‘The Future for West Yorkshire’s Regional Democracy’ – Symposium Overview

On Friday 31st January The Future for West Yorkshire’s Regional Democracy symposium took place at the DAI Hall in Huddersfield. The event was organised by Andrew Wilson of the Same Skies collective and University of Leeds PGRs Jack Simpson, Tiffany Holloman, and myself. The symposium sought to bring together a diverse range of voices from the social sciences and arts and culture to discuss the current social and political challenges and opportunities within West Yorkshire.

The day began with my own talk on West Yorkshire’s place within the wider English regional devolution agenda. I suggested that the current approach to devolution in England, based on centre-driven ‘devolution deals’ and narrowly focused on city-regions with asymmetric levels of power and responsibilities, is flawed economically, geographically, and democratically. I highlighted that the refusal to countenance the ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution proposal favoured by most of the local leaders across the region is symptomatic of these issues. I finished by suggesting that while it would be churlish for local leaders not proceed with a devolution deal based around the West Yorkshire Combined Authority if that is the only offer on the table, ultimately, the approach to devolution in England is in need of a significant rethink.

Tiffany Holloman then spoke about West Yorkshire’s relationship with London. Her talk drew heavily on her personal experiences of moving to the UK from America, living in Morley and working in Leeds. Interestingly, she sought to illustrate some of the challenges she sees in West Yorkshire by drawing on theories of colonialism.

The next session was kicked off by Jack Simpson. He suggested that globalisation in recent decades has resulted in smaller numbers of people having significantly more power over many, resulting in a reduction in personal and political autonomy. He argued that the problems that arise from this state of affairs could be tackled by utilising a Capability Approach to political and economic development, promoting the idea of a ‘good life’ and personal freedoms, rather than measuring success purely in terms of economic growth. Jack drew on his own experiences in Leeds to highlight how this approach could be utilised in West Yorkshire.

We then heard from artist Rochyne Delaney McNulty who spoke about how public art and what she terms ‘quiet radical acts’ could produce greater connections between individuals fostering a greater sense of belonging and community. Next, the symposium heard from artists Louise Atkinson and Victoria Kortekaas from the Highrise Project. Their project explores the links between architecture and social relations within municipal high-rise buildings and council-built estates through the use of creative research and artwork which is co-produced with residents. They discussed how their focus on co-production not only helps in terms teaching new skills, but also in terms of giving residents the opportunity to share their stories and ‘reclaim’ their estates.

The event’s two keynote speeches continued on the theme of arts and culture led citizen participation and urban regeneration, offering examples for West Yorkshire from elsewhere. First, Elaine Speight from the University of Central Lancashire spoke about the impact of the In Certain Places initiative in Preston. Then Glenn Boulter from Full of Noises discussed the impact of his organisations’ sound art projects in Barrow-in-Furness.

The next session began with a recorded talk from Sarah Aziz, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas Tech University originally from Halifax. She discussed the lack of ‘programless spaces’ in West Yorkshire where social interactions and connections could occur. She suggested that the use of many public spaces such as cafes are dependent of having financial resources, while others such as parks are dependent on the weather. She therefore called for more open and free ‘discursive spaces’ and highlighted positive examples from elsewhere.

The final talk of the day came from playwright Tess Seddon. Tess gave a humorous account of her experiences as a candidate for the Yorkshire Party at the 2017 General Election. Beyond the humour though, her talk highlighted some of the interesting challenges faced by candidates standing for smaller parties as well as the unpleasant reality of intimidation suffered by those in political life. A play based on her experience is running at the West Yorkshire Playhouse later this year.

To finish the day, speakers and other attendees all took part in a ‘world café’ session where key ideas and questions from the day were mulled over in small groups. Overall, the symposium resulted in a stimulating day’s discussion of various social and political challenges facing West Yorkshire and offered some insights into how art and culture can be utilised to boost citizen engagement. Going forwards, many agreed that there was potential for political researchers, artists, and cultural organisations to work together more closely to aide understanding of social and political challenges in West Yorkshire and promote wider public engagement in political debate across the region.

By Ryan Swift, ESRC funded PhD student

Tweets at @RyanSwift93