Mass Media and Regional Identity
Several of our respondents felt that the mass media played significant roles in incidentally helping to define regional identities. However, while some saw the media as supporting regional identities, others saw it as undermining them. One accusation was that in order to generate an interest in regional programmes, the media attempted to generate a false sense of regional identity. 'I despair of organisations like the BBC who seem to go to great lengths to drum up an interest in regional identity because of their newsroom presence … The way it works is that the BBC, whatever region, trails headlines in which they deliberately say, there was a major fire today in one of our cities, but they don't tell you which one. It's so bloody stupid, isn't it?' (Local Authority CEO). At the same time, television broadcasts are necessarily dependent upon the direction and strength of their signals, so attempts at 'regional news' often do not correspond to the political geography of the regions. The most obvious case is in London, whose stations broadcast to a wide range of the South East region and so may focus attention upon the capital rather than the agendas of the surrounding regions. One local politician even accused the local press of inventing imaginary sub-regions for marketing purposes. 'The local paper has a fictitious area called “mid-region” which is basically its market' (local politician).
Globalisation may also be a factor here. 'The Government needs to recognise that communities like this [Black and Ethnic Minority (BEM)] are world-wide … Sky TV's Indian stations now play a role in influencing ethnic minority opinions and showing what is going on' (3rd Sector CEO). Another told us that ethnic communities were no longer geographically defined. 'I don't see the community
as geographical' (3rd Sector CEO); 'We don't have a local identity … There are many organisations that look at different issues of ethnic minorities … It is fragmented in the BEM community' (3rd Sector CEO). This latter point relates to a much wider issue. As one Regional Director told us: 'people's sense of identity is less coherent than it used to be because the sense of community is no longer necessarily based on place. It might be focused on work or faith or even virtual worlds' (Regional Director).
Localism, Sub-regions and Identity
The New Labour Agenda of Localism and the Sub-National Review led to many of the regional elite giving serious consideration to the sub-region. 'There needs to be a constructive debate about structures at local government, sub-regional and regional levels to decide what should rest where in terms of strategic decisions' (Local Authority CEO); 'The key area is the sub-region' (Regional Partnership Director); 'The key stakeholders are the sub-regional partnerships but we also spend a lot of time with other stakeholders [including] the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, etc.' (Regional Director).
But at what level did they think the sub-region might be located? Was the sub-region to be seen in terms of Strategic Leaders Boards, Counties, Multi-Area Agreements (MAAs) and City Regions, or more local groupings? Or as one local politician put it: 'There is obviously a continuum of how you identify with what at different scales.' In general, Strategic Leaders Boards were felt to be too new and untested at the time of interviewing. They only came into being a month or so before the election. 'I don't know how effectively they will work. I haven't tried it yet!' (regional/local politician). In any case, whilst each 'leader' might be associated with a place, the geographical spread of the Board overall might be even more nebulous as an identity than was the region. Others thought MAAs or City Regions might be a better bet: 'what is probably quite useful is to see them in terms of their constituent sub-regions. That's where the Multi-Area Agreements and City region ideas originated' (Regional Government Office CEO). The core city or the key partners might have credibility which could transfer to the arrangement. However, many more questioned how these might work in their rural or mixed urban/rural regions.
The elite of one county were very keen for it to become the regional or subregional body, arguing that its population already identified with it because of its distinctiveness. A local businessman informed us that 'that whole globalisation thing that has crushed all the individualism out of other places has never bothered our County'. Therefore: 'the region is the County … the region is definitely the Unitary Authority … So don't pretend you are giving regions voices' (local businessman); 'There are two regions really: an official administrative region which is vast and the County which thinks of itself as distinctive and has a very
long and honourable history … my area is the sub-region … much of the subregion wants to act like a City region' (Local Authority CEO).
The importance of the County level was recognised elsewhere as well: 'The County is a huge brand'(regional/local politician). However, some felt that counties were simply not big enough to fulfil the functions. 'The reality is that economic sub-regions cross local political boundaries … Sub-regions based on Counties are simply not going to work' (Regional Director). Nor were they necessarily seen as a focus for local identity. 'People will still tell you that they are from a particular city or county but those different cities have very different views of the same county. Any sense of pride in the county is more related to their sense of pride in their particular location within the county' (Regional Director).
Where cities existed, they were much more popular as a meaningful locus of sub-regional authority. 'The cities together … are engines of growth' (Regional Director). 'My city has its own sub-region … and own identity, though I would like to see this being much stronger' (local politician); 'My city is a sub-region … the environs are important for the city because of its commuting problems … There is also a sub-regional economic partnership' (local politician); 'Interestingly, a lot of people will identify with it even among those who technically live outside it' (local politician). After all, cities draw in populations from the surrounding countryside for work, leisure and cultural activities.
Cities were seen to 'have a cultural and historical entity' (3rd Sector CEO). This might relate to local traditional industries: 'local places do have their own identities associated with either industry or cultural/historical figures' (regional/ local politician). Similarly, 'There is a sense of this city. Its identity is really … a European identity reaching far back … in terms of trade' (3rd Sector CEO). Or it might relate to mass cultural themes: 'Communities associate with football, maybe cricket' (3rd Sector CEO). Alternatively, city identities may be new creations. One local politician reported that his city had been 'rebranded … [and]
… this identity is embraced by everyone' (local politician). Of course, some urban identities can possibly make wider co-operation more difficult. 'There is a natural animosity between the cities, exemplified in football rivalry' (Regional Government Office CEO).