Northern England’s forward-thinking spirit has yet to be defeated, but after decades of neglect, economic decline and failed regeneration schemes, it’s more embattled than ever
Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here.
Stereotypes about the North of England have always been dictated by London and its cultural establishment. Sometimes these are insulting, premised on the idea northerners are backwards, buffoonish and parochial. Sometimes, they are affectionate but vaguely patronising: northerners are friendly, unpretentious and down to earth. Whether positive or negative, these are different ways of framing a similar idea: the North is a simple, humble place.
In his recent book, The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands, author and academic Alex Niven flips this assumption on its head. In fact, Niven argues, it’s the South which is regressive and parochial, a place fixated on “rural idylls and stately symbols of the past”, and the North which has always been a bastion of urbanism, modernity and artistic experimentation. It’s a fascinating, expansive book, which takes in civic architecture, modernist poetry, postmodern art, independent filmmaking, and popular music, from the queer futurism of Frankie Goes to Hollywood to the utopian aspirations of Factory Records. The North’s forward-thinking spirit has yet to be defeated, but after decades of neglect, economic decline and failed regeneration schemes, it’s more embattled than ever.
When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, some people hoped that this would usher in a new golden age of counterculture. But, with a few exceptions, this renaissance never arrived. The arts have become more elitist; clubs and live music venues have shut down in droves, cultural funding has been decimated and England’s regional inequalities are starker than ever. While nowhere escaped unscathed from austerity, the North took a disproportionately severe hit, with culture just being one casualty among many. After the failure of a series of efforts to revive its fortunes, what would it really take for a northern renaissance?
If we look back towards the periods at which northern culture was at its most vital, we can see that social and economic conditions have always played an important role. Niven argues that the time between the 60s and 80s was the North’s true golden age. Not coincidentally, this was also a period of generous social security, free and expanding higher education, well-funded local government and the availability of cheap housing. “This all led to flourishing across all the arts, from poetry and visual art to film and pop music,” Niven tells Dazed. Across the last decade, all of these factors have been diminished, more sharply in the North than elsewhere in England.
To be clear, the North as it is today is no cultural wasteland: in each of its major cities, there are vibrant art, club and music scenes. But they are fighting against the tide. Many northern cities are now facing similar problems as London does, including rising rents, iconic venues closing due to noise complaints, property developers leeching the lifeblood out of interesting areas and displacing their existing residents. But alongside this, northerners still have to contend with the long-term regional inequalities which have been worsened by austerity. There are higher rates of poverty and unemployment, there is less funding for the arts and infrastructure in general. In different ways, each of these factors stands in the way of cultural production. Of course, some people succeed regardless, but these additional barriers shouldn’t exist.
“You need a certain level of socio-economic security before large numbers of artists are able to create and experiment. If people in northern areas are suffering from the effects of austerity then they obviously won’t have the time or the space to create films or write poems or pop songs” – Alex Niven
While London remains the most expensive city in the UK, and living there can be incredibly difficult, it offers higher wages; more job opportunities, internships and cultural institutions. This means there is a powerful imperative for young people to move to the capital, as there always has been. It is possible to buck this trend at an individual level, to stay in your home city and do your own thing. But this is not a durable or fair solution to the problem of regional inequality. One answer, Niven suggests, is decentralising London’s cultural power by relocating some of its existing institutions: this has already happened with the relocation of various BBC departments to Salford. But there is a lot of resistance to this idea: when the English National Opera announced its plans to relocate from the capital, for example, there was an enormous amount of pushback.
This, along with the last 50 years of history, shows that London has little interest in relinquishing its cultural and economic power. “You’re never going to do anything about regional inequality without a really radical overhaul of our British constitution,” says Niven. This could take many forms: a federation system, like Germany; devolved powers, of the kind enjoyed by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, or some form of Northern assembly. As Niven argues, tackling regional inequality won’t be achieved without the North embracing a collective political identity. This doesn’t mean erasing the cultural differences across its regions and cities, but recognising they are more powerful acting in unison.
