“It’s grim up North”. This is a saying which has unjustly been forced upon a part of the United Kingdom, which as a Yorkshireman I can attest, is completely false. We have, without doubt, some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside. Our cities are a vibrant mixing pot of engaging cultures from every generation, and our Universities are consistently voted some of the best in the country.
The North is anything but grim. Yet for decades this narrative has been allowed to perpetuate, and because of this Northerners have decidedly felt that they don’t matter – and neither do their communities – to those with the means and power to ensure that they do.
But within the last few years there has been a shift in the air. The “grim” narrative is lifting and finally we are seeing the political class begin to realise that in order to not only thrive, but survive, the North is the king/queen-maker.
In just over 30 days we Brits head to the polls in an election being touted as the most important of a generation (don’t they always say that?) and for the first time I agree. The North of England has an opportunity with this election, one which could change the face of our counties and cities for the better.
It is of no surprise that the North have been hit hardest with austerity cuts and lack of investment. Our public services which have always been – and remain – vital to our way of life have in areas, decended into chaos. Some of these problems are mirrored nationwide, including a lack of social care and Police and NHS staff shortages; these frustrations are reverberated from John O’Groats to Land’s End. But in the North these problems have been visible long before the suffocating hold of austerity.
Take public transport across the Yorkshire region, in particular Northern Rail. Between September 24 and October 21, 116 trains were either cancelled or “part-cancelled” every day, a report from the Transport for the North revealed. The report summarised that this number was due to the rail network remaining vulnerable to “flooding and extreme weather events.”
For generations Northerners have been calling for substantial investment in our rail network, to ensure our cities are better connected with greater reliability, yet nothing ever seems to happen. When they do, you need look no further than the chaotic handling of HS2 to see the outcome.
This lacking rhetoric doesn’t just barricade the potential of our public transport, it has also affected other areas too.
Yorkshire has some of the greatest landscapes in the world, and I don’t say that because it’s where I grew up. The vastness of the North Yorkshire Moors is awe-inspiring, the grandness of York steeped in unrivalled history is pure magic, and the modern-moulding landscape of Leeds is leading Yorkshire into new frontiers. Yet for a while, to us here in the North, no one seemed to be aware of any of it.
The reality of this sentiment hit me when I was studying at Leeds University. A fellow student had travelled to Leeds from California to study Journalism and over lunch, after one of our usually long seminars, we discussed his knowledge of Yorkshire and the wider Northern realms of England. To cut a long story short, he had none. Now you could argue that perhaps he wasn’t aware of the entire UK beforehand, but when asking him question after question and listening to his hilarious answers, one aspect began to stand out. Every-so-often he would make reference to parts of Yorkshire not as England or even Great Britain – but London!
This is a narrative which is common amongst our American cousins across-the-pond. Hardly any of them know the North exists, yet that has begun to change.
With the Tour De France in 2014 which began in Leeds, Yorkshire was projected onto the world’s stage like never before. Suddenly our Dales, Moors and cities were ejected into the stratosphere of interest. From then onwards we have seen business and in particular, the film-industry begin to see the remerging potential of the North.
One huge investment which has signalled renewed trust in the North of England is the move of Channel 4 to Leeds. With many experts stating this makes the city the new media hub of the UK, it advertises Northern skill and creativity beneath a spotlight like never before.
With this newfound trust and commitment to us “grim Northerners” is it of no surprise that our political class now see us as the grand prize. Have we ever seen our MP’s engage with the North as much as we have done over the past few years? I would strongly argue no. Have we seen such high levels of commitment on spending across our regions? Again, my answer would be no.
Whether these promises bare any fruit is yet to be seen, but to have our main political parties actively engage with the North is a remarkable detour from the ‘grim’ narratives of old. This new attitude of trust towards the North may, in some cases be self-serving. Afterall when it comes to the Brexit debate, where a large majority of the North voted to leave the EU, our universal attitude to leaving is vastly different to those who were elected to serve us, and thus our trust in our MPs are at an all-time low.
What has become perfectly clear as Johnson, Corbyn, Swinson, Farage et al begin their traverse across the country; the North will become the deadliest battle ground and the ultimate prize to whomever is victorious. With growing interest in our region from business and high investiture, politicians can no longer turn a blind eye to the needs and hopes of the North. They must engage and listen to the regional issues as well as the national as many in the North feel both areas are no longer connected.
This election is an exciting time for the North of England. It could ignite a cacophony of investment and prosperity as it's guaranteed all parties will hope to garner our support. It has been a long time since our regions have held the balance of power so potently and our political parties know it.
Across the next 30-plus days we will hear election promise and policy from every political direction, but unlike before, the issues facing Northerners will have to be placed high on the list. The fallout if they aren’t could tip those scales of power in the opposite direction than each party is hoping for, and with so much a stake, it could be “grim” for some at Westminster and not for the North.