London is many things to many people. To the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and clients currently living there it is a source of pride; a thing to be celebrated.
Having lived in various Northern cities my entire life, it is interesting to see the different attitudes and concepts people form of cities based on where they live.
An example: a friend updated her Facebook status last night. She’d travelled by train from London to Leeds on business. She was bemoaning how decidedly unexciting being sent to Leeds was.
Leeds train station is thoroughly mediocre, fair point. But King’s Cross had cornered the market in post-Apocalyptic mise-en-scene until very recently.
Another example: a PR professional who’d never left the South, assigned to Sunderland and ‘amazed’ that people ‘could live like that’.
Or a developer claiming that nothing worth happening happens north of the M25. Another man on the tube lecturing that London is the only thing keeping the country afloat.
But let’s return to Leeds for a moment. I currently live there. My opinion? The best thing about the city is that its easy to leave.
This sounds like a criticism, but what I really mean is that from my affordable city-centre apartment I need only travel 20 minutes or fewer to be be in York, Harrogate, Ilkley, the Yorkshire Dales or the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saltaire. All extremely varied settings, beautiful and interesting in their own way and, in my opinion, unmatched for their benefits by anything in the capital.
But the common conversation about cities is often presented in a more simplistic, binary, fashion. In this case: Leeds city V London city.
If we reduce the definition of a place to simply the urban centre, then London will win almost every time. How could it not? It has had an extremely great concentration of wealth over the years, now manifested in some of the best architecture and culture in the world.
But how many people live in London city centre? Not many at all. The majority of people I know live in far more average places; the Crodyons, Claphams, Plaistows. These places are not particularly desirable of their own accord. They are, however, within what Londoners perceive a reasonable commute of the things London is famed for.
It is this sense of unity in the way London is viewed that sets it apart for me. Whenever London is discussed as a city – be it in an advert, event, or even just a pub discussion – it is almost always a ‘Greater London’, a single, all-encompassing entity that is up for debate.
A forty-minute train journey from part of London to another doesn’t create a separation within the concept of what the ‘city’ is. Ergo all of the wonderful attractions of the 3000+ square mile area can be wrapped up, presented and promoted under a single banner name.
Is the same true outside of our Northern cities? Does Liverpool promote itself alongside the Wirral? Does Leeds present itself as a package with Harrogate, Bradford, Ilkley, the Dales and more?
No, they generally don’t (spoken like a true wool). In fact, outside of London a forty-minute train journey would generally be seen as far beyond the delimiter at which some arbitrary metropolitan boundary should be created:
“You can’t include things over the line. They don’t count.”
Or, perhaps more realistically, “We [the council] won’t promote things over the line because we don’t make money from them.”
These boundaries are unnecessary and stifling our ability to draw events, investment and talent to the area. The only city that has attempted to adopt such an approach is – surprise surprise – Manchester, the most forward-thinking city up North.
The idea of a Mayor for the North is interesting and I would personally like to see it explored more. It may be the opportunity for Northern towns and cities to finally put aside the petty factionalism that has contributed to the North/South divide.
See, when we work together across metropolitan boundaries we can achieve great things – the 2014 Tour de France being a case in point. Our cities may be small but their wider areas encompass huge, significant regions of great cultural and industrial breadth.
There is plenty that the Government could do to address the growing gap between the two halves of our country. They could start by curbing the dominance of London and promoting other cities for different industry and political sectors.
But we can also make a start, by reassessing how we present our regions – and to engage in the kind of open collectivism that fueled the growth of both our regions and our country in the past.
Northern cities have seen their industries gutted and sold off and their intellectual talent tempted to London or abroad. They face a number of problems.
But if our Northern towns are guilty of anything it is of a small-minded one-upmanship that told us the competition was from another town, over the hill. In reality, the competition was London.
Our capital is many things, good and bad. But if there is one thing it is above all else it is a marketing success. The councils and their communications teams have done a great job of creating and delivering a message of a single London that is now widely accepted as fact.
In doing so, they have created an area that can be anything to anybody and redefined the concept of the city – helping such a large area be desirable to the many talented people seeking to relocate their skills, time, money and business to the area.