For a long time, culture has been central to the effort to regenerate northern cities, but the results have been mixed. The New Labour era saw the construction of new galleries, museums, concert venues and public artworks across the north’s major cities. In Greater Manchester, there was the Lowry Art Gallery, the Imperial War Museum North and the media complex which would eventually house the BBC; Newcastle-Gateshead gained the Baltic Art Gallery, the Angel of the North and the Sage concert hall, and Sheffield, pulling the short straw, got The National Centre for Popular Music, a museum which shut down within a year of its launch having failed to attract enough visitors. Most, if not all, of these projects were commissioned under Thatcher or Major, but Labour deserves some credit for carrying them out.
This kind of culture-led regeneration has a value in its own right – it’s a good thing that more people around the country have access to museums and galleries – but as a strategy for reversing the region’s economic fortunes, it has proven less effective. It succeeded in bringing more tourism to northern cities, but this mostly created low-paid and precarious jobs in the service sector, doing little to fill the absence left behind after deindustrialisation. “I believe, passionately, in the transformative power of culture, but if you look back at the last half century of northern history, you see how various cultural initiatives have been used to distract from a lack of willingness from successive governments to introduce political and economic reforms to mitigate regional inequality,” says Niven.
While investing in the arts is important, cultural production can happen more or less organically with the right conditions. “While I understand why people – especially people involved in the arts – say that ‘culture must lead the way with regeneration’, in fact, it should be the other way around,” says Niven. “That is, you need a certain level of socio-economic security before large numbers of artists are able to create and experiment. If people in northern areas are suffering from the effects of austerity – as they tended to do disproportionately in the 2010s – then they obviously won't have the time or the space to create films or write poems or pop songs to inspire the next wave of regeneration.”
Even though New Labour’s approach has been proven insubstantial, it starts to look a lot better when you compare it to what came next. Since the Tories came to power in 2010, government investment in culture in the North has been few and far between. “During the 2010s there was basically nothing. Even under Thatcher, as awful as that time was, there were various attempts to regenerate areas which were undergoing deindustrialisation,” says Niven. In the absence of state support, cash-strapped local governments have looked to property speculation and market-led development as a way of boosting their economies.
“Manchester’s city centre has become a playground for the wealthy, and this had a detrimental effect on the local culture“ – Isaac Rose
Having undergone a property boom in the latter half of the 2010s, Manchester has been the most successful example of this approach, but success within this paradigm has spelled disaster for many of its inhabitants: as skyscrapers rise across the city, rent has skyrocketed, homelessness has increased, and working-class people are being displaced. As the city becomes more expensive, its cultural vitality is draining away, with a number of venues being forced to close and affordable rehearsal spaces vanishing. “The mid-level ecosystem of clubs and venues is almost entirely gone,” Isaac Rose, a writer and organiser with the Greater Manchester Tenants Union, who is currently working on a book about Manchester’s political economy. “There’s now a lot more mega-venues and mega-events. The Warehouse Project, which is the archetypal example of this, was able to achieve cultural dominance by signing exclusivity contracts with artists, meaning they couldn’t perform anywhere else – effectively killing off a lot of mid-level venues.”
As Rose sees it, these huge events – along with a spate of new food halls, quirky experiences and “culture-plexes” – are intended to create a manufactured urban experience for the residents of newly-built luxury apartments. “The city centre has become a playground for the wealthy, and this had a detrimental effect on the local culture,” he says. “There is still good stuff happening on the margins. The White Hotel for example, is one of Britain’s most interesting clubs. But it’s an anomaly, really, and the area in which it's located is slated for redevelopment.”
Manchester’s property-led development trades off the city’s past cultural glories: The Hacienda, for example, has been turned into a luxury apartment building bearing the same name; a recently-opened cocktail bar in the Northern Quarter sells Joy Division-themed cocktails. “The city’s whole schtick has been a bastardisation of its cultural legacy in the 1980s,” says Rose. “It’s been really good at marketing itself as a progressive culture centre, but arguably they’ve destroyed a lot of the elements which made that possible.” To a lesser extent, the same dynamic is playing out in Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and elsewhere, all of which are now experiencing the kinds of gentrification which were, at one point, typically associated with east London or Brooklyn. Northern cities won’t experience a true cultural revival without there first being meaningful investment in public and council housing. If you give people time and space, culture will take care of itself.