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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.