blond's conception of a "working-class monoculture" stretching from Sheffield to Carlisle. And, of course, working-class people don't have the sort of culture that would appeal to Jeremy and Jocasta!

This concentration on the city and failed urban places is, I think, where our analyses of The North go wrong. Airedale, where I live, is doing OK - not brilliantly but pretty well. It has decent enough schools, work ranging from traditional manufacturing through to modern financial services and tech business. And it's a short train ride into Leeds or Bradford. What it isn't is some sort of modish caricature of "working-class monoculture", quite the reverse, it's increasingly full of regular middle-class folk not so very different from those in Cheam or Epping. We'd welcome Channel 4 in Bingley - it might become a little less achingly leftist - but we don't need it because we lack culture.

A decade ago we drew up an Airedale Masterplan and Strategy, an ambitious vision of the valley and its communities. At the heart of this vision was the idea that we'd been ignoring our biggest asset for 100 years - the hills, moors and woods that dominate every vista. It's this realisation that changed how we saw our place and, on a larger scale, it's what The North should do. Forget about that "working class monoculture" for a minute and ask whether The North's biggest asset is is countryside, its market towns, its villages and its hills? When we talk about the Northern Powerhouse it's about how fast we can get from Liverpool to Manchester to Leeds, how these cities should be "economic hubs", and how we should throw money into universities, inclusive growth strategies and strategic rail systems. But this is how every struggling region, every challenged city, talks - from the US mid-west, to the Po Valley and Naples. With the same results - no change followed by another strategy, another place marketing campaign, another complaint about the lack of investment.

Perhaps The North should turn itself round, face away from its inner urban places and look instead at those hills, rivers, coastlines, lakes and forests. When rich tourists talk about Tuscany, they don't talk about Livorno with its high unemployment, declining industry (and probably an Italian version of a working-class monoculture), they talk about Siena, Chianti and San Gimignano. Maybe, when we talk of The North, we should stop trying to pretend it's any more working-class than say Crawley, Harlow or Sittingbourne, and instead point out that with York, Ripon, Whitby, Durham and the Lake District, we have a cornucopia of fantastic heritage and culture as good as anywhere in Europe.

I realise that this doesn't get rid of the issues that many places face - lack of good infrastructure, poor schools and something of an image problem - but it would shift the narrative from "please Mr London but something in our begging bowl" to "Hey you southerners get a slice of what we've got - and check out these house prices". Our biggest assets are not the big cities, they're our problem.


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