Stroppy women who follow their own path, naked middle-aged women, and middle-aged men in Lycra: just some of the images conjured up when anyone talks about Yorkshire.
Gentleman Jack, the Calendar Girls and elite cyclists have all played their part in raising Yorkshire’s profile. Our image has been enhanced by the Yorkshire Shepherdess and Yorkshire Vet, countless other television programmes and books. We’re rightly proud of our countryside and characters: it’s brilliant for tourism. So far, so good. Wonderful as they are, they don’t tell the full story of Yorkshire. What of other attributes that contribute to Yorkshire’s reputation?
Whether we want to attract visitors or investment, how we’re perceived by others matters. The wrong image prevents positive development. Interest in the Power Up the North agenda is increasing. There’s some political commitment to improve Yorkshire’s infrastructure but it’s not entirely convincing, and lacks a real sense of urgency. For years, requests for investment in the North have been swept aside like an irritating fly in politicians’ peripheral vision. The sheer energy behind Power up the North has increased the pressure. That fly’s mutated into a well-meaning scourge of mosquitos. Yet it still feels like something’s not really gelling in the minds of Westminster decision-makers.
Some continue to think of Yorkshire as the ‘‘industrial North’’, full of miserable mills, and flat-capped unemployed men dragging a whippet or lurking on street corners. Countless London friends have sent me links to the spoof Yorkshire Airlines advertisement on YouTube. It’s done in jest, but with a vestige of belief in the stereotypes. Perhaps it’s our fault. Generations of Yorkshire folk have been raised to cap-doff, be in awe of a southern accent and respect or even fear authority. We might have asked for investment, but I wonder if we ever thought we actually deserved it or believed it could happen? If you ask for a pay rise in pay, you need to sound like you think you’re worth it.
Some of our favourite utterances reinforce the problem. We pride ourselves on ‘‘Yorkshire grit and determination’’, on ‘‘making the best of a bad job’’. We’ve ‘‘soldiered on’’.
It wasn’t really a choice but our resilience meant we somehow managed. Just. We were in Westminster’s ‘‘too difficult to think about right now’’ file. So long as we were coping, no need for any urgency.
It’s starting to change. We’re now demanding equal treatment with the South, and doing it with the conviction of a county that believes in itself. Yorkshire’s image still needs work. It’s been suggested that 90 per cent of Channel 4’s staff would take redundancy rather than leave London to come and work in Leeds. Given our own skilled workforce, this might not be such a bad thing, but it could also say something about perceptions of life in the North.
For the benefit of the visitor economy and Power Up the North we need more conversations about how we want to position Yorkshire. What do we want to be known for? What sectors are most worthy of promotion? What kind of visitor and investor do we want to attract? What aspects of Yorkshire should we showcase?
Yorkshire was once an industrial power. It’s changed. Mills where hordes of workers once obeyed their masters and churned out identical objects, have become headquarters for advertising agencies, film-makers, designers, and digital experts. We’re now powered by creativity. We should make more of this incredible creativity to attract investment and visitors. Watch Dragon’s Den and you’ll notice that investment goes to the businesses that are not only professional but which also appear to be fun to work with. Could a similar approach work for Yorkshire?
I’m not talking about expensive branding exercises and consultants paid to contemplate their navels. Yorkshire isn’t one thing. It’s multi-faceted so it can’t be condensed into a glib statement or poster campaign. We need to appeal to many different markets so one size doesn’t fit all.
But we need a strong shared vision, an overview of how we want Yorkshire to be seen by others outside the county.
Once we’ve decided what that is, many different organisations and individuals can use their own creative approaches to target the markets that matter to them, secure in their understanding of the common goal.
Could we gather together a coalition of Yorkshire’s most creative people to consider how to present Yorkshire so its image reflects the reality of our many strengths?
Susan Briggs is director of The Tourism Network which is based in Masham.