What exactly is so great about the north?

And I mean that in a strictly economic sense. Because the media and blog reaction to the  Police Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report, co-authored by our own Dr Tim Leunig, has been totally unhelpful to anyone trying to gather what, precisely, is the case for the defence against the charge that top-down regeneration in northern cities hasn’t worked well enough.

Because, surely, it hasn’t. (I stress that my essential agreement with this is purely personal perception on my part; there is some more informed commentary in and around James’ and Paul’s posts, and Jock has a fantastic write-up).

Obviously, some broadbrush flat-vowelled backlash was only healthy and natural, because it’s hard for anyone not to hear denigration of the place of their birth, however objective and well-meant, and not feel slightly like their soul is under attack. It’s a bit like when Kirstie & Phil decided that my hometown (Epsom & Ewell, borough of) was the Best Place to Live in Britain in 2005, except that I was cripplingly embarrassed rather than righteously furious.

But somewhere, you’d expect someone to be saying something rather more sophisticated than “Fluff fluff fluff! Waffle waffle! Nonsense, nonsense! Ears are closed! Look at the regenerational docks/factories area and their many penthouse apartments! Look at the fantastic cultural, er, thingummywotsits that I will definitely, definitely visit as soon as I have, ooh, about a century off from work and my toenails are as clean as I can possibly make them! Look at the amazing Community Enterprise Development Entrepreneurial Urban Living Spaces Start-Up Workshopping scheme! And just LOOK at the trendy wine bars!”

It really would help if someone just pointed me towards figures which directly related e.g. rising employment rates to a single bean of input from regeneration funding. I’ve worked on the fringes of the public sector, and I know that throwing up an arts hub/community centre/housing development doesn’t constitute a measurable improvement to the life of the location unless there are also the cold, hard jobs there to support enough people to use them. I also have no patience whatever with any organisation or  project or “initiative” with more than three words in the title (extra points are lost if one of those words is “community”), because in my experience the people who are “driving” them, or similar, don’t really know what the hell they’re doing or why, and bring as their biggest contribution to the UK economy the ability to put “actually” in front of every verb construction.

Moreover, while we’re on this daring regionalist interlude, I’ve recently spent a decent bit of time in Liverpool and Manchester, and I can say without fear of contradiction (though almost certainly with fear of abuse) that though I came to both eagerly and quite prepared to be swept off my feet, I’m afraid I’d still rather sit in a decent London pub, of the sort to be found literally on every street corner, than some chrome-infested spray-tanned temple to Diageo any day. And yes, I’m sure there are honourable exceptions (recommendations of good Manc pubs particularly welcome), but to be honest I suspect the best ones are in the smaller northern towns I haven’t been to, and which the report isn’t really talking about.

Mind you, it’s not an intrinsically northern thing – it’s just that the north has always been the unfortunate victim of early experiments in urban improvement – in the 1960s as now. It really does get the sharp end of every brown ale bottle. When will architects, planners and government departments learn that regeneration is not a synonym for “cover it all in artily-shaped concrete and hope for the best”? I mean, does anyone else remember stepping outside the conference centre in Liverpool back in the spring? Is your hair back to its normal shape yet? Whose insane idea was it to “regenerate” a blowy seaward dockland half-acre into a great big wide concrete boulevard with the exact physical configuration of a wind tunnel? Who does that help find a job, exactly?

Mind you, at least there are houses and shops at street level in Liverpool. There appear to be whole section of Manchester where you can walk for miles without ever actually encountering a doorway in the sheer walls of stern red brick, much less a passable pub. In places it reminds me of nowhere so much as the Tommy and Guys’ hospital complex round the back of London Bridge, except without the charm. What you can find in Manchester, however, is bucketfuls of one- and two-bed executive flats without so much as a cornershop nearby to support the residents who are, accordingly, mostly theoretical.

But I digress. In my defence, I was positively embarrassed to discover that this is how I felt about The North. I was born in the south, went to university in the south, and went on holiday in the south, and perhaps because of that absorbed the self-doubting southerner’s belief that northern cities are this amazing promised land full of wonderful pubs, restaurants, museums, galleries, shops, cultural riches and economic energies etc, except that you can buy a three-bed terrace for 24p and some beans from whence you can walk to work. And then you get there and… well, where are all the decent pubs? Oh, so that’s the only museum. Right. Been there now.  Why am I the only person sitting in this entire streetful of slickly interior-designed restaurants? Who, exactly, is going to buy the two hundred executive apartments in the thirty-seventh housing development  (usually called “The Green”, “The Locks” or “The [old-fashioned substance] Factory”) to be built this year, and where the hell are they all going to get their food?

