Monday, 28 November 2011

Away from the Great Wen.

Below is an article by Allan Massie from today's Daily Telegraph.

'Last Friday I was in Newcastle for a book festival. My event was held in the library of the Literary and Philosophical Society, an institution of which I’m (mildly) ashamed to say I knew nothing. It was founded in 1793 as a “conversation club” and its handsome building in the Westgate dates from 1822. Since then it has encouraged the sciences as well as the arts. It was there that George Stephenson showed his miner’s lamp and Sir Joseph Evans demonstrated the electric light bulb in 1879. Indeed the Lit & Phil, as it is commonly known, was the first building in the country to be lit by electricity. Its library – the largest independent one in Britain outside London – is beautiful and flourishing with some 2,000 members.
I came away thinking it was a splendid place, and also reflecting how much England suffered in the 20th century from its metropolitan bias. A healthy country needs strong provinces such as England had in the Victorian Age, the exceptional century in its history, when so much of the cultural and intellectual vitality of the nation was to be found in the North and Midlands rather than in London. Manchester gave the lead in economics and was the first city to have a great resident orchestra, the Hall√©. Lord Macaulay delivered a speech extolling “the loveliness and intelligence of Leeds”. Birmingham, with Joseph Chamberlain as mayor, embarked on an ambitious, even revolutionary, programme of town planning.
Throughout the North and Midlands imposing municipal buildings, libraries, art galleries, concert halls and universities were built. Most of the centre of Newcastle was constructed over 30 years between 1830 and 1860. It suffered from vile redevelopment in the 1960s, but much that is handsome remains, including the magnificent Grey Street. Centralisation is debilitating. London’s dominance has been bad for England. The strength of Germany’s economy owes much to the country’s federal structure, which has encouraged provincial enterprise and self-confidence.'

I know well some of the great cities of the North and Midlands.  I concur with the sentiments expressed by the author of this piece.  It is why I support the decision to electrify the railway between Leeds and Manchester which will help cut 45 minutes off travel time between Newcastle and Liverpool.  It is why I oppose HS2 which is London-centric and will suck the vitality out of provincial cities.  At one time there was huge civic pride in the achievements of provincial cities and I hope the decision to have elected mayors in some of then  will be a step back to those times.

I cannot help but think that the numerous local government re-organisations have had  a deleterious effect on communities as people have lost a sense of being, as have the councils with their artificial boundaries.  The mistake is going to be repeated with the proposed parliamentary constituency boundaries.  Some of the proposals throw together very strange bed-fellows and will heighten the feeling of dislocation between citizens and politicians.

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