English Regions or City-Regions?

Protagonists for City-Regions are often much less sympathetic to the rationale for the English Regions as such. But perhaps it’s all a matter of differential scales. City Regions could well choose, to their mutual benefit and that of their hinter-lands, to collaborate on some of the much bigger strategic things without fear of damage to historic and local identities.
The debate about City-Regions vs. English Regions shows no signs of resolving. The recent launch of a campaign for an Elected Mayor in Liverpool (and some other towns and cities) has if anything exacerbated the differences between those who support regionalism as such, and those who support city-regions within England, or presumably, come to that, anywhere else.
Whilst there are obviously some areas where people may not ever agree, I do however believe there are a number of areas of common cause between the protagonists for each ‘side’, if the issues are looked at in a particular light.
The meaning of ‘regionalism’
For those who take a strongly anti-regional line the main problem seems to be that they perceive this as inevitably favouring one stronger city over other cities in the region… indeed, they may even take the view that there is no such thing as a region, as a way to circumvent such a perspective entirely.
In this view the real issue is the power of one place over others, and the expectation that, given half a chance, this place will take unfair advantage, at significant cost to other towns and cities nearby.
On the other hand, to at least some people who would support a regional persepctive alongside a city-focused one (and there are few regionalists who don’t also favour the healthy growth of cities per se), the underlying issue is connectivity. Who will make the case for, e.g., good road and rail connections between different cities within the region and, even more importantly, the way that very large centres of population – especially the metropolis – connect with the region at all?
Taking this perspective, there may be surprising commonalities even with towns and cities in other regions. For instance, Birmingham shares with the northern cities the issue of getting traffic up and down the country – and has in fact begun exploring solutions to this problem with them.
Size is the basic issue
Evidence elsewhere in Europe suggests that a population of between 7 and 10 million can be effectively self-sustaining in terms of producing all the requirements for modern society. But no U.K. city outside London is of this size – which means that English cities must necessarily be inter-dependent in some respects. For instance, (genuinely) Big Science can never happen just with the resources of one city, any more than can ‘Big Medicine / Technology’ and so forth. There are plenty of win-wins in inter-city collaboration for science and industry, just as there are endless reasons why the more ambitious aspects of tourism are often best promoted on at least a regional basis (see quote in New Start magazine from the English Regional Development Agencies).
But what the size issue doesn’t mean is that cities have to lose their identities, or that there must be ‘regional centre’ cities wicih will effectively dictate to all the other places in a region what they may and may not do. This maintenance of identity and self-determination provides one of the strongest cases for elected mayors or similar – provided always (a big proviso) that such leaders are well-informed, brave and sensible….
Unique identities, shared strengths
This is a rather optimistic view, but maybe there will come a time when people generally can see that there is indeed strength in commonality when it comes to the big things (massive inward investment, the knowledge economy, large-scale infrastructure etc.), but that with this does not need to come loss of identity for individual places and smaller areas within a geographical location such as a ‘region’ of England. Rather the opposite.
Perhaps it’s a matter of confidence. When we, smaller-city citizens across the nation, are confident that our own patch is well-recognised and well-defined, it will be easier to agree with our neighbours on shared strategies for the bigger things. But how to develop that confidence from where we’re at now is, however you look at it, a challenge and a half.

Posted on December 18, 2005, in Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Liverpool And Merseyside, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As some sort of intellectual excercise, the ‘regional project’ may once have made sense to a few in our metropolis, in theory, the difficulties start when you look at the reality of it, and especially what the North West version of this has meant and will mean for Liverpool.
    Most people in Liverpool who are seriously interested in politics, economy and democracy are quite rightly passionately devolutionist and it is my guess that this sentiment will have been the prime stimulus behind a perceived initial enthusiasm in our city-region for ‘regionalism’ especially as it was touted in the early days of the ‘New Labour’ government, primarily as a means moving power away from London.
    That core rationale was eagerly jumped upon by those who fully understand the debilitating impact over centralisation has caused across the board; from enterprise and economic growth and investment, to major negatives with regards to local democracy and accountability.
    Though, just as the vote in local city elections is ‘anti Labour’ rather than ‘pro Lib-Dem’, the initial response here in Liverpool was more ‘anti London’ in flavour than ‘pro-regional’ in principle. Sadly, this ‘anti’ mindset was extremely unfortunate because as a result, a thorough examination of the receptor structures, and especially the ultra-damaging consequences for Liverpool that would result from the prospect, was overlooked, neglected in the enthusiastic rush to ensure that ‘positive’ correction of political and economic injustice progressed.
    ‘Regionalism rides a coach and horses through the fundamental principles that enable cities to work. It is extremely damaging structurally, economically and, probably most importantly, perceptually to Liverpool, for as we can now clearly understand, our fate within this wonderous Nirvana of redistributed economic and political power is to actually make our designated contribution from second rank and suffer a huge net loss of functions we currently hold as a city and metropolis for the privilage. We are also fated never to taste the power that new freedoms recaptured from Whitehall and Westminster would bring. A massive democratic deficit of the most profound kind… and an absolute killer by any other measure!
