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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.