And why are you getting so fricking uppity just because I’m asking you a simple question?

So, to return belatedly to the point, I bad-temperedly wish someone would explain what northern regeneration is actually producing which is so wonderful without employing any of usual flimsy guffspeak. And I wish people would calm down about the admittedly gloomy prognosis in the Cities Unlimited report for the north’s future development (just because some bunch of southern pansies reckons you might have to move, doesn’t mean you have to do what they say, non? – so why the vitriol?). And for the love of god, can no-one direct me to a decent bloody pub?

17 Comments

  1. ooo, I’m almost squealing!

    This report has a devious political mind, a hard nosed accountant and a right-wing idealist behind it, so it’s no wonder that it’s got so many people up in arms!

    The devious political mind is the one you need to watch out for, because between all the prejudiced outrage spewing forth from lefties and confused head-scratching on the right the shadow of unspoken decentralised market creation is quietly whispered.

    I concur with the view that proximity to markets is the motor generating economic wealth, but neither traditional alternative provide any real answer to this conundrum.

    The volume of money spent on regeneration projects was insufficient even where it wasn’t squandered, but the suggestion that we should abandon ANY attempts to support diversification or regionalisation in order to concentrate on propping up ‘wonderful, wonderful London-hagen’ has correctly been met with a barrage of indignation.

    The implication: go back to your roots and prepare for the planting season, or some such cryptic quixoticism.

    The endless nightmare commute from grey suburbia to your industrial-park-by-day-red-light-zone-by-night place of work needs to be replaced with highly networked communities of artisans using the most modern technologies to build on traditional skills learnt and practised in the environment they were designed in and perfectly adapted to fit; an end to post-industrial angst borne of dislocation followed by alienation and abandonment; a reconnection with the mythic cultural identities of our forebears. It’s an old liberal refrain, but it still carries its’ charm.

    So: Hull, Sunderland and Liverpool – ports and transit points which have a propensity towards being communication hubs and cultural centres, more by luck of nature and less by design of government.

    There’s almost something poetic about this message, or it it getting late and me over-enthusiastic?

  2. As I said on my blog, I hope lots of scallies fall for this streets paved with gold bollocks. Meanwhile, I shall sit up here in my nice Northern town with my nice Northern pubs where they know how to serve beer properly, and my Southern boyfriend, and laugh at them all paying stupid rents to be overcrowded while he e-commutes.

  3. If Tim Leunig has views on areas like this, he should come to my local & express them there. He could have a vigorous exchange with the locals. I can think of some good contributions I’d get in myself…

  4. See Daniel Davies on this, awesome as always. Turns out that regeneration has actually helped:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/14/britishidentity.communities

    That’s not to say that these places are *nice* per se, and coming from Doncaster I can certainly affirm that an awful lot of the North is, in fact, grim. But the centre of Leeds is great for shopping, York is a really lovely place to walk around with museums and old historic stuff coming out of its ears. Oh, and about five really nice old pubs on every street.

    I’m afraid that if you’re a tourist heading north and you go to Liverpool or Manchester then, well, “you’re doing it wrong”, as they say on the Internets.

  5. You said: ‘recommendations of good Manc pubs particularly welcome)’
    There are loads in the Good Beer Guide – get a copy!
    I’m a Southerner but I love Manchester pubs, good beer at low prices, just avoid places with an absence of beer pumps and excessive chrome plate! If you haven’t got a GBG, then just look for any pub serving the excellent Hydes beers.

  6. Try Sheffield, it’s nice (and I don’t live there, I’m just saying…)

    I think the people are getting up in arms about the report for two reasons – firstly it takes a pretty grim view on the North, and total defeatism never goes down well. Secondly, and more insidiously, it’s being spun as Conservative Party policy despite having been written by a Lib Dem. The Labourites are up in arms proclaiming this as typical Tory behaviour, while the Cameroons are proclaiming it’s got nothing to do with them (and the Lib Dems are uncharacteristically silent, of course)

    There’s nothing ‘so great’ about the North, but there’s nothing so great about the South either. I know: I’ve lived in both. Oh, and there’s decent pubs everywhere. There’s crap ones everywhere too!.

  7. I’m a southener by birth but love it up north…moved from P’boro to Leeds and love it…more friendly people, slightly harsher weather but you cant have it all lol…..

