Welcome to Yorkshire has gone from a gravy train to a Pacer – David Behrens

Welcome to Yorkshire's new chief executive James Mason.
Welcome to Yorkshire's new chief executive James Mason.
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His salary of £130,000 may be just chicken feed to a banker or indeed to his predecessor, but to the rest of us it’s a decent whack. Nevertheless, it is hard to envy James Mason his new job.

Mr Mason – not the Hollywood star who hailed from Huddersfield but the former chief operating officer of Bradford City – is the new head of the tourism agency, Welcome to Yorkshire. He has two tough acts to follow: not only Sir Gary Verity but also the Greek tragedy that played out in his wake.

The Stray in  Harrogate - the next big tourism opportunity

The Stray in Harrogate - the next big tourism opportunity

It is big of him to take the challenge. It’s embarrassing to have one’s earnings made public at the best of times, and doubly so when they are £100,000 less than those of the last person.

It’s also something of a poisoned chalice. It was the freedom to fly that made Sir Gary’s tenure a success and which also brought him crashing to earth, almost taking the organisation with him. As a result of his multiple expenses and bullying scandals, and the unsatisfactory initial response to them, Welcome to Yorkshire is now under so much scrutiny that Mr Mason is going to find it hard to spread his wings any further than my grandmother’s budgie.

Former Bradford City executive James Mason to replace Gary Verity as Welcome to Yorkshire boss

So what can we reasonably expect from the man to whom Yorkshire’s valuable tourism industry will be entrusted?

He is inheriting the best-known agency in the country, for the right reasons as well as the wrong ones. No rival body managed to bring the Tour de France to its patch, let alone create a legacy event that has continued to draw the crowds year after year.

But it could be said than in putting so many of its eggs into one basket – the sort that comes bolted to a set of handlebars – it has become a one-trick pony, and Mr Mason will want to embrace the thousands of people in the hospitality sector for whom tourism is not just a four-day banquet but their daily bread and butter.

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In particular, he will need to understand why people come to Yorkshire, and why they don’t. Walking in the Dales, the Wolds or the North York Moors, fishing off the piers at Whitby and fighting the seagulls over a bag of chips on Scarborough’s South Bay, are all part of the appeal but they are but pieces in a bigger jigsaw. Not all of those pieces are currently in place.

With the obvious exception of York, city tourism across Yorkshire is one of those missing components. Leeds is as well connected to London as any large centre, by road and rail, but it is unusual to see people from the capital going there just for the fun of it. They are not encouraged to believe it has anything to offer them that isn’t available on their own doorstep.

The same cannot be said of Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool, and this week came a clue as to why not: Arts Council England, the public body mainly responsible for funding cultural offerings in all those centres, is hugely biased towards the South.

This was not entirely a surprise, but the figures jarred all the same. Northern Ballet is one of the most distinctive arts companies in the country and its productions ought to be a magnet for audiences from near and far, yet it gets around two-and-a-half times less than the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The pattern is repeated across the cultural landscape. Liverpool has the Tate; Manchester, the Lowry. That’s actually in Salford, if we’re being pedantic, but where is Salford, if not in Manchester?

James Mason reveals why his heart will remain at Bradford City

Beginning to address this imbalance must fall to Welcome to Yorkshire. It has the ear of government, or should have, and it should use it to insist on parity if not with London then at least with the other regions.

And Leeds has something the other cities do not, which is all of North Yorkshire as its back garden. It ought to be drawing tourists by the trainload.

The same can also now be said of Harrogate, which will from next weekend have six trains a day direct to the capital. Once they’ve reclaimed The Stray from the state the last cycle races left it in, it will be Mr Mason’s next big opportunity.

His work there will have to be done in a glass bubble, which won’t be easy. He has already acknowledged the need for transparency, and that will mean having to accept reduced circumstances that few chief executives would tolerate. His organisation has been downgraded in the space of a year from a gravy train to a Pacer. Let us hope he can restore it to a vehicle befitting the county.