News from Elsewhere: Not as North as we used to think

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TWO buildings dominate the cityscape of Leeds. The first is the Town Hall, opened by Queen Victoria in 1858 and probably Britain's finest civic building. It sits on the Headrow, Leeds's principal street, next to the city art gallery with its fine 19th-century watercolours and the new Henry Moore gallery.

The second is the Department of Health's headquarters building at Quarry Hill, with its post-modernist spire/corona. It is hard to miss but it is also hard to get at. This is partly because it is marooned among dual-carriageways and flyovers on the eastern fringes of the city centre. But it is mainly because, unlike the Town Hall, it represents 'private' rather than 'public' space.

This is a paradox: today's taxpayers certainly contributed far more to the cost of building the Department of Health than those of the 1850s did to the Town Hall. Yet they are excluded from the former and welcomed by the latter.

But it is also a parable. Victorian Britain, despite its squalor, hypocrisy and addiction to the free market political economy of the Manchester school, was preoccupied with the 'public'. The Victorians laid out parks, planted gardens, built hotels and railway stations, and transformed the cramped guildhalls and assembly rooms of 18th-century England into grand civic monuments.

In contrast a prominent feature of contemporary British culture is the retreat from the 'public'. On the outside, watchful reception desks and security guards, handing out time-limited, name-tagged badges which dangle from lapels; on the inside, storeys-high atria filled with luxuriant foliage which defy the banality of the English climate. In its twin landmarks, the Town Hall (I know because I have been there many times) and the Department of Health building (I suppose, because I have never been inside), Leeds offers two striking emblems of these contrasting ideals.

Perhaps this contrast is spatial as well as temporal. It may be bound up in that larger contrast between the North and the South. As much psychological as geographical, this faultline has shaped our identity as an industrial and commercial - and aesthetic - nation, from Mrs Gaskell to Ted Hughes.

Perhaps the grand civic statement made by Leeds Town Hall, its celebration of the 'public', are predominantly northern, while the Department of Health's 'private' fortress represents a Southern ideal. Certainly great civic buildings are more likely to be found in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales than in the South. But that is hardly surprising because these regions were the cutting edge of industrial Britain. In the first half of the 19th century a staggeringly high proportion of world production of finished woollen goods passed through Leeds. In the late 20th century the balance of the British economy is tilted South. Leeds's reinvention of itself as a financial centre has brought with it Southern institutions - sober Yorkshire building societies, transformed into glitzy regionless financial institutions, the transplanted Department of Health and riverside nouvelle cuisine restaurants rather than Tetley's and Harry Ramsden's.

I must admit that I am sceptical about these cultural generalisa tions even as I play with them. Britain is such a small country. Leeds and London are bound together by the concrete and asphalt of the M1 and by the overhead wires stretching from the City station to King's Cross. The same brands dominate the visual landscape of all British cities. What are the remnants of regional accents to compare with the centralising culture of commerce?

Another reason for my scepticism is more personal. I moved to a new job in Leeds last year after 25 years working in London. But I was born and brought up in north Northumberland close against the Border. So Leeds and the rest of the archetypal North - west and east of the Pennines - is halfway to London in my inner map of England.

Also, I almost prefer another division of Britain, between the bracing east, from the Moray Firth to the Suffolk coast, and the sleepy west, from Skye to Devon.

So is 'the North' a myth? After all, large parts of north Leeds are not 'Northern' at all. Ilkley and Harrogate are like Bath and Salisbury. Yet the image of the North, Lowry-like and memorial ised by Richard Hoggart, remains powerful. And in politics the North and South are two nations, racing apart. For the Conservatives, dominant in the South (pace the Liberal Democrats) and secure in their shire and suburban seats in the North, this presents few difficulties. One-nation Tories may be concerned about their lopsided political representation but not those for whom winning elections and wielding power are all.

For Labour it is different. In the North, even more so in Scotland, Labour is the majority party. It has governing instincts which echo the civic and 'public' culture embodied in Leeds Town Hall, however much such an association with socialism might have offended its free-trade builders. Labour has a natural authority in Leeds which it lacks in Lambeth.

But this makes it difficult for Labour to come to terms with the 'private' culture of the South, physically represented in Leeds's own city-centre offices and hotels (and the Department of Health's Quarry Hill headquarters). So a national majority eludes it. This is a dilemma which a Scottish-dominated shadow cabinet with its massed Northern backbenchers has failed to confront. Perhaps it does not even understand it.

The writer is professor of education, University of Leeds.