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‘Bring the north bread, but also bring us roses’: what does devolution in West Yorkshire mean for PoC?

As West Yorkshire is handed a £1.8bn devolution deal, Jenessa Williams explains why arts and culture initiatives for BAME communities must benefit too.

19 Mar 2020

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Until Channel 4 announced the arrival of its national HQ in Leeds in October 2019, many would be forgiven for forgetting that there is cultural life outside of the M25. Media coverage in the UK has long focused on London as the pinnacle of all culture, dominating a third of the Arts Council’s national budget. In recent years, Manchester too has become a popular byword for anyone wishing to express vague knowledge of the existence of any life further north. But ask about arts and culture on offer in the likes of Leeds, Sheffield, Lancaster or Newcastle and you’ll most likely be met with blank stares. These large metropolitan hubs are subsumed into one homogenous blob, known broadly as “the North,” and perceived as an underdeveloped wilderness, desperately trailing in London’s wake.

Financially, there is some truth in this stereotype. A study by think tank IPPR North found that job growth in London grew by 47% between 2009 and 2019, compared to just 17% in the North-East, North-West and Yorkshire. Small towns and cities such as Huddersfield and Bradford are frequently skipped over in favour of Leeds or nearby Manchester when it comes to cultural events. Despite being home to some of the country’s leading universities which regularly produce high-class scholars, the allure of the south still causes a mass graduate brain drain in Northern locations, where one in four people earn less than a living wage of £9 per hour.

“West Yorkshire – an area that is home to an estimated 2.3 million people – has been desperate for devolution since 2015”

It’s these sorts of statistics that explain why West Yorkshire – an area that is home to an estimated 2.3 million people – has been desperate for devolution since 2015.  Devolution, a means of taking authority away from Westminster, transfers power and funding from national to local government, allowing decisions to be made by those who are actually part of the community that they are controlling. Rather than London telling other cities to be more like London, it’s a way for decisions to get made in a manner that is tailored to the needs of the area, and it promotes much more sustainable and practical decision making. 

The five-year haggling process finally came to fruition on 11 March, unlocking an expected £1.8bn in investment for the area. Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield will now be overseen by one mayoral authority, due to be elected in May 2021. In practical terms, the funding is likely to be broken down into massive cash injections for transport, education and infrastructure which will include new bus and train systems, the development of a Northern branch of the British Library, and a whole new set of provisions to aid the development of increased opportunities within adult education.

The potential difference that this pot of cash has to make within Northern England is enormous. But for PoC communities living in the region, there are further inequalities to overcome if they are to be considered on anywhere near even footing with the rest of the UK. Being both PoC and northern can be a double-disadvantage, particularly as PoC communities in West Yorkshire are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged groups. Put bluntly, West Yorkshire’s PoC population often experiences life at the sharp end. Although the whole of the UK can be considered reasonably diverse, communities in Yorkshire (as across the rest of the north east and north west) are still lagging behind – as of 2019, only 10.4% of Yorkshire’s population is PoC.

To put these figures into context, London currently registers 40.2% of its residents as “Asian, Black or Mixed Race”. Living as such a minority,  Northern PoC are much more vulnerable not only to hate crimes (which are magnified in a post-Brexit landscape) but also to poor representation within key local authority services such as the police force (94.3% white in West Yorkshire) and the civil service (91.8% white).

“Devolution must not fall foul of assuming that all Northern folk crave a London lifestyle”

This tangled web of inequity will take a long time to fully unravel, but the optimism and opportunity of devolution would be a great time to start. If this new funding is to mean a £3.2m for investment in new housing, it can’t just be thrown at glossy city centre high-rises for commuters. The largely Caribbean and Pakistani communities of Chapeltown and Potternewton deserve affordable housing options that recognise and respect the community spirit that already exists there, without seeking to homogenise it. Yorkshire has its own energy and vibrancy, and devolution must not fall foul of assuming that all Northern folk crave a London lifestyle.

While social welfare structures obviously need a big chunk of cash, my own experiences show me that these West Yorkshire PoC communities need the roses too. Arts funding that goes towards initiatives rooted in inclusion and representation fire up the creativity of locals and add vibrancy and inspiration to peoples’ lives. For people to survive and society to flourish, money needs to be spent not only on the essentials of practical living, but in the recreational and expressive spaces that allow people to feel part of a community, and to recognise the strengths that come from living somewhere that offers them opportunities to bring a fresh perspective to the media and cultural landscape. 

These seeds are already being sowed: university-born communities On Beat and Race Zine are actively creating spaces for PoC within the North to support each other in solidarity and celebration; we still have one of Europe’s longest-running West Indian carnivals, and Eulogy, a recent exhibition dedicated to Leeds’ very own Windrush community demonstrated the strength of legacy that Jamaican families have laid down in the city.

My own publication Pennycress, benefited from arts funding that allowed the print run and contributor payment of its first issue, incorporating the work of 32 Leeds-based PoC creatives, many of whom have gone on to secure further paid work as a means of having something in their portfolio. I was one of the lucky ones, but there need to be more successful application outcomes like mine: exciting ideas and initiatives from underrepresented voices. Receiving that little bit of financial support and encouragement that makes all the difference to the amount of people a project can reach. 

“The £25m budget for a Northern branch of the British Library should actively seek to represent the rich contributions that PoC have made to the country”

A £63m adult education budget is another huge win, but it will need to account for the factors that disproportionately prevent black people in particular from accessing classes, despite their aspirations. Untenable childcare or financial support, low confidence due to negative experiences in childhood schooling, and an understandable mistrust of higher education spaces that lack visible role models or inclusive curriculums all play a part in the race attainment gap. The £25m budget for a Northern branch of the British Library should actively seek to represent the rich contributions that PoC communities have made to the country, both in terms of the artefacts it stores, and in the new professionals it trains and hires, giving home-grown talent a space to represent and feel represented.

These are welcome challenges – time and time again, us Yorkshire folk have proven that we’re up to the challenge of putting our best foot forward when it comes to grassroots initiatives and self-starting communities. My experience of arts funding demonstrates exactly what a small pot of money can do to encourage others to share their work and grow their own small businesses as a result of feeling seen; bigger projects such as Leeds International Festival, Women of The World Bradford and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival are doing the same in a manner that is drawing global attention. West Yorkshire may be the underdog, but devolution is a promising gesture of independence that can help us reach our true potential – just as long as no demographic gets left behind.