Alex Massie

Baby Steps in the Provinces

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One of the good features in the government's Localism Bill is the proposal for referenda on more directly-elected mayors. At present it seems only a dozen English* towns and cities are taking advantage of these plans but one hopes more will do so in the future. Contemplating this, Bagehot chews on centralisation and London's hegemony in British (and especially English) life.

As he observes, generally speaking London has been the dominant city in England for centuries, dwarfing its rivals. But there was a spell when this wasn't the case and one need only look at Town Halls and Corn Exchanges and museums and galleries and Assembly Rooms across Britain to appreciate that there was an era when provincial towns and cities boasted a confidence expressed in brick and stone. Not just that, either. Birmingham could produce a political dynasty and Manchester an entire school of liberalism and much else besides.

London may have been the Imperial capital and one of the world's great international cities, but it was possible to make a mark in the provinces too. Nor was it any disgrace or sign of second-class status to do so. Since then, some governments have tried to find ways of revitalising England's provinces. John Prescott's well-intentioned provincialist agenda didn't in the end, amount to much but his efforts were, as I say, well-intentioned.

It is a crazy, ridiculous aspect of British life that the Mayors of New York and even Chicago are much better-known in this country's media and political circles than the people who actually run Brimingham or Manchester. Hell, I'd guess that the Mayor of Paris probably receives as much coverage in the broadsheet press as any of the people charged with running England's great provincial cities.

Directly-elected mayors won't change this on their own, but they should do something to invigorate local government. Unfortunately, however, the government's proposals only go a little way. Without proper revenue-raising powers local government will continue to be at Whitehall's beck-and-call. For as long as 85% of local spending is dispersed from the centre, there's a limit to what can be done.

Still, it is a start. The Mayor of London will always, ex officio, enjoy a national platform; his counterparts in the provinces should have their chance too. It's not the end of the matter but a decent start - so long as one remembers that it's only a start.

Which reminds me: the worst thing the Guardian ever did was move to London. Media concentration is only part of it, of course, but it's a large part nonetheless. There are something like five million people in Yorkshire, so theYorkshire Post should be a great paper and a voice that demands to be heard. But it isn't and I think that leaves Britain and especially England worse off. Provincial shouldn't be a pejorative term. At least not always.

London isn't the enemy and anyway it won't be disappearing (which is good) and of course most countries know something of this kind of centralisation but few are quite so lop-sided as England's. Some of this, as Bagehot says, is a consequence of England's tinyness and early adoption of proper transport infrastructure (made easier itself by the short distances) but it leads to the kind of dismal thinking that views a move to Manchester (BBC Radio 5) as the end of civilisation or Question Time to suggest that it's no place or forum for discussing issues of non-London local or regional interest.

*It is, alas, too much to hope that Scotland's cities might enjoy directly-elected provosts. No way Holyrood wants to risk creating alternative power centres.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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