I love the north of England, I have lived in the north for more than 20 years, and even before that I sort of considered it my spiritual home. I was brought up just outside Nottingham which is in the East Midlands. But, historically, the River Trent was seen as the dividing line between the north and south, and, as the maternity hospital where I was born was three miles north of the river, and the village where I was brought up was another 5 miles north of that, I have always considered myself to be a northerner. I realise that if you are reading this in Newcastle or Carlisle, you’ll consider that Huddersfield, where I now live, is pretty far south, but I think most people would consider it to be pretty much at the heart of that thing known collectively as “the North” (in England at least; “hello” to my Scottish friends).
As a child I was fascinated by the North. My mother was a Londoner, and my dad had a job in which he travelled the country, but had regularly to visit his head office in London. When this happened in the school holidays, the family would all get in the car and be dropped off at my uncle’s house in North London while my dad went off to the head office. This happened regularly, we would all get into the car, head off towards the M1 motorway and turn left to head south for London. And every time we did this, I thought “what would happen if we turned right and went north?”. And then, one day, we did. I can’t remember why, but we turned right and headed north. And it was early evening in winter, it was getting dark. One of the things I remember vividly was that, as we crossed the Tinsley viaduct near Sheffield, there were jets of flame illuminating the night sky, emanating from the steel works. That left a big impression on me. My romantic notions of “the North” were now enhanced by a mental image that was almost like dragons breathing fire beside the road. Of course, those steel works are not there any more, and have been replaced by the Meadowhall shopping centre, which may be some people’s idea of a romantic venue, but not mine.
It was around this time, or a bit later, that my romantic notions of the North were significantly boosted by studying “Wuthering Heights” at school. And I also had this idea, perhaps fostered by my mother’s declaration that, having left London at the age of 21 she would never go back to live there, that the further north you went, the kinder and more collaborative people got (apologies to my southern friends, I know this is a stereotype). So, having lived in the West Midlands, as well as the East, when I got the opportunity to move to Yorkshire I jumped at it.
Even though I love living in the North, it cannot be denied that some of the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. It always amazes me when I visit London and people complain about the Underground. Of course it has its faults, not least being the over-crowding at rush hour, but the fact that you can disappear underground and be whisked miles across the city in quick time is something that residents of most other cities in the country can only dream of. And, there is the issue of the extra investment being pumped into new lines like Crossrail and Thameslink, at the same time that projects such as the proposed electrification of the Transpennine rail line between Manchester and Leeds have been cancelled. So, is it any wonder that people in the North are angry, and suspecting that the south is being favoured?
And we have had the Northern Powerhouse, which is something I have been sceptical about since its inception. My big problem with it was that, in common with many high-level strategies, it failed to engage with the people of the North in any kind of tangible way. Most of the imagery that came out of it was the usual stuff featuring middle-aged white men in suits. And little of what they produced seemed to have much relevance to people’s lives. And then there came a change of government, and the one project that might have made a difference to how we live, the rail electrification, was cancelled.
Is the Northern Powerhouse dead? I don’t know? What I do know is that the people of the North are angry, and that anger has crystallised around the latest debacle, which has been the failure of the train operating companies, in particular Northern Rail, to adapt to the new timetable which was supposed to give us at least a slight upgrade in terms of speed and frequency of train services. The result has been the opposite of what was promised, with chaos across the region, and reports of people losing their jobs because they can’t get to work on time, among other negative consequences.
I have often been asked for my opinion of the most effective means to get communities organising using social media. My response has often been to suggest that anger is the most likely stimulus. And the Northern Rail situation has produced lots and lots of anger. One of the unexpected results of this has been rival newspaper groups across the region putting aside their normal competitive instincts to come together in a collective expression of the region’s rage at the situation. And much of the anger has been focused around the social media hashtag #onenorth which has been used both to rally people around the campaign to get the government to re-instate its previous promises for investment in northern infrastructure, and to catalogue the nightmare journeys many people have been facing. It is interesting that this began as pretty much a grassroots expression of frustration, with the newspapers offering some kind of leadership and amplification of the message. The politicians of the north, with the possible exception of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been late to this party. Their leadership has been largely lacking.
So, does #onenorth represent a major coming together of the collective spirit of the people of the North? Who knows? It is perhaps too early to tell. I suspect that any collective spirit that does exist will dissipate if the immediate issues are addressed. But I have a hope. It is a hope that this might be a start of something. Could it just be that we can keep the #onenorth spirit going and use it to ensure the people’s voice is heard in future developments across the north of England? The Northern Powerhouse has been something that few people in the North have been able to engage with. Let’s make #onenorth a real movement of the people?
I am being absurdly optimistic about this? Let me know in the comments below.
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