West Yorkshire is an entirely political creation. In 1974, the West Riding of Yorkshire, which had existed in some form since Anglo-Viking times, and with a highly respected and successful county council, was carved into three.
The government of Edward Heath yielded to pressure from its wealthy rural backers and split urban West Riding, including the great manufacturing centres of Leeds and Sheffield, away from their rural hinterlands. These were mainly attached to the deeply rural North Riding to create a huge, affluent, but low spending, rural backwater, known as North Yorkshire, a region with barely a quarter of West Yorkshire’s population yet three times the size in area.
This was totally contrary to the recommendations of the 1969 Redcliffe-Maude report which had suggested something close to what we know call city regions; the economic hinterland and travel-to-work areas of the cities of Leeds and Bradford extended to cover most of the present (but soon to be abolished) districts of Craven and Harrogate.
This change allowed rich commuters, wealthy retirees and country estate owners, largely Conservative voters, to pay lower domestic rates to avoid supporting services needed by inner city areas, though still choosing to use their urban leisure and other facilities. This created Yorkshire’s insidious urban-rural divide, where bus services turn round at county boundaries or operate, away from the busy commuter corridors into West Yorkshire or Teesside, at skeletal levels.
The heart of Yorkshire
Yet West Yorkshire, the central part of the old West Riding – where the narrow valleys and rivers of the Yorkshire Dales and South Pennines broaden to serve great towns and cities that have flourished on the eastern edge of the Pennines and fringes of the Vale of York – is the true heartland of Yorkshire. It is the economic and cultural dynamo of the whole region.
Whilst Wakefield, Dewsbury and Halifax flourished in medieval times as important commercial centres for the wool trade, joined by Bradford in post-Tudor times, Leeds owed its prominence to being at the highest point of the River Aire accessible by river craft of any size. The building of the Aire-Calder Navigation in the 17th century, also serving Wakefield, allowed Leeds to become a great trading centre attracting merchants from across Europe. Leeds Bridge where wool was traded was described by Daniel Defoe in the 1720s as a hive of activity. The growing town required two major cloth halls to cope with the new trade.
Rich local sources of coal, ironstone, brick and pottery clay led to Leeds and surrounding towns becoming major manufacturing and engineering centres, boosted by a frenzy of canal building in the 18th century and railways in the 19th. The British empire provided raw material but also a huge export market for everything from steam engines to mill machinery. As York declined in importance, so the smoke-filled towns of industrial West Riding became synonymous with wealth. Bradford enjoyed international prominence in the wool trade, the city’s wool exchange determining worldwide wool prices. Huddersfield dominated worsted manufacturing.
Leeds – a thriving metropolis
West Riding’s industrial dominance coincided with that of Britain as a nation. But industrial decline accelerated after World War Two, especially in the later 20th century, as manufacturing was neglected in favour of service industries such as finance and legal services. These were mainly concentrated in London and the southeast, but Leeds in West Yorkshire also attracted many banks, insurance and legal practices. In part this reflected good communications, including fast and frequent trains to the capital, and also the M1 and M62 motorways.
But also important was quality of life, the city’s many superb green spaces and parks, most notably at Roundhay and Temple Newsam, its leafy suburbs extending to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. Leeds is also a major cultural centre with Opera North, Leeds Playhouse, a vibrant popular music scene at Leeds Arena and three excellent universities. But West Yorkshire’s rich cultural and natural heritage also extends into North Yorkshire, with two national parks, three areas of outstanding natural beauty, and several country houses a short drive, train or bus ride away.
Left behind – poor planning and transport
In the post-industrial era, Leeds’ satellite towns have fared less well. Bradford, only ten miles from Leeds, is too often in its shadow, despite its own fine cultural heritage. Whilst Leeds was a pioneer of pedestrianisation of its Victorian city centre, Bradford suffered a series of poor planning decisions, including the activities of notorious architect John Poulson that destroyed much of its architectural heritage. Intrusive roads still blight the city centre.
Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Wakefield and Halifax, though enjoying some benefit from the economic success of Leeds, also suffer from poor transport infrastructure. Many of the Victorian suburban railways which once served areas like Dewsbury’s Spen Valley, or Queensbury between Keighley and Bradford, have long been abandoned. Leeds is now the largest metropolis in Europe without a modern rapid transit system, and only a partly electrified suburban railway. Buses in stationary traffic are the ubiquitous West Yorkshire public transport travel experience. The proposed mass transit system for West Yorkshire is likely to be some decades away.
The abolition of forward-looking West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council along with its South Yorkshire equivalent in 1986 was a cruel political act, aimed more at the left-wing South Yorkshire than centrally inclined West Yorkshire. It was also another piece of British state centralisation. It did much to intensify the North-South divide, which subsequent governments, Labour and Conservative, have done little to reverse, despite empty levelling-up rhetoric.
The decline in local bus services compared with the 1980s, when West Yorkshire Metro was fully in control, is an unreported scandal. Metro-liveried trains and buses, well marketed, enjoyed rising passenger numbers before bus deregulation in 1986. Chronic traffic congestion and traffic pollution is a legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, car-centred individualism that replaced the more corporate West Yorkshire vision. Everyone, motorists and bus users alike, have suffered.
Looking to the future
The creation of the mayoral combined authorities in both South and West Yorkshire is a serious attempt to reverse that trend. West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin has become an effective spokesperson not only for West Yorkshire but for the whole Yorkshire region. However, neither she nor her mayoral colleagues have control over local bus or train services. Nearly half of train ticket prices – including many season tickets, some off-peak returns, and anytime tickets around major cities – are regulated by the Department for Transport, in London SW1; the rest are determined by the train companies.
Despite these issues, Leeds is a city of huge energy and creativity. Yet if more crucial decision making were devolved to England’s regions, that success would be even greater.
In terms of strategic planning, splitting the Yorkshire region into separate mayoral fiefdoms across artificial boundaries to protect the wishes of the rural better-off, a minority against the majority, has no place in 21st-century thinking. This is a powerful reason to co-ordinate the three existing or approved Yorkshire mayoral combined authorities, as well as the proposed Hull and East Riding MCA, into one single regional governance, with some form of elected assembly to represent the people of the region. Such a move would closely reflect the findings of the recent Gordon Brown report on English devolution.
With a combined population of 5.4 million, as large as many smaller European nations, the Yorkshire region, of which West Yorkshire is a proud and central part, could soon regain its lost pre-eminence as the most prosperous and beautiful part of the North.