There\’s a solution to this but you\’re not going to like it

I came away thinking it was a splendid place, and also reflecting how much England suffered in the 20th century from its metropolitan bias. A healthy country needs strong provinces such as England had in the Victorian Age, the exceptional century in its history, when so much of the cultural and intellectual vitality of the nation was to be found in the North and Midlands rather than in London.

Make public transport, the railways, heck, make private transport, the motorways, worse.

Such cultural and intellectual vitality depends upon clustering. And clustering just isn\’t going to happen in Bristol when London is 90 minutes max by train. And the better the transport networks, the greater the distance that can be travelled in the magic time period (which could be what, 2 hours, three?) then the more that vitality will cluster in one place, the more that one place will suck it out of those places that it can be sucked out of.

Not even the Victorians believed that Reading, Slough or Clapham were going to create vibrant intellectual spaces of their own. It was obvious that people would travel into London, to the great national concentrations for that. And the better the transport system the larger the area over which we can hear that great sucking sound.

Provincial revival depends upon bad transport connections with London, not good: a lesson for the HS2 peeps there perhaps?

Whoops, sorry, the quote is from Allan Massie.


14 thoughts on “There\’s a solution to this but you\’re not going to like it”

  1. I did think a similar thought the other day about high speed trains. But surely Germany has had excellent transport links between its regions for decades now and has strong regional economies and identities?

  2. Rub-a-dub, Oxford rather proves Tim’s point.

    True, the University is so inward-looking that it wouldn’t notice if London moved to the Headington Roundabout.

    But if the Town has any independent cultural life, it hides it very well.

  3. Matthew, thanks to the East-West split, Germany didn’t have a real capital city for nearly 50 years, so there was no single main centre to suck the life out of everywhere else.

    It’ll be interesting to see how long that survives.

  4. Actually, I think the answer is to link the regions to each other… not to London. All roads and rails in this country lead in and out of London.

    Make it easier for people to travel between the regional centres and you increase their catchment areas relative to London.

    Everyone knows that east-west routes in England are mainly awful.. but that’s not the half of it.. a train from Leeds to Nottingham is only about ten minutes quicker than a train from Leeds to London.

  5. You are aware, I assume, that Norwich (you know the county capital of Norfolk – the county where a certain tax expert has his residence) was once perhaps the greatest and wealthiest city in England? Now a bit of a hidden gem (scenically).

    What went wrong?

  6. Interestingly, local clustering happens too – Bristol probably sucks culture in from its surrounding towns and cities (Bath, Cardiff), and Reading from Basingstoke, Thatcham and Newbury, just as London sucks from Bristol and Reading.

  7. of course before the railways Bristol was literally on a different time zone to London…(my 11 year old told me that)

  8. @Matthew @Richard
    Another thing about Germany is that its intellectual capitals were, in many cases, if you go back ab0ut 150 yers, in different countries, not just regions.

  9. To weigh in a little further on Germany – we don’t really do big cities here. For England, you can simply say “London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle”, and 90% of anything of any importance happens in those places or within a 15-mile radius. Take the equivalent list for Germany, roughly “Berlin, Munich, Rhein-Ruhr, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Leipzig-Halle” and you do not encompass 90% of German economic or cultural life. Arguably less than 50% in fact. Germany is simply less centralised than the UK – not merely with regard to its capital city but with regard to the big towns sucking everything in from everything in between.

  10. Your general point is, I’m sure, correct but I don’t really think you can use nineteenth century provincial cities and railways to back it up. The train service to London from places like Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester was pretty good from quite early days and got progressively better until by Edwardian times it was excellent and yet this was when those great cities were at their peak. Britain differed from most other industrial nations in this respect as passenger rail services were not as intensive as they were here. I think the previous cultural vitality of northern towns is better explained by the centre of gravity of the nation’s wealth production shifting there after the industrial revolution, an historical anomaly.
    Alex B is also right about local clustering, Brighton has this effect on my home town and indeed a large part of the South Coast.

  11. Much of so-called Scottish Nationalism is (I suspect) anti-Londonism. My own scheme is that we move the British capital to Berwick, and we have a referendum among the residents of England to decide where we’d like our capital to be. Scilly?

  12. Much of so-called Scottish Nationalism is (I suspect) anti-Londonism.

    Nah. Some of it is simple anti-English bigotry, most of the rest is the inability to accept that anything wrong in Scotland could possibly be the fault of the Scots.

    The problem is that once you accept that, you’ll find that the borderers and anybody north of the Forth hate the central belt, Edinburgh and Weegieville hate each other, and are despised by the people in the smaller towns in the central belt. Many of those are convinced that the mid-1970s were the peak of the British democratic experiment.

    The islanders either think they are Norwegian (north) or Puritans (west), and nobody can understand Fifers well enough to know what they think.

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