The problem of Herefordshire: on the difficulty of fairly representing small places

The River Wye in Herefordshire. Image: AnitaHolford/Wikimedia Commons.

One of the odder things that I witnessed this past political conference season: an event on the Labour fringe being hijacked by what seemed to be some sort of Herefordshire Popular Front.

The event in question was on the rise of the metro mayor, and what it meant for Britain’s cities. But almost as soon as the chair invited questions, a man from Herefordshire popped up to complain that this focus on cities would cause us to forget about areas that were not, in fact, cities.

Shortly afterwards, a woman raised her hand, to make exactly the same point (she turned out to be married to the first questioner). A third person – not, to my knowledge, from Herefordshire – complained that the rise of mayors would simply turn the regional cities into “mini-Londons”, although exactly what this meant (rich? Good public transport?) wasn’t exactly clear.

At any rate: the point that come through loud and clear was that any party which aspires to government mustn’t forget Herefordshire and other largely rural counties.

The problem is, there are two reasons why Herefordshire rarely features in Labour thinking. One is that the party barely exists there. Herefordshire council has 27 Tories, nine independents, two LibDems, three Greens and 10 representatives of the intriguingly named “It’s OUR County!” party. It doesn’t have a single Labour councillor, and its two parliamentary constituencies are both safe Tory holds. It’s not crazy that Labour isn’t giving that much thought to Herefordshire.

There’s another reason this is true: to the first approximation, nobody lives in Herefordshire. It has a population of around 190,000, which is nothing, really: under 0.3 per cent of the UK population. If it were an urban area, which it very obviously isn’t, it’d be the 40th largest in Britain, slightly above such bustling metropolises as Crawley and Swindon.

We can take that further. There are 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester. Herefordshire has fewer people than nine of them, and roughly ties with Bury. London has 32 boroughs. Herefordshire’s population is roughly on a par with that of the 29th largest, Richmond-upon-Thames.

The reason I’m banging on about this – see, you knew I’d get to a point eventually – is because it doesn’t feel to me like we treat these two units of roughly equal population as the same. Demanding attention for Herefordshire at a political conference feels silly, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous: of course we can’t go ignoring entire counties.

Now imagine someone standing up to demand attention for Richmond-upon-Thames, or the Metropolitan Borough of Bury. It doesn’t work, does it? Somehow a county has something – a landmass; an identity – that gives it weight beyond its population, a right to be heard.


Except – does it? Why do the 190,000 people who live in Herefordshire deserve more attention than the 190,000 people who live in Bury? Why should one matter more than the other?

This is a less theoretical problem than one might suppose. We hear a lot in British politics about the over-mightiness of London, which is fair enough, really: the capital does dominate national political life to an unusual and damaging extent.

But there’s another part of the UK that also, I think, gets attention out of proportion to its actual population. Scotland (pop: 5.4m) doesn’t get as much attention as London (pop: 8.8m), of course. But its internal politics gets vastly more coverage than that of any other area of the UK, even though several – Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the North West, to name but three – have more people.

So why do people from those regions get angrier about the way London warps national debate around itself than they do about Scotland doing the same? Partly it’s because London’s dominance is greater; partly because hated of the capital is a fairly universal phenomenon.

But also, I suspect, it’s something else, summed up by the response you tend to get if you point out to a Scottish nationalist that there are lot more people in London than in Scotland: the latter is a nation, the former merely a city. There’s something there – a history, an identity – that gives it a weight beyond its mere population size.

This tendency to privilege some sorts of identity over others is a natural and fairly universal impulse. Sovereign states get one seat at the UN regardless of population, and Germany and Malta are both EU members, even though the former is around 190 times the size of the latter. All 50 states get the same number of US senators, even though their populations vary by a factor of 67.

But it bothers me, nonetheless. Luxembourg and Malta are not as important as Germany and France. And when it comes to government policy, London should get more attention than Scotland: including its commuter belt, it has over twice the people, and contributes far more to the UK’s growth and prosperity. From a purely utilitarian, sum-of-human-happiness point of view, London matters more. Bugger nationhood: it’s simply a property of the maths. In the same way, it’s not that I think we can ignore Herefordshire, I just think it’s less important than, say, Milton Keynes.

I’m aware this is a difficult area, that historic identities are important, that population size isn’t everything. Nonetheless, I think population size is most things, and that we are more prone to under- rather than -over-playing its importance.

Don’t believe me? Look at the United States election of 2016, where Hillary Clinton got 3m more votes than Donald Trump. So why is the latter president right now? Because the US electoral system gives disproportionate weight to states with tiny populations.

I don’t want to overstate this: I’m just saying that paying too much attention to Herefordshire could literally bring about nuclear war with North Korea, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.