Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Rust belt rebellion

I was up in Yorkshire yesterday for a funeral. Huddersfield to be precise. I'm always stuck by two things whenever I go up north. I really notice the architecture. Huddersfield is home to some amazing late Victorian era buildings each with their own intricate stone carvings. It shares much in common with Halifax and other Pennine mill towns. Quite clearly these were once prosperous places.

I don't remember Huddersfield ever being especially prosperous though. In fairness, it's a bit of a dump. Don't get me wrong, it has a certain charm to it and I always enjoy a trip down memory lane but it's still the land that time forgot. Whether in boom or in recession these mill towns just plod on and nothing changes very much. This might explain why 55 per cent of people in Kirklees voted to leave the European Union.

For all that we are told there is a housing crisis, Huddersfield is not short of empty properties. There are any number of commercial properties which could very easily be re-purposed and would make excellent town centre dwellings. More to the point, they'd be affordable. There's no shortage of potential. The problem is that that the potential is never unlocked. For all that everywhere else has seen skyrocketing house prices, things in West Yorkshire stay pretty much the same. It has its own economy which isn't really influenced by the outside world.

In that respect, one might venture that EU membership for my home county is neither here nor there. What progress we saw was on the back of a debt bubble, the effects of which have quickly evaporated. Politically, West Yorkshire is not a priority for London government. Scotland can at least threaten independence to have a bone thrown their way but on the whole Westminster is not interested in affairs beyond the M25.

This goes some way toward explaining why promises of being stronger, safer and better off in the EU fall on deaf ears. Elections don't change things. Brexit might. What's to lose?

Remainers would point out, as indeed I have, that there is a substantial amount of trade to lose, but insofar as it affects West Yorkshire, such a threat is not enough to maintain the status quo. We are told that Brexit is a UK variant of Trumpism, and in a very British way I suppose it is. A rust belt rebellion against an indifferent and condescending political class with no real solutions. 

I don't know for a fact that Brexit will change anything in this dynamic or even prompt a change of policy that will revive the fortunes of our forgotten towns. What I feel confident in saying though is that continued EU membership definitely won't. Brexit though creates a window of political opportunity for Northern politicians to assert themselves. At the very least, Brexit will cause a significant re-ordering of the economy from which West Yorkshire may benefit. 

One of the obvious problems is the growing gulf between the north and south. But then it isn't even a north-south divide. It's London and everywhere else. London continues to divorce itself economically from the UK while continuing to sap the vitality from the regions. A serious economic shock to London might very well even things out. It's time we had a serious debate about the things that sharply divide this country. Thanks to Brexit, that is finally going to happen. 

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