England & Wales Communities and society

Municipal Postcard: A Yorkshire post


With the summer winding down and holidays becoming a distant memory, Charlotte Maddix brings our series of Municipal Postcards to an end with her dispatches from Yorkshire.

Between July and the end of September this year, I’ll have made the journey up to Yorkshire a total of five times. That’s one family holiday, one LGA conference, one meeting, one ‘devolution lunch’ and one incredible day out at the Local Democracy Makers day. Normally I divide my time more fairly between different regions, but this summer has been all about Yorkshire. This won’t be the end of my 2015 tour of local government (far, far, far from it), but it seems like a good moment to pause and reflect on local government, power and paternalism.

While on the family holiday portion of my personal Tour de Yorkshire, we drove over from the Dales to Saltaire. We’d overindulged on the genteel Georgian villages of the Brontes, and felt in need of some soaring industrial towers. Saltaire is a great place to go for that. It’s a mill with attached model village – the kind you live in, not the kind you stomp around pretending to be a giant in.

Here’s a quick, mostly accurate history of Saltaire. In the mid-19th century, Titus Salt relocated his woolen mill from the centre of Bradford to a spot outside the city, on the River Aire. Alongside the mill, he also built housing and facilities for his workers. (Salt, Aire, Saltaire). It’s not just functional – it’s beautiful. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with overtones of Italian grandeur. The mill is now an art gallery/museum/shopping centre/office/etcetera.

These days, the workers’ cottages and overseers’ grand houses largely seem to be occupied by Bradford commuters. The people of Saltaire are represented on Bradford Council by three Green councillors – the only three in Bradford. When the mill was still turning out fine fabrics, did the workers of Saltaire feel as if they had power and influence over their new home. Did they feel like they had influence over how Saltaire was run? Like most model villages of legend, Saltaire lacked a pub because Titus Salt was vehemently against drinking. Presumably that was decided by Salt, and not the inhabitants of Saltaire.

As devolution evolves and develops in places such as Yorkshire, do the people of those regions feel they have a say in what happens? Local media can be invaluable in keeping people informed, but is being informed enough? The good people of Saltaire probably knew what was happening in their little piece of Eden – a new almshouse, a monument to Titus Salt, new activities at the leisure club – but did they have a sense of agency over it? Did they have the chance to genuinely affect how their homes were governed, and from where?

Devolution must be democratic. Not, as Ed Hammond said elsewhere on this site, for the sake of it, but because devolution that accurately represents the needs of wishes of people living in a place will be all the more successful for it. Let’s learn from Titus Salt, and build something beautiful – but accountable.