9 November 2015

John Harris on Bristol and Plymouth

The Guardian last week ran a series of articles by John Harris on the future of cities – urban despatches from within the UK. As well as Bradford and Manchester, his articles covered the two cities of the South West region, Bristol and Plymouth. Knowing both fairly well, I thought his accounts of the situations they face were excellent and should be read by anyone with the least interest in either place or in the south west.

He didn’t say so specifically, but Plymouth in the past lacked a significant middle class, as is revealed by this description of its housing stock:
Part of Plymouth’s problem is that until recently, we only had 56 houses in Band H council tax – 90% of Plymothians live in either C, B or A. So our council tax base is low.
So it possibly has more in common with Liverpool than Bristol. Harris starts his Bristol piece:
“Bristol is perhaps the one southern city which really feels independent of London,” writes Owen Hatherley in his brilliant architectural travelogue A New Kind Of Bleak.
An endorsement which I’m not sure I support. To me Bristol seems to have an inferiority complex with regard to London which leads it to overcompensate. This may worsen when rail electrification reduces the travel time by 20 minutes - as a Mexican president said, “so far from God and so close to the United States”*. It could also be an alternative explanation to Harris’s when he observes:
Bristol was the only English city to vote for an elected mayor in the referendums that took place in 2012, something put down to the apparent chaos of its politics (between 2001 and 2011, the old city council was led by seven different people) and the city’s ancient fondness for doing its own thing.
At which point a key difference between Plymouth and Bristol should be made clear. The latter actually is a meaningful conurbation surrounded by rural Devon, whereas the city of Bristol is merely the core of a built-up area which extends seamlessly into South Gloucestershire and North East Somerset. It’s not just because of the topography that Bristol’s public transport is incoherent and inadequate for its size. North East Somerset includes Bath which, although much smaller than Bristol, doesn’t do anything to mitigate the latter’s inferiority complex. From 1974 to 1996, these areas were part of the county of Avon, abolished by John Major’s Conservative government and, if meaningful devolution is to take place in future, probably needs to be re-established.

An article earlier this year, Bristol, the European capital of green nannying and bureaucracy, by Anthony Whitehead, gives a resident’s view of current life in the city. I posted here last year about the Royal William Yard redevelopment in Plymouth to which Harris refers.

*If Bristol is too close to London, Plymouth is probably too far from the capital for its own good. The M5 stops at Exeter, Plymouth airport is mothballed – Newquay or Exeter are the nearest at present - and GWR electrification gets no closer than Bristol, although other more marginal improvements to the rail service are programmed. [Added 10 November].

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