I must declare an interest from the outset. I was born in Wakefield. I have never been especially forthcoming about my birthplace, not because I am ashamed of it, but because few people know or care much about this little city. Wakefield’s points of reference, ranging from the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 to rhubarb, a maximum-security prison and Sir George Gilbert Scott’s imposing cathedral, are not sufficiently etched on the public consciousness to allow conversation to flow easily or constructively. Even our esteemed business editor had to have his arm twisted a little over lunch before he agreed to include it in this City Life series. Wakefield, if it has a reputation at all, is regarded as Leeds’s impoverished relation, where the traditional working-class Yorkshireman, with his flat cap, his unopened wallet and his whippets, moans about the bloody Tories and the price of his pint at the Arthur Scargill Arms.
That image stems from the 1980s, when Wakefield had a truly miserable time. The glass and textile industries, mainstays of the city’s economy, faded out in the 1970s and 1980s, while the decline of the coal industry began with a particular focus on Wakefield: all six pits within a two-mile radius of the centre were closed between 1979 and 1983. This dire situation was compounded by the abolition of West Yorkshire County Council, which was based in Wakefield. Many local people, who had been employed in public-sector administration ever since the establishment of the old West Riding Council, found themselves thrown on the scrapheap. There they found they were not alone. Wakefield and its satellite towns of Featherstone, Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract all became unemployment black spots. The present was bleak and the future seemed ever bleaker.