  8. Rubbish the weatlh in oxford and many other southern cities is because os massivwe government subsidissed universities with high status, and manily because of the capital being located there. Much of the south’s wealth is created by the goverbnment but is is not counted as government suibsdioses because the souyth like to prented thet are just some superior race who just got wealtheier than rest by accident of their own superior race. Devolution would help the north but nazi southeners do not want this as they know it would help the north so they make up bs about european people trying to split up england.

  9. Hey, where’d my comment go…?😦

    Basically, read DD on CiF about this. The numbers don’t back up the conclusion.

    Secondly, if you are going touristing in the north and you find yourself in Manchester or Liverpool, “you’re doing it wrong” as they say.

    York is lovely, has about five good pubs on every street and more history, museums and ruined bits than you can shake a stick at. Whitby is nice in a sort of windswept way, and the “regenerated” centre of Leeds I also find quite pleasing.

  10. What’s so great about the North? Well lots of things – but there are also lots of great things about the South.

    But the South will be a much less pleasant place to live and work if the population continues to grow rapidly while the rest of the UK doesn’t. The congestion will get worse (it is already very bad) and there will be fewer and fewer places where you can actually get away from urbanisation.

    Expanding Oxford to a million (more than currently live in the entire County of Oxfordshire) would ruin most of what makes oxford and Oxfordshire the great place it is.

    In my view it is in everyone’s interest to balance economic growth across the UK. And we haven’t got anywhere near the level of investment, in transport for example, to achieve it.

  11. Sorry, Sanbik, my spam-eater got greedy. Have let it through as it has the link on there.

    York and Whitby are indeed lovely to my certain knowledge, as are Harrogate and Durham. What’s interesting about my sojourns in Pool and Manc is that they weren’t for touristing, but for Real Life, and I couldn’t help comparing them adversely (and rather ill-naturedly, I now see; I’m most relieved that no notherner has yet stuck my head up on Micklegate Bar) to my southern version of Real Life.

    But hopefully all this is soon to be rectified thanks to the Hyde beers tip from John Courage (first time I’ve ever had a comment from an entire brewery, I think). Much appreciated. And maybe, @Darrell, I should try Leeds. I really am eager to fall in love with The North in the longer term. (Who wouldn’t be, with those house prices *cough*)

    @Stu, I still haven’t read the damn thing yet, but from what Other People Wot I Trust are saying, I suspect you’re right that there may have been an unnecessarily gloomy prognosis in a leading place, which the press naturally picked up as anyone could expect. I do, however, smell some sort of rat in just how far and how fast this thing got pushed in the media.

    Hm, this Lib Dem silence thing… have you picked that up from Dizzy? Because so far as I know Chris Huhne was on record the same day likewise distancing us from it, and there have been local press release templates drawn up as well. If you mean (as Dizzy did) that Lib Dem Voice is silent, then the highly prosaic explanation is that I’m meant to be writing something about it and I haven’t had time to read the report yet! That’s just the hazards of volunteer blogging, alas.

    @Dirtyeuro, “Devolution would help the north but nazi southeners do not want this”

    This is definitely not true of the Liberal Democrats. We are committed to devolution as a basic principle of liberalism. It lets people have greater control over their own lives, and it gives rise to experimentation, with different areas trying different ways of, for example, generating jobs and businesses. Experimentation is always good because it tends to mean the best ways of doing something can be found much more quickly. Ergo, devolution should be the goal of any moral and competent government.

    This is actually, as I understand it from others, what the report says. It states that devolution is the key to making regeneration in the north work.

  12. You should come to Stoke, just to prove that it isn’t actually half as bad as these stuck up knobheads say it is. I do find it strange when southerners & immigrants move here, but they say they like the area & the locals shouldn’t put themselves down. I can think of a lot worse than living in a working-class area.

    Also try Shropshire if you want somewhere a bit more rural. I go to Church Stretton for relaxation. They have some excellent vegetarian-friendly places.

  13. Look. I wish I’d seen this before I wrote the post:

    http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2008/08/13/meet-the-boffin-who-says-abandon-liverpool-100252-21525159/2/

    Page 2 of that article is a classic example of what I’m talking about. “Of course regeneration is a success! Look how much money we’ve spent!” Only Sir Humphrey Appleby measured a government’s success by how much money it spent. The journo doesn’t even make the pretence of trying to find out what the actual economic impact of all this marvellous expenditure has been.

    Still, it’s our knife-edge council, so I’m probably supposed to be keeping quiet, chiz.

    Off to actually read the report and match it up with David Daniels’ figures. Ho yes, I know how to enjoy my Friday nights…

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