For those who stay – 21st century northern identity

Sometimes it’s harder to stay than it is to leave. We are rebuilding the north, so why does it still, so often , feel like we’re judged for staying?

Those who have stayed or moved back to the cities in the north where they grew up or went to university are often peered down at from a self-appointed stool of power and ambition. Somehow you’re lacking because you didn’t decide to venture south.

London draws in all around it, like a great gaping black hole. And it’s great down there, it is. But many don’t want it every day. Some like living in cities where they can buy a four bedroomed house in a suburban neighbourhood for under £150k, or a waterfront apartment, where they can enjoy art and culture, a stroll around familiar surroundings and stay close to family or friends. Where they can afford childcare. Perhaps they love the city they were born in or went to university in. Where cities can be smaller, edgier, with a more anarchic and independent underground. Where we have a distinctive character. It isn’t a lack of drive, or no desire to go further. It isn’t settling, because sometimes it’s harder to commit to redefining and rebuilding a city than it is to get out.

It can be easy to lash out when people don’t make the same life choices, be it having children, enjoying the theatre or deciding to upticks and move to a new city. And to talk about cities in the North about being great places to live and work doesn’t dismiss the challenges faced by living in them; Manchester has the lowest rate of female life expectancy while Liverpool has some of the poorest wards in Europe. It can be hard to get local politicians to focus on the need to better cycling lanes, a greater mix and parity of industry and employment opportunities. Local councils can often feel like miniature fiefdoms with a “big fish in small pond” mentality that attracts a certain kind of bombastic and arrogant power-wilder. They are breathtakingly white, middle class and male when are cities are increasingly not. We cannot sell ourselves as places of diversity but have all evidence to the contrary in corridors of power. Even worse you can see you town or city as a rat race for those on the fast track to national prominence. You are merely a notch on their career bedpost so it becomes hard to have anything dedicated to long term.

Last year a great piece in Sevenstreets talked of how big visions for cities roll around every thirty years or so. There’s some truth in that. Gigantic and rescaling projects are often developed and unveiled as each generation seeks to leave its physical legacy. It doesn’t always work but there’s an ambition to make cities better, more attractive, more local and with a greater sense of identity. Big projects are no bad thing, of course they’re not. But they should be designed by and for a place.

The problem, often, is that the plans are developed by looking outwards, rather than inwards. Copenhagen is, clearly, a glorious city but Liverpool or Hull will never have an identical infrastructure. Inspiration can be taken but you can never replicate a city experience somewhere else. It isn’t practical or desirable. And it’s kind of pretending that the stuff you’re working with isn’t good enough, that you have to rip it up and start again. We’re not a blank canvas to assuage an ego.

Instead there needs to be an injection of confidence, a reversal of apathy, that enables people to feel they can articulate how they want their town or city to look, how they want it to feel, to move around it, what they needs and wants are. Cities are the only element of our culture where we think it makes complete sense to try to fit square pegs in round holes, as though we’re trying to create a jigsaw picture using pieces from different sets. Cities don’t need anything derivative. They need to have their own identity. I read this in November about why we need to make city planning cool. And we do. We need people to think about their city as being malleable, a great beast that moves and shifts around them and what they want. But to do that we need more people to be confident enough to do it.

And so the people who live in them are vitally important. Yet this sniffishness and snobbishness about those who stay “up North” is pervasive and damaging. Too often a  London-centric (and it is that) dismiss the north as one single, ubiquitous entity that speaks in one great drawl that’s invariably stupid, racist, small minded, parochial and lacking in any great worth. Even in one region of Yorkshire you get the vastly swathes of difference between Sheffield and York, Harrogate and Leeds with myriad towns and hamlets in between. If one region isn’t uniform how can an entire land mass be so?

Yet still newspapers have a single northern reporter (or rely on a local agency looking to sell in salacious stories to make money) or the “northern desk” descends on mass for one macabre, heart-warming or batshit story to the next creating a disparate and unfolding nightmare of the north being a place where Londoners can mock, gawp and shudder in turn.

That might be funny. And it’s great for those who close their door in their London suburb and think “thank fuck I don’t still live in Grimsby” but what are you saying about a place, and more importantly what are you doing to a place, when you writ that large in a national conversation. You leave people feeling as though they’re not as important, not as vital, the younger sibling that will never be quite as significant, articulate or successful. It pervades into our national political conversation. Northerns feel like an afterthought because we’re treated as one. And it will get worse in the next four months as the election approaches, not better.

My dad used to say that if someone was bullying you or was mean to you then it often meant they were dissatisfied with themselves. There is much truth in that, especially when it comes to identity. And as we trundle into electoral posturing the North won’t be seen as vital or key but as continuing a political narrative; a plot point rather than a defining character. It was ever thus.

But if we truly are going to create a powerhouse or whatever we want to call it then we need to start calling out the negativity as well, wherever we hear it, and remind the people that left that the ones rebuilding the north are those that stayed.

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