Jayne Dowle: Great Exhibition of North must not paper over the cracks

A FLAT cap? A whippet? A Yorkshire pudding and a pint of beer?

Bradford Council announces its intention to bid to host the Great Exhibition of the North. From left: Susan Hinchliffe (Leader of Bradford Council), Kersten England (Chief Executive of Bradford Council), Shelagh ONeill (Project Leader for the Bid Team) and Clare Morrow (Former Chair , Welcome to Yorkshire). 27th May 2016. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Let’s get the clichés out of the way first, shall we? There’s going to be a Great Exhibition of the North. Ideas for exhibits are wanted. And Bradford has thrown its hat into ring as the first Yorkshire city to put in a bid to host the event.

If it was up to me, I would ditch the clichés and think instead about the amazing food this region produces, the craftspeople making blankets and furniture, and the wonderful array of performance talent which thrives against the odds. The great irony of this idea – which is being promoted as part of Chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse – is that it sounds like a relic from the Victorian Age.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

In fact, the winning city will be tasked with showcasing the best of art, culture and design in the North of England in the 21st century to national and international audiences for two months in 2018.

The Government has pledged £5m, with a further £15m available to establish a legacy fund to attract further investment in cultural activities. That’s a lot of public money to throw at an event which could end up as a costly white elephant.

That said, no-one can argue with the lofty aims of the venture. So far though, in a desperate bid to distance themselves from flat caps, Yorkshire puddings, whippets and the like, council leaders, tourism experts and the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, have been competing to see how many times they can get the words “vibrant” and “diverse” into one sentence.

If they think that this papers over the cracks in a city which suffers from some of the worst markers of poverty in the UK – detrimental child health, poor educational attainment, and substandard housing, for example – they need to stand in Bradford city centre one afternoon and have a chat with a few locals.

I’d also like to remind them that it’s not so long ago that one of the prize venues in the bid – the National Media Museum – was fighting for its survival. If you remember some of the patronising claptrap we heard from London over that particular debacle, you will realise why I am nothing if a little cynical.

That said, I wish those putting together the Bradford bid luck with the project. I hope others come forward before deadlines close at the end of the month. However, we need to get a few things straight for everyone’s sake.

For starters, how does anyone quantify the North into one exhibition? The “North” of Bradford, with its amazing heritage of 19th-century buildings, moorland on its front doorstep and markets selling silks and saris, is a very different place from the genteel Georgian enclaves of Harrogate, the rugged coastline around Whitby or the rolling hills and secret villages of the Yorkshire Dales.

How can anyone curate an exhibition which fairly represents all of this under one roof? And this is only Yorkshire I’m talking about. The “North” of Tyneside, where the twin city of Newcastle and Gateshead is lining up its own bid, has its own culture. And so does Liverpool, Manchester, Lancaster, Carlisle or any other place you could care to mention.

That’s the problem with the London-centric view of “the North” which underscores the whole Northern Powerhouse idea. It assumes it is one place with a shared culture and values, instead of a huge and varied swathe of the country covering hundreds of square miles and a whole range of individuals from sheep farmers to fishermen, from shop assistants to multi-millionaires living in ancient manor houses.

How can one exhibition speak for us all? While it is good, from the perspective of inclusivity, to see that the main architects of the bid – including Bradford City Council leader Susan Hinchcliffe and Clare Morrow, former chair of Welcome to Yorkshire – are women, its announcement comes at a time when concerns are being raised about equality in the Northern Powerhouse overall.

Although 75 per cent of council workers are female, just 28 per cent of top posts are taken by women in this region. As Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “The Northern Powerhouse risks becoming just another boys’ club.” That’s another crack that the Great Northern Exhibition threatens to paper over. We can’t rebalance the economy, as the Chancellor hopes, without making it fair for all those who contribute towards it.

If the aim of the Northern Powerhouse is to create a joined-up country, where everyone has an equal chance, it’s not enough to hang a few of David Hockney’s best paintings in City Hall and put on open-air JB Priestley in City Park.

It requires more than tokenism and a whole load of taxpayers’ money devoted to a project which seems to be underpinned by aims which are difficult to quantify. It should be a long-term, sustainable strategy built on a firm foundation of economic growth, employment and decent living conditions. We don’t need an exhibition solely to define who we are. We need the politicians who rarely set foot out of Westminster to find us on a map.