Book Review – ‘What Kind of Region Do We Want to Live In? Region-Building Ideas and Activity in West Yorkshire’

The CDE is a hub for research in democratic participation and innovation, ranging from the international to local scale. In addressing the latter (and its relevance to the former), ‘regional democracy’ is a key term when understanding the way in which democracy functions at a local level, and what this demonstrates about the dynamics between different sectors of a wider geographical area. 

On this topic, Ryan Swift – an ESRC-funded PhD student based at the University of Leeds – has recently reviewed What Kind of Region Do We Want to Live In?, edited by Ed Carlisle, Ian Martin and Andrew Wilson of We Share the Same Skies, a collective that seeks to explore the possibilities of regional democracy in West Yorkshire. Ryan’s review is provided below.

 

In What Kind of Region Do We Want to Live In? Ed Carlisle, Ian Martin and Andrew Wilson have put together a fascinating collection of essays anchored around the theme of the potential for regional democracy in transforming the county. The book begins with the editors providing a useful overview of their idea of regional democracy in the context of West Yorkshire. In this, they highlight the cultural and democratic merits they see regional democracy providing the region. Further, they note the potential political and economic positives of ‘overcoming the London hegemony’. This introduction nicely frames the works that follow.

The majority of the collection consists of essays written in response to the questions ‘From where we are in West Yorkshire, if your ideal Regional Democracy was in place by 2040 what would our region be like? What has changed for the better? How has it been done? What work is still to do?’ These essays cover a wide range of issues such as improving public transport, transforming the way utilities are run within the region, tackling environmental issues, addressing the issue of racial division, and the importance of culture and identity on spaces of regional governance. These contributions all provide a number of interesting visions about the shape of policy and society in West Yorkshire in the future.

In particular, the issue of identity raised in a number of pieces provides an interesting contribution to debates around cultural attachments to place and the geographical shape of regional devolution and democracy. In her piece, Diane Sims rightly questions how the current ‘top-down’ approach to devolution ‘based around economic identities and disconnected from our local councillors and communities’ can connect with individuals’ sense of place. Certainly, this is a key problem with current approaches to regional devolution. Similarly, Sophia Price points out the way in which initiatives such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ are too vague to connect with real senses of local/regional identity. Instead, she argues that ‘restructuring political institutions around a Yorkshire or West Yorkshire macro-region, underpinned by sub-regional, locally based organisations that reflect and respond to the needs and concerns of people living in those areas, makes sense’. This is likely to be so.

Nevertheless, recognising West Yorkshire’s place within the wider the North and considering the shared cultural, economic, and political history as well as the challenges and opportunities present at the pan-Northern level should not be dismissed. It is the case that people’s sense of identity is often multi-layered with attachments at numerous spatial levels and regional democracy can and should reflect this. Within this, steps must be taken to make sure that West Yorkshireness, or Yorkshireness, Northerness, Englishness, or Britishness, for that matter, are inclusive and accessible forms of identity for all. Peninah Wangari-Jones and Désirée Reynolds address this issue in their contribution.

Another interesting idea that is highlighted several times concerns the regionalisation of utilities. Both Robyn Vinter and Andy Goldring espouse the merits of this for both public transport (buses specifically), and water, respectively. Essentially, the concept holds that while de-privatisation of key services and utilities is desirable, control of them will be much better placed at the regional level rather than the national level in order for the differing needs of different areas to be met effectively. While regionalisation may not be suitable for all industries and services which ought to be de-privatised, it does seem desirable for many. This, therefore, may be a policy vision that can really be pushed by citizens at the regional level.

In addition to these essays on the future of West Yorkshire and the possibilities associated with regional democracy, the book also contains some select essays taken from the We Share the Same Skies blog. Again, these pieces cover a diverse range of issues including the need for public banks operating at the regional level, the possibilities of regional democracy for asylum policy, and what West Yorkshire can learn from the Kurdish region of Rojava. Further to all of this, the collection is nicely illustrated with maps drawn by members of the public at the numerous public events organised by We Share the Same Skies all over West Yorkshire. Not only are these illustrations interesting to look at they also further highlight the many ways in which people can view their home and the things that can attach individuals to a place and region.

Essentially, this idea of people and place is what unites the whole collection. The work within the book is wide-ranging but is all connected by the idea that West Yorkshire can and must do better. Yet, this is not borne out of the contributors’ disdain for the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is because the hold of the local/regional space on feelings of identity and attachment, and disappointment and pride are so strong that passion for the improvement of the region is expressed so intensely across a diverse range of issues. While some of the ideas expressed in the book are stronger than others, and while the book does not offer any unified, concrete vision of the future shape of regional democracy in West Yorkshire, this is not really the point. It is not a manifesto or policy prescription; it is a collection of views form real people about real issues in a real place. It is part of a bottom-up vision of regional-democracy, not an imposed top-down approach, and this is key. As Elaine Calder writes in her piece, ‘people living in the region should be at the heart of any discussion about the future of our region’. Whatever regional democracy looks like it must be built and shaped by the people and places it serves.

Ryan Swift is undertaking an ESRC funded 1+3 Social Research MA and PhD scholarship in Politics at the University of Leeds. His doctoral research is focused on the party politics of devolution in the North of England.