    I have mentioned on another piece on this site that metropolitanism and regionalism are fundamentally at variance. I restate that now. It is impossible to maximise the potential of the metropolis, when some, most or all vitally important decisions are centred on another entity and taken in another city. There have to be priorities within such a construct…. and in England’s model it will always be the various ‘capitals’ that must logically be the focus, even of the ‘regional agenda’.
    The very essence of ‘North West regionalism’ means that for at least some things you are in effect saying… ‘Well, maybe NOT Liverpool’. A good illustration of this is the Liverpool Film Office. That used to do a great job, fighting tooth and nail to get as many people as possible to come and film in Liverpool. Now, as ‘Northwest Vision’ those very same people are having to say ‘maybe, actually, probably don’t film in Liverpool… why not consider, Cumbria, Preston, Wigan or Manchester instead?’
    It has been argued that we will gain much more than we may seem to be conceding, but this flies in the face of some pretty fundamental empirical reality. The current proposal is not about collaboration at all. It is about convergence, ‘efficiency’. It is about unity, one strategy, one unit, one voice… and that voice will not be Liverpool’s.
    You cite transport and communications between our cities as an example of the supposed benifits of unifying our assets, but who for example, from a regional prespective, will raise the issue on behalf of Liverpool’s particular road and rail links to North Wales? Why would that be an important strategic ‘regional issue’? Same goes for our exclusive cultural and historic links with North Wales, Ireland and NYC? They are not vital to ‘the region’ and so why would they be acted upon on our behalf… remembering that city-based structures that would lobby on these issues would have been ‘merged’. The rest of the North West do not share these ties so they would not be a regional priority?
    CITIES make money, provide opportunities, identity and culture, not ‘regions’. CITIES are the centres, the engines of commercial growth, international relation building and civic pride and so should, naturally follow… governance.
    Cities are our creative exploratories and cultural melting pots. Liverpool is the embodiment of all that its citizens aspire to and identify with. This is nothing unique, it is just one of the desirable manifestations you get in a progressive and urbanised society, wherever they occur. Can anybody name a vibrant, culturally and economically vibrant region (especially one that contains two cities that have parity) where the region is the structure identified as the creative power, rather than the city? No? Neither can I.
    We should seek to maximise the centripetal and generative forces of Liverpool, not conceding to the inevitable Manchester focused pull that would be generated from the ‘North West’ construct.
    To say, as some do, that the proposals for the North West are not city focused is to deny the natural forces that will occur, as they come together behind the command structures being currently devised that, politically, economically and strategically favour one city, the other being too weak to resist power of both nature and diktat.
    But, even if you do concede some validity in the theoretical constructs behind this particular ‘Big vision’, that a ‘region of cities, towns and country’, could dilute metropolitan centripetal forces in favour of uniform growth (which, so the theory goes, prevent the bleed from Liverpool to the designated powerhouse of Manchester!), were credible I would ask why should we want to do that? Why would we want to sacrifice both cities on the altar of the ‘one size fits all’ madness of the project to regionalise England as currently envisioned and actively being pursued? Why bother?
    Thinking spatially and economically from a ‘regional perspective’ is also extremely problematic, and don’t forget, we have been there before. I would ask everyone to remember that ‘regionalism’ goes back over 50 years! We saw the anti city flaws in the early plans of the ‘regional developers’ in the 1950s’ when their mantra was about ripping our cities apart, moving their industries and populations into ‘new towns’ etc, all makes perfect sense when taking a ‘regional’ perspective. What remained of Manchester was ordained as the titular capital of a ‘much empowered region’, giving it a slight edge over it’s neighbouring competitor city. Compensation for also relatively being sent down the league of cities so as to maintain London’s post war pre-eminence in the world perhaps?
    ‘Regional’ plans and strategies undermine the inherent wealth creating nature that cities give when THEY are the centres of government, organisation and economic agglomeration. The value to be missed from NOT having two of the Uk’s main cities competing and generating wealth is too high a price to pay in order to adhere to a fundamentally flawed plan. Why wouldn’t the region as a whole benefit with the two main cities competing… can it honestly be said that there is no hope for either metropolis without the guiding hand of regional bureaucrats?
    It is vital that we reject the notion (and more irritatingly, the accusation) that being pro-city, anti regional is parochial, that we should be ‘expanding our horizons and looking at the whole North West’. How blinkered… how provincial! It is actually extremely parochial to believe that there is an area of any substantial value between the major city and the world that must be tapped… this just isn’t so. It may be understandable that small town politicos come to these conclusions, to think in this narrow way, but for advocates from Liverpool, the ‘mighty metropolis’?
    As Liverpool, and indeed Manchester, showed in the 19thC and as all relevant global city players do today, once you think and organise beyond the city boundaries, then the world is your oyster… or at least, it should be, not some fevered designation of a Whitehall/Brussels mandarin. Of course when you take such a global view, where Dublin, Glasgow, New York, Barcelona and Mumbai form part of your ‘urban interaction mind map’ this also still includes Manchester, Preston… and Birmingham, Leeds, London and Brussels too!
