Friday, March 20, 2009

Never Ever Land

Thomas Hardy, in 1912, wrote of Wessex as “a partly real, partly dream-country” that “has become more and more popular as a practical provincial definition”; “the dream country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from”. Hardy disapproved, which is just as well, since it shows Wessex to be something bigger and more democratic than one man’s fancy would allow.

The language of tourism marketing speaks often of a 'dream holiday', so where is the 'dream country' in the brochures and on the posters? Nowhere to be seen. The Prescott zones, imposed for reasons of administrative convenience, have been harnessed to the task of pulling in the tourists. And are unfit for purpose.

In 2002 the Wessex Tourism Association stated that “Wessex is a name that is widely known and one that conjures up strong positive images. It is used by companies and organisations in many fields.” The research report underpinning its work, Wessex – building a heritage destination, noted:

“Wessex is widely used within Britain and abroad as a brand name for promoting products and services. As is evident from a glance in phone directories, it is very widely used within Wessex itself. Yet it is little used for promoting travel… to succeed overseas, the area needs an identity, a brand of its own. It needs to make itself a destination that is known widely, as widely, for instance, as the Lake District or Cornwall… Based on the responses, it does seem that the industry agrees that Wessex can be marketed and that this needs to be done to help seasonality and business levels. There is, however, concern that efforts to market Wessex could prove difficult, unless co-operation throughout the region was better.”
Among the key weaknesses to be addressed the report identified the following:
  • The number of overseas visitors is below the UK average and well below what the attractions of Wessex suggest should be achievable.
  • The South West region’s image and promotion is that of a seaside holiday destination for the domestic market.
  • Tourism development is hampered by boundary divisions and under-funding.
None of these should come as a surprise to Wessex Regionalists. The tourism market is becoming more sophisticated. A distinctive brand – such as Wessex – is essential to success in that market.

Last night, ITV’s The West Country at Westminster turned its attention to tourism. It reported that South West Tourism receives much less Government funding than its counterpart in Yorkshire: just £1.5 million a year as against £10 million. Poor old ‘South West’, punished for not voting Labour.

That was the story’s high water mark. After that, it unravelled spectacularly. It turned out that the Government money was money channelled through the Regional Devastation Agencies and that in Yorkshire it went to just one body, in ‘the South West’ to several, South West Tourism being just one beneficiary. So its protests started to seem a trifle peevish.

A panel of MPs was convened and quizzed. Andrew George from St Ives, a Liberal Democrat with an eye to the Cornish nationalist vote, took the view that Cornwall had its own strong brand, with ‘the South West’ adding nothing and in fact getting in the way. Mark Harper from the Forest of Dean banged the drum for English nationalism and ignored altogether the competition that exists for the domestic market. It was a brilliant performance, illustrating just what a menace the Tories will be if ever returned to power, determined to ignore regional realities in politics, economics and culture.

Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for ‘the South West’, was left to explain why ‘the South West’ makes sense as a tourism region. He didn’t bother. Yet if ‘the South West’ cannot be defended, why prolong its misery? South West Tourism’s problems are not just financial; in Andrew George’s words, 'If the product isn’t right, no amount of marketing will save it'. Yorkshire is a unique place and readily marketable as such. ‘The South West’ could be anywhere on the planet. We want to see it give way to Wessex, as much for economic reasons as for any other.

Mr Bradshaw was in the news earlier this week too, when he told councillors in ‘the South West’ that they should face down opponents of Labour’s housebuilding plans. That’s right: ignore the people who voted them into office and dance to the thugs’ tune. One reader told the Bristol Evening Post: “Go back to Westminster, Mr Bradshaw, and tell the Government the people of the South West say no.” Quite so, we say, and take your ‘South West’ with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elected Mayors – An Afterword

It’s been an interesting week for local democracy. Last Wednesday, Doncaster’s elected mayor, Martin Winter, was seen doing his best to avoid giving an interview to BBC2’s Newsnight. Then on Friday the elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. Stoke is the city that has already voted to scrap its directly elected mayor and go back to the older, more broadly based form of local governance.

We must, of course, presume Mr Meredith to be innocent, but the thing about justice, famously, is that it must not only be done but be seen to be done. How much easier that would be if all municipal decisions came before open meetings, to be voted upon by all councillors, and not as now, taken secretly by the chosen few or just by Il Duce himself.

The gist of Newsnight’s report was that Doncaster folk are fed up with their mayor. The Council has passed two motions of no confidence in him but he refuses to go. His successes were said to be a number of big urban property deals, his failures the core services, especially to the outlying villages, that are basically the reason residents pay their council tax.

It all provides interesting background to the Tories’ proposals for elected mayors contained in their Green Paper, Control Shift. The benefit of an elected mayor, they say, is the ability to “enhance the prestige” of a city. Code for “smooth the path of property developers”? Is this an aim to be pursued at the expense of getting the basics right? The social workers well-managed, the potholes filled, the schools teaching soundly? It’s these issues that ward councillors deal with in their surgeries and they expect to see action taken. No chance then, if the mayor won’t go when it’s clear he’s outstayed his welcome.

The Tories, instead of respecting local democracy, want to force major cities, including Bristol, to hold a referendum on moving to a mayoral system, with a presumption in favour of change. Who pays for this expense? Do the Tories not know that if enough local folk – just 5% – want an elected mayor they can force a referendum already?

Of course they do. But where Labour leads, the Tories now follow. And that is towards a ‘managed democracy’ where we are asked loaded questions, about a filtered list of issues, within biased voting arrangements. The Swiss wouldn’t take it. They have direct democracy by referendum on issues raised by the public taking the initiative. And so should we.

Labour’s desperation shows in a document out for consultation until the end of this week. It aims to make it easier to get local governance structures changed, and harder to get them changed back again when, sure enough, they don’t work and folk are fed up with that fact. Wessex Regionalists are sick of Whitehall-knows-best, sick of being told what decisions are safe for us to make and which aren’t. And sick of the collusion between the London parties to keep the whole interfering nonsense chugging along.

By the way, happy birthday to the Earl. The Wessex Wyvern is flying over the Town Council offices in Weston-super-Mare to mark his festivities. Let this be the year he starts to earn his title and stops pretending there’s no such place as Wessex.