London is the sickness. Is the cure to get government out and create a new capital?by Paul Barker / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Imagine the scene. In mid-Yorkshire, a city called Elizabetha has risen out of the soggy fields, looking like Milton Keynes. For 40 years this has been the capital of the United Kingdom. But it has taken ages to complete. Contentious new contracts under the private finance initiative have only just been signed. The promise is that a new Retro-shorthand for Rural Metro-will link Elizabetha to Newcastle, Leeds, York and even Scarborough (making it easier to get to the town’s Stephen Joseph theatre for one of Alan Ayckbourn’s amusing plays about London suburbia).
The Queen still spends most of her time at her beloved Windsor, but she helicopters up to install new knights and life peers. The Prince of Wales has bought Harewood House, outside Leeds, from the Lascelles family. He experiments with organic crops that will withstand the northern winter, but often sneaks off down to Gloucestershire to see Camilla and play polo. Each year he is photographed opening the world snooker championships at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, but critics say his heart isn’t in it.
An interactive Palace of Northminster has finally been built to the designs of Michael Hopkins. Higher than York Minster, you can see it from 50 miles away. The architect says the tower design derives from old pictures of Grimethorpe colliery in the archives of the Yorkshire & Elizabetha Post. (On the hour, if it’s morning, the clock plays a cornet solo version of “Awake, my soul, and with the sun/Thy daily stage of duty run”; later, it switches to “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.”) Constituents can now text message their MPs as the latter walk or sit anywhere in the new Commons. The civil servants who are not scattered across Britain in quasi-autonomous agencies live in showcase eco-flats whose electricity is supplied by wind-vanes rotating all along the Dales. The first-class compartments of the new high-speed train down to London are full every Friday evening. The M1 and A1 have recently been doubled up to six lanes in each direction. The Elizabetha-Brussels British Midland service has just laid on extra flights.
This breathes new life into a famous devolutionary fantasy. Forty years ago, on 8th December 1962, The Economist published an article, “North to Elizabetha.” It proposed a new capital on Marston Moor, between York and Leeds. Thus would the ills of over-centralisation be cured and the north boosted by the only force powerful and mobile enough to counter London’s political, economic and cultural domination-government itself.
It never happened, as we know, although some claim that Harold Wilson thought of including Elizabetha in the 1964 election manifesto which helped him to end “13 wasted years” of Tory rule. The pledge would have gone grittily well with his Yorkshire-made Gannex raincoat and his re-acquired Yorkshire accent. Politicians and planners, of all party political hues, have nosed around the devolution question ever since, like wary terriers around a rat.
All sorts of rival panaceas are currently being tried. Scotland and Wales have acquired a smidgeon of self-rule. The Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is busy drafting thoughts on elected regional authorities, to give a political sheen to the “regional offices of government” which were quietly established years ago, but which no one outside the world of policy wonks has ever heard of. (Interesting fact: Ken Livingstone’s Foster-designed City Hall was not commissioned or overseen by the mayor of London. The regional government office for London did it, and then handed it over.) Funders of the arts, meanwhile, are delighted to push money northwards or westwards. Or so they say. Somehow you feel that their hearts are mostly in London: at Covent Garden, on Bankside or in the Barbican. The pioneering theatre director Joan Littlewood died this autumn, with her dreams of non-elite, non-west end drama unfulfilled. The subsidy-givers never gave her a penny.
The brute truth is that, in 40 years, the dominance of London has hardly changed. True centres of decision outside London are few. When the Halifax building society became a bank, the chief executive was asked how it might affect his life. He said he would spend more time in the City of London. Yet another centre of local decision-making was gone. It is time to take Elizabetha out of the cupboard of history.
Inevitably, you would have to dust away some of the 1960s assumptions-principally, that “new is always best” (see Christopher Booker’s onslaught in The Neophiliacs). And peering ahead, you would need to change the name. “Williamsburg,” after the royal grandson, has the right ring, and might even distract an anxious population from the eccentricities of an ageing Charles III (assuming he ever attains the throne). As a bonus, American tourists might be tempted to check the place out against their own Williamsburg, Virginia, and spend fewer of their dollars in London.
At the time, The Economist was blowing a bright trumpet for what was then the conventional wisdom. In 1963, the Location of Offices Bureau was set up to tempt businesses to move out of London. This didn’t always mean they moved very far. Croydon sprouted its mini-skyscrapers and acquired its air of an American mid-western city because, by “London,” the bureau meant the old London County Council boundary, a much narrower definition than the present Greater London Authority’s. Croydon lay outside LCC territory. By shifting your back offices to Croydon, you could claim you endorsed government policies. This did no harm when soliciting Whitehall subsidy or contracts. But your staff were still only eight minutes by rail from London Victoria station.
