The North Will Rise Again

Thinking Allowed on the future of the north

Interesting piece of futurology in Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 this week, about the possible impact of global warming on the fortunes and demography of the most northerly areas of the world, hitherto languishing under ice and forbidding weather conditions. One factoid that grabbed me was the countries like Norway now have faster growing populations than Brazil.

Not so much explored this time was the question of the effect on the UK. I was recently involved in moderating some discussions around the country on future transport needs – looking 20 years ahead. It’s clear that the idea of linking North and South more quickly is embraced as “good for the country”, but there are big questions about whether we can afford the investment as a country. And even then, can we really hope to shift Britain’s centre of gravity northwards? If we can, then perhaps changes in climate – not top of mind with people I’ve been talking to at all – may turn out to be THE big factor.

I grew up having summer beach holidays by the North Atlantic in Portstewart, Northern Ireland. I think just about everyone on the beach was Northern Irish: and to this day, the two miles of pristine strand, with a vast hinterland of grassy sandhills full of wildlife to safely explore and spectacular views across to Donegal, is virtually unknown outside my home province. Could it be that resorts like this could enjoy a rebirth this century, as the South increasingly swelters and those in search of gentler sunshine look north? For Portstewart, so with the Scottish and Northumbrian beaches. “Baltic” no longer.

But it would not just be about holidays: reputation for poor weather has kept large parts of Northern England, Scotland and N. Ireland from the very top table of desirable places to live and work in the UK. I was watching a property show last week with gorgeous and spacious houses with acres of grounds available in North Yorkshire for a snip (I write from expensive Oxford) – and this was within easy commuting distance of Leeds. Economists sometimes miss these “soft” factors that affect where businesses locate – particularly young SMEs.

If the semiotics of Northern Britain change in the public imagination, so that Bronte country starts to feel more like Hardy country, then maybe we will see a significant shift. It’s the success or otherwise of this kind of cultural reconfiguration, not just getting the economics right, that will determine whether Britain can really rebalance itself.

The only thing is, global warming also means, the harsh Northern winters could get even harsher …

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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