North windfall

Sharon Heal, 30.08.2016
More than the Great Exhibition, the North needs sustained investment
I spent last weekend in my native Yorkshire and as well as making me homesick it led to me pondering the Great Exhibition of the North project.

The shortlist for this government-led initiative includes Yorkshire cities Bradford and Sheffield as well as Newcastle-Gateshead and Blackpool.

The idea is to promote pride, investment and tourism in the north of England and provide a showcase for the area.

And there's a lot to play for. The winner, which will be announced in the autumn, will get an initial £5m for the two-month exhibition and the government has pledged £15m for a legacy fund to attract further investment.

In these cash-strapped times it's great to see a commitment to investment in culture. But I wonder how far £20m will go across an area with a population of at least 20 million?

Also I'm not sure how easy it will be to represent the rich diversity of "the North" in just one exhibition. From coast-to-coast the area covers urban, rural, towns, cities, industrial and post-industrial landscapes.

And while us northerners might have a proud and determined sense of who we are, we never let that get in the way of our regional and inter-regional rivalries.

Whether the division is across the Pennines or West Yorkshire versus South Yorkshire, there are distinct cultural traditions that make us proud of who we are and where we come from. Lumping us all together in a homogeneous mass feels a bit, well, patronising, and looks like an attempt to distract from the real issue; the chronic need for investment in culture and infrastructure in the area.

In West Yorkshire for instance, while it would be great to see Bradford win, and the city surely needs a boost, just next door in Kirklees museums are under threat of closure.

The Blackpool bid promises to reach beyond the city boundaries to strengthen the visitor economy in Lancashire and increase visitors to the region from 63 million to 70 million by 2020. Which would be great if the future of five museums across Lancashire wasn't still hanging in the balance.

The plight of museums in many northern towns and cities needs to be addressed in a strategic way rather than through a competition setting them up against each other.

Of course northerners will be happy to show off the region and its fantastic traditions and culture but we don't need an exhibition to tell us how great the north is - what we do need is sustained and fair government investment.