Such anomalies lay behind the strangulation of the bureau in 1979, almost as soon as Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. But so, also, did a new panic about the emptying-out of London. The abandonment of inner city America, especially the burnt-out south Bronx, became the memento mori for all city planners in Europe. Prodded by Michael Heseltine as environment secretary, Mrs Thatcher poured money into preventing London from sharing this fate. The good businessman was now encouraged to put his back offices (even his front offices) in Docklands.
Yet deep social trends remain hard to reverse. Many of the Canary Wharf staff commute in from west London; they aren’t eastenders. Cities have an in-built memory. After all the reconstruction and gentrification, many of London’s worst-off live in the same places as in Charles Booth’s social survey more than a century ago (although “worst-off” has acquired a much gentler meaning). The same goes for the north. In Manchester, walk away from the city centre’s new razzmatazz, into Ancoats or Moss Side. In Salford, walk away from the new Lowry centre or Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum. Life away from the showcases can still be grim. First results of the 2001 census show that Manchester’s population fell by 15 per cent in 20 years, the biggest fall of any English city.
Regional identity does not stand where it did when The Economist pen-ned its prescription. Down the years, privatisation and the burgeoning of government agencies-unhooked from national collective bargaining and from close parliamentary scrutiny-has pushed much routine administration away from London. Since 1976, civil service jobs in London have fallen by 63,000 (42 per cent). Yorkshire-born, I live in London, but my car, like everyone else’s, is registered in Swansea; my VAT office is in Southend; my benefits office is in Newcastle. Or, at least, these are the postal addresses. If I try to get in touch, the proliferation of call centres-more per head in Britain than anywhere else in Europe-produces a strange geographical mush. You are trapped in Limbo, like a tormented soul in a medieval stained-glass window. Melvin Webber, a Californian social scientist, spoke of the “non-place urban realm.”
Williamsburg would look out onto a north of England better known for DJs and discount stores than heavy industry. In 1962, the core economic activities inherited from the industrial revolution still existed. Glasgow and Tyneside shipbuilders had jobs. So had Liverpool dockhands, Welsh miners, West Riding weavers. Sometimes the portents of early demise were evident. Sydney Checkland called his economic history of Glasgow, The Upas Tree, after the poison tree of legend which kills everything under its shadow. Concentration on a single industry, often (as in Glasgow) kept alive by the artificial market of defence contracts, left no alternatives ready when that industry disappeared.
Sometimes the death throes of industry created social difficulties, unsuspected by The Economist, which are still not resolved. One advantage of Williamsburg would be that commentators, if they were based there, would stop viewing Britain through London-tinted spectacles. Today, they write, for example, of “the multicultural society.” It may be so in parts of London (which is about 30 per cent non-white), but not in much of the rest of Britain, which is about 95 per cent white. In the West Riding and South Lancashire, the owners of clapped-out wool and cotton mills decided to draft in cheap labour from Kashmir and Bangladesh, instead of investing in better machinery. They came in on the late buses to work the unpopular night shifts. The mills then collapsed, leaving their migrant workforce stranded in Bradford, Burnley or Oldham. The white workforce was also stranded. How “multicultural” is the proposal to build an eight-foot peace-line wall to keep apart the warring ethnic factions of Oldham?
To shift the London bias would be a gruelling task. The 2001 census shows that, despite decades of regional initiatives, the northeast population is down 5 per cent over the past 20 years. The northwest is down 3 per cent. By contrast, London-that is the GLA area-is up by more than 5 per cent. The rest of the southeast-including London’s outer suburbs-is up by about 10 per cent. The industrial revolution’s northward counter-magnet looks like a historical aberration (and even then, London remained Britain’s largest single industrial centre). The shift lasted little more than 100 years. The death knell was sounded after the first world war. Cunard moved its liners from Liverpool to Southampton. Marks & Spencer moved headquarters from Manchester to Baker Street.
One obstacle to change is that 1960s-style interventionism has lost its halo of respect. Max Hastings, as president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, would march out at the head of his troops if anyone now proposed to build Williamsburg on Marston Moor. Indeed, could anyone today get planning permission to plant Milton Keynes (now our fastest-growing town) in north Buckinghamshire? And would we really want an imitation Brasilia, as a devolutionary new Jerusalem?
Curiously, new cities established by royal diktat have a better record than Brasilia-type novelties: they became advertisements for Romanovs, Bourbons or Hohenzollerns. (The Hanoverian playgrounds of Bath and Brighton are our lower-key equivalents.) St Petersburg was a dreary marsh when Peter the Great decided it would be his new gateway to the west. Berlin was no more than a village when the tinpot Hohenzollern dukes began their rise to glory. Madrid was a bleak one-horse town on a dusty plateau, when the kings of Castile gave it their endorsement. Newer artificial capitals are usually poor urban fodder. Most of them, often stuck in the middle of nowhere-much further flung than Marston Moor-are third world imitations of Washington DC.