    As a community we will always have the opportunity to undetake shared projects, collaboration and strategising with others, but we shouldn’t be limiting ourselves to only those west of the Pennines. There are the previously mentioned ‘Bay Area’ links to regalvanise and we should indeed also look at how well things are arranged at a Northern level as proposed in the Northern Way (though the ‘Northern Way’s route map for Liverpool doesn’t even mention enterprise, so what statist minds are behind this great plan!)
    From a ‘Northern’ perspective we could perhaps look at some really meaty areas, like education and international banking that would mean major collaboration, but there is just nothing at all in the falsely constructed ‘North West’ other than the command led ascendancy of Manchester over Liverpool. I just cannot think of any of the ‘bigger strategic things’ that we could collaborate on as ‘a region’ that would gain us any advantage over simply doing it within the metropolis…I really can’t.
    How can Liverpool possibly benefit by the removal of powers from London, only to have them sit in Manchester instead, along with a host of other former ‘localised’ jurisdiction that has been ramped ‘upward’ to fit the regional remit? (Police, fire & other emergency services, health, media, transport and culture etc, etc) are we really supposed to continue to support a process were Liverpool as ‘second city’ is not only factored in, but also cemented, in regional perpetuity?
    I do not arrive at my anti regionalism out of some rabid dislike of Manchester…far from it, we have loads to learn from that metropolis, Nor is it certainly a plea to keep the status quo that would see London maintain its iron grip on things. Devolution is essential if we are ever to be able to seriously attempt to tap our city’s potential. It is extremely important to consider that the ‘bigger minds’ in Manchester are as opposed to the regional project themselves as, though it indeed dictates that Manchester is ‘our’ regional capital, to which all administrative, and strategic structures would naturally gravitate (remember the insurance industry wholesale taking advantage of changes from a metropolitan to the ‘regional focus’ in the early and mid 80s’?) within the ‘regional project’ concept that is all that they are and would ever be…the ‘Capital’ of t’northwest – an adjunct to London still! They have much bigger dreams for their city than that…and so should we.
    The assertion that ‘regions’ work best with between 7-10 million people is also spurious and quite ‘Europrojectcentric’…one just has to look at the huge variation in regions that there are in Europe, the USA but also right around the world to see this.
    One has to conclude that differences in incomes, dynamism and political power are about much more than the population of your ‘region’. An elected assembly for the North West will not be the catalyst that determines how buoyant your economy, how dynamic your enterprise and how vital your culture is and can be.
    What does tend to happen is that regions develop as the infrastructural hinterland of the primary city, and that city has usually become the primary metropolis in the area through the dynamic of creative processes and market forces, not by dint a politically motivated initiative. Most of the established ‘regions’ in the EU ARE FOCUSED on one city, but more importantly, they are organic. The ‘North West’ has emerged from that ‘collectivist’ type of thinking you used to get in the Soviet Union.
    The North West construct is a completely false structure, only existing in the minds of the NWDA and the assembly. It has no legitimacy or rationale in people’s minds, their hearts, nor their cultural identity. It cannot tap the innate potential that city-borne passions can. If these are not important, then why not make a ‘region’ from the Manchester/Leeds axis?… a much more natural ‘region’ than the Liverpool / Manchester / Carlisle / Barrow proposition!
    We can always collaborate on the few occasions when we want or need to… so why have a permanent, massive infrastructure imposed that has to take control over more and more aspects of our daily lives? I do not follow the rants about waste, cost and duplication – if something is of value then it is worth it’s money – but the ‘North West’ just isn’t worth the price expected.
    The regional bodies have too much strategic control of decision making that should be reorganised and re-focussed here right now, we don’t want to give them any more…but that is central to the plan. The current manoeuvrings around Police reorganisation are a prime example of this.
    If we focus on the region, then please tell me, what is left to reside in the metropolis? Let me try to illustrate this point with an example that is close to your heart Hilary. Why persist with Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and orchestra when we already have two heavily subsidised ones, of national repute, in Manchester. Would it not make more sense to concentrate resources in one ‘world class centre’ making these two of the very best in the world instead? People in Lancashire and Cumbria should not have to carry the expense and lower quality amenity simply in order to indulge Liverpool’s parochialism and cultural delusions. As ‘North Westerners’ we would all benefit from better overall performances and prestige, would we not, if Liverpool was amalgamated with the others… and all for the price of a weekly return ticket? Of course we wouldn’t, as the reality is that we are separate entities.
    Instead we must begin reclaiming what powers we have already ceded and develop new, metropolitan focused structures to best manage the much-needed devolution of power from London. City-regions are logical, viable, cohesive and attractive… ‘England’s Regions’ are none of these.
    As an aside…just how much Objective 1 money..for Merseyside has been used to develop ‘regional’ programmes, by way of Merseyside’s contribution?

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