Under-represented and under-funded: London politicians can’t keep ignoring the south-west

The most southerly point of the UK. Confusingly also known as the North of the South. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Long before England was divided over Brexit, commentators argued about the political differences between the North and South. For southerners, dragons lurk any further than Watford; while terrible beer and folk with the fortitude of Kenneth Williams in a Carry-On film await northerners venturing below Birmingham.

People mostly know when something newsworthy happens in Wales, while Northern Ireland is currently getting its 15 minutes of fame, and Nicola Sturgeon is straight on the phone the minute Scotland slips out of the news.

But what about the south-west, the ‘North’ of the South. A place, according to YouGov, with a regional identity as strong as Yorkshire’s.

For most Londoners, the south-west is one of two things. You’ve got Bristol – a (slightly) more affordable, yet still trendy, smaller version of London – and the Cotswolds, both of which provide many a Kensington resident with a weekend retreat. Then everywhere else is a patchwork of fields and muddled pirate/farmer accents.

Unfortunately, these both leave the south-west somewhat overlooked in London’s political circles.

Traditionally the 258-mile stretch between Land’s End and Chipping Campden in the region’s north was something of a Lib Dem stronghold. In 2010 the south-west had 15 yellow seats, 36 blue, and just four Labour. Despite national losses in 2017, Conservative seats rose to 47 and Labour climbed to seven, leaving the Lib Dems with just one MP – the newly-elected Wera Hobhouse in Bath.


Devolution hasn’t been fruitful. Although in recent years Bristol has been thriving, first under former mayor George Ferguson and then his incumbent successor Labour’s Marvin Rees, there’s few else championing the interests of the south-west to Whitehall. Inexplicably the role of the West of England’s metro mayor, Tim Bowles, also covers Bristol, along with bits of South Gloucestershire and north-east Somerset.

Rivalry in the region is strong – don’t confuse a Bristolian and Gloucestershire accent* in the presence of natives – yet the policy problems are shared.

Regional income per head is higher than in parts of the North, but so are house prices. Yet it’s often overlooked that market prices in Bristol and Bath, where young professionals might look to escape the capital, skew the numbers.

Cornwall is one of the ten poorest regions in the EU, with pockets of Gloucestershire and Somerset not far behind. Despite often being forgotten by our urban-based media, rural poverty is a real problem, with economic and cultural opportunities thin on the ground.

Transport only makes the problem worse. I grew up in a town 20 miles from Bristol, not much more than half an hour in the car. Yet the train takes over an hour, with the Cam and Dursley train station an inexplicable five miles out of the town. Bus services might come once a week, but they aren’t guaranteed to bring you back. Cuts to local government have made many services unviable. It's little wonder that in Dursley JK Rowling found inspiration for Harry Potter’s cruel relatives.

Tourism offers a local economy boost; people come from all over the world to enjoy Somerset Scrumpy, Cornish coastline and Cotswold cottages. But weather on the western front is an unreliable business partner, and second homes push up living costs for locals.

The south-west gets the investment its national presence deserves. Whilst local politicians are trying to deliver for local people, there’s been a lack of join-up between its MPs.

The Lib Dems struggle to marry their liberal pro-EU messages with the more conservative region, whilst Labour doesn’t have the support outside of cities to recognise its problems. Media darling Jacob-Rees Mogg has hardly used the national spotlight to find solutions for those struggling in his North East Somerset constituency. Liam Fox prefers to make the case for investment in the Philippines than Portishead.

Devolution has struggled to appeal. That London policymakers tried to lump Cornwall and Devon together says it all. There is also a deep-seated indifference to politics; Brenda from Bristol isn’t the only one who’s had enough.

But the south-west needs a champion. Marvin Rees could do more to talk about the importance of connections throughout the south-west to benefit both Bristol and its surroundings. Theresa May could even use investment in the region to sure up her reputation with Tory backbenchers.

As local press dwindles, national commentators should take more trips down the M4 and M5 and find out not everything in the UK has to be binary between North and South, Leave and Remain.

*Gloucestershire accents are slower and lower. Bristolians pepper rapid speech with phrases not heard anywhere else in the world.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.