Washington was a north-south compromise by the 13 colonies. It outflanked the rival claims of New York and Philadelphia. But, in weighing the potential impact of Williamsburg, remember that, for over a century, the mosquito-beset Washington was a joke capital. The New Deal and the second world war ushered in the years of big government in the US, and made America’s worldwide hegemony explicit. Only then did the strangely shaped dome of the Capitol become a widely recognised symbol. In Europe before that, Paramount’s starry mountain or the MGM lion, as the trademarks of Hollywood movies, were better-known symbols of the land flowing with milk, honey and starlets. US power gave the obscure capital its charisma, not the other way round.
The invention of tradition is a tougher job than it is sometimes given credit for. For the new state of Bangladesh-following in the footsteps of Oscar Niemeyer at Brasilia-the American architect Louis Kahn built a monumental parliament at Dhaka, based on the Baths of Caracalla. It was probably his masterpiece, for a country which, as it turned out, has been ruled by generals as long as it has by elected politicians. But the strain killed Kahn, who died at Pennsylvania station, New York, where his body lay unrecognised, on his way back home. All architecture firms, before bidding for Williamsburg, would have to give their principal partners a full medical check.
Hostility to London goes back at least as far as William Cobbett’s onslaught on “the Great Wen” (a wen is a tumour). Part of the trouble today is that, as the 2001 census underlines, “London” is an increasingly hard-to-nail concept. In Working Capital, an authoritative new study, Peter Hall and his colleagues point out that Real London stretches from Reading to Southend, and from Stevenage to Crawley (total population about 20m). Arguably, it even stretches from Oxford to Felixstowe and from Cambridge to Brighton. Intelligentniks catch the Oxford coach link to central London the way they once caught the Northern Line tube in from Hampstead. London is less a city than a network. Instead of the old pattern of inward commuting, people go from suburb to suburb or one outlying small town to another. They may even reverse-commute, from the centre outwards.
To build Williamsburg in Yorkshire might not break Real London’s sprawling network of power. A parliament on Marston Moor could become a symbol of the institution’s decreasing importance: out of sight, out of mind. Even if 10 Downing Street became 1 Attlee Avenue, Williamsburg, that might not be enough. London’s dominance is purveyed by the media, far more than by politicians.
The year before The Economist’s plea to boost the regions, the Manchester Guardian went south and dropped Manchester from its masthead. For a time, illusions of northern influence continued to be confected by Sidney Bernstein’s Granada Television. But this was as phoney as the Coronation Street set. Bernstein ran a London company, with headquarters in Golden Square, off Regent Street. Today, opinion is manufactured by the yard, as worsted once was, with politics as the weft and PR as the warp. And this manufacture mainly takes place in London. After the City of London and Heathrow airport, the BBC is London’s most important generator of wealth.
A planning row, an art show, a fashion catwalk, a racist murder: all get most coverage if they happen in London. The capital is taken as a model of all things. A rail strike, for example, is only a “national” crisis for Londoners, who are far more dependent on public transport than the inhabitants of any other British city. And as it becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, London grows less and less like the rest of Britain. It is beginning to resemble New York in relation to the rest of the US. This is the biggest case for change.
To shift serious power will require a Faustian deal with the media. This would be the bargain: less regulation, but on one condition-that you move yourselves north. Number 10 will come with you; but not exactly to the 1960s dream.
With regret, Williamsburg must go back in the cupboard next to Elizabetha. A walk around Stevenage or Cumbernauld will convince you that old towns make a better starting point. Within England, Manchester is the obvious place for the relocated media to go. It is far enough from London to have some lingering independence from it; more so than Birmingham, for example. It has a remaining media tradition (BBC Radio’s File on 4, produced in Manchester, celebrated its 25th anniversary in October) and a flourishing airport. The departing population has left acre upon acre of re-usable space. But this devolution should be supplemented by some northern federalism. The right model is the Victoria University, founded in 1880, which encompassed colleges (now universities in their own right) in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. The House of Lords could go to Liverpool, with its long tradition of stand-up comedy. The Commons, with its penny-pinching select committees, could go to frugal-minded Leeds. The prime minister and the civil servants could cluster alongside the media in Manchester, athwart the Liverpool-Leeds rail link. The royal family could be somewhat off-circuit in Lancaster castle or Skipton castle.
Should it happen? Dreamers can always dream. Will it happen? Only when Chirac moves France’s capital to Lyons. Or when the Germans move back to Bonn. Or when Putin sets up shop away from Moscow. But, just a moment: a summer palace for the Russian president is being refurbished as you read this, just outside St Petersburg. The first hint of 21st century change? Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds: stand by. Surveyors for the new federated capital may soon be arriving, with their theodolites, at platform one.