Surveyoris the magazine for highways and transport professionals. This month’s issue is headlined ‘Return of the Regions’ and opens to reveal an editorial by Dominic Browne, and more besides. The editorial starts as follows:
“In January of this year the Department for Transport (DfT) launched a small (by government standards) pilot competition for local authorities to find ‘total transport’ solutions in rural and isolated communities.
To some this may have seemed fairly innocuous; a scrambled attempt to cover ground in local services left barren by revenue cuts. Yet the guidance for bidders contained a line that appeared to herald something more than spin, smoke and mirrors; something that looked like an honest appeal.
‘Service integration has not been attempted on any scale up to now, so the essential first step is for local authorities to work out how to go about it.’
Events this month, where we have seen the wheel of public reform turn once more, recalled this line.
When the coalition government first came into power, the word regional was banned. Localism was the new watchword. This month saw the concept of regionalism bloom again. Across the North and the Midlands two major bodies built of local authorities are ready to take on statutory powers for regional transport planning. While in the West Country, Surveyor has been told there is an ‘aspiration for more formalised regional control of transport’.
Further south, we see major sub-regional groups developing. In the East Midlands we have the two great communities of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire planning a joint combined authority and in ‘England’s Economic Heartland’ of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, we have an integrated total transport plan blossoming that, in its conception, actually pre-dates the DfT’s competition.
Some of this goes back to traditional English regionalism. The North, and to a lesser extent the Midlands, have always been comfortable seeing themselves as individual cultural entities, while some even still see Cornwall, another beneficiary of recent devolution, as a country in itself. In the south, where demarcation is more of an economic issue, sub-regional transport planning may be more practical. The capital of course, effectively a region in itself, already has the might of Transport for London working for it…”
Poor old South. The devil’s in the demarcation, isn’t it? Boundaries may be fuzzy but we know where the North and the Midlands are. We might even be able to point out East Anglia, another traditional entity but now one sadly subsumed into the ‘East of England’ Prescott zone, where it rubs shoulders with north London. But the South? And the West? Here it gets confused.
In 1919 Professor C.B. Fawcett published a famous, not to say infamous, work entitled Provinces of England: A Study of Some Geographical Aspects of Devolution. It included a map of 12 provinces, defined by physical features and ignoring county boundaries. The only nod to history was the re-use of certain names as labels of convenience. Cornwall and Devon were combined as the ‘Devon Province’. The ‘Wessex Province’ comprised no more than the Solent basin. In between was an area stretching from the Wye valley to the English Channel, grouped as the ‘Bristol Province’. Fawcett explained its name as follows:
“Round Bristol the popular regional name has been ‘West of England’ or ‘West Country’. But our Bristol Province has no better claim to the name ‘West of England’ than the West Midland Province has, and a less claim than could be made on behalf of Devon; while the term ‘West Country’ has different local meanings from north to south of England – in Durham and Northumberland it refers to Cumberland and Westmorland.”
Generations of the more materialist regionalists have praised the prof for his objectivity and lack of sentiment. Most fail to comment on the fact that in 1942 Fawcett revised his map, now with 11 provinces, several minor and some major boundary changes, plus a couple of name changes while he was about it. Surely unassailable objective reality ought not to be that malleable?
Cultural geography is about people and the place they call home. It picks up where physical geography leaves off and it’s what’s rightly central to any discussion about English regionalism from below. It’s because that voice from below is so often suppressed that we have this difficulty with demarcation down south. It’s why we’re assured that it’s absolutely all about economics, and the functional parameters of accommodating and responding to growth, and not at all about culture.
Is Cornwall part of the ‘West Country’? For a Cornishman, the west starts at Truro and carries on to the Isles of Scilly. Cornwall has the Cornish Riviera. Devon has the English Riviera. You might think the penny of national separation would have dropped by now. So if England’s West Country extends no further west than the Tamar, how far east does it go? According to a recent study of regional accents by YouGov, no further than Somerset. Not even as far as Brisawl, me lover.
The ‘West Country’ is a slippery term because it’s defined by those living to the east of it. It’s what’s down west from London and as London’s sphere of influence grows so the West Country shrinks. Between the wars it was still possible to describe Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset as the ‘Middle West’ (the reference is from Lovely Britain, edited by Mais and Stephenson), somewhere too far west to be the Home Counties and not west enough to be the real West Country.
Wessex today is split west-east – between the ‘South West’ and ‘South East’ Prescott zones – but another line would be north-west / south-east. Even in the days of our independence we had Wessex west of Selwood and Wessex east of Selwood, the diocese of Sherborne and the diocese of Winchester. As with the Highland / Lowland line in Scotland, our geography has shaped our history, creating divisions for others to exploit if they will. Whereas a self-governing region could work to strengthen the lines of communication that bind us together, the priorities of the London regime for centuries have been to follow the lines of least resistance, the tentacles that reach into deepest Wessex. There’s the Bath Road, the Kennet & Avon Canal, the Great Western Railway and the M4 going to the west; the Portsmouth Road, the London & South Western Railway and the M3 going to the south. Or so it’s presented. The reality is that of travel in the opposite direction, for these are not primarily the bonds of a resilient and self-confident region. They’re the great veins along which our region’s tribute flows up to London, never to be seen again.
The demarcation problem in ‘the South’ is insoluble so long as London is allowed to dominate. The North and the Midlands aspire to break free of London and they have the distance and the spirit to make it so whenever they choose. As Surveyor’s editorial notes, the South may be tending to see its future solely in terms of sub-regions, satellites submissive to the will of the Great Wen, not defined, as others are, in resistance to it. So long as that’s the case then it deserves the environmental and social catastrophe that’s heading towards it as London overspill eyes its fields.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Wessex has a flag, Wessex has a patron saint, Wessex has its own, much abused dialect. We have as much right as any Mercian or Northumbrian to govern ourselves. In so far as we’re on London’s doorstep, our culture in the front line facing the steamroller, we have a stronger and more urgent case than they do.
Our first priority, naturally, is to jettison the idea of the ‘West Country’, a concept far too flexible for its own good. Wessex is an alternative name that retains the idea of being placed geographically to the west of London. It does so without the notions of ineradicable inferiority, mental dumbness and infinite recession into peninsular twilight that have characterised a view of the ‘West Country’ handed down from above. One busy lopping off our eastern shires one by one.
Time to stand, men of the west. And then push back.