Our new national treasure redraws urban landscape

First it was New Labour, then Cool Britannia and now, thanks to Tessa Jowell, we have four Bilbaos. But what about Lancashire’s new Sin City? ponders Iain Murray

Michael Parkinson, congenital Yorkshireman and chat show practitioner, is apt to describe certain middle-aged women who have attained a measure of notoriety, as “national treasures”. Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam was awarded the accolade, as was Victoria Wood. Julie Walters, too, I think qualified for this peculiar badge of honour, which ought to be called a Parkie. Well, I have a nomination, a woman who guilelessly adds to the gaiety of the nation. Step forward Tessa Jowell.

She first achieved recognition when, as a junior minister in the Department of Teaching Grannies to Suck Eggs, she gave a demonstration of how to wash one’s hands. Fortunately, a timely ministerial reshuffle, spared us the exhibition of bottom wiping, which some feared might follow.

Next our treasure moved on to the Ministry for Women, where her achievements included mounting a “body image summit” attended by various luminaries from the world of women’s magazines. Later, her department announced that the Broadcasting Standards Authority had agreed to count the number of fat and thin women on television, and that fashion editors had entered into a self-regulatory arrangement to ban thin models from their pages. Officials let it be known that Ms Jowell was “thrilled” at these accomplishments. Within 24 hours, she was unthrilled when it became clear that no one – not the magazine editors, nor the broadcasting authority – had agreed to anything.

Her reward was promotion to Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Sport, and Other Odds and Ends, where she is proving a rich source of entertainment.

The fun began when she arrived in Manchester and told civic leaders that their city was the “new Bilbao”. One suspects that many of those present were not acquainted with the old Bilbao, never mind discovering that, bedecked in their chains of office, they bestrode the new one. No matter, it was plainly intended as a compliment. Bilbao is by all accounts an exemplar of urban regeneration, and, as an expert in culture, Ms Jowell knows about these things.

Anyway, she swept out, leaving the bigwigs of Manchester preening themselves, and moved on to Birmingham, where she told the assembled city fathers that their sprawling megapolis was the new Bilbao. No, not that new Bilbao, that was Manchester. This one was different. It was Birmingham. Next, on to the Eden Project in Cornwall, which, in a now oddly familiar turn of phrase, Ms Jowell dubbed the new Bilbao. Finally, at any rate at the time of writing, she fetched up in Tyneside, where the dignatories of Newcastle were no doubt delighted to hear their city grandly described as – you’ve guessed it – the new Bilbao.

I blame it on marketing. The political party of which Ms Jowell is an adornment is obsessed with branding. First, it rebranded itself. Then, on attaining office, it tried to rebrand the entire country. Now Ms Jowell is embarking on a kind of stately progress with each stopping-off point being rebranded as Bilbao. This is, of course, confusing. True, America has New York, New York, but at the last count we had New Bilbao, New Bilbao, New Bilbao, New Bilbao. The Post Office will never cope.

The pity of it is that had Ms Jowell dropped by at the Staffordshire town of Fazeley and called it the “new Buffalo”, the residents would have been delighted. Local councillor Tony Brookes says the town’s requests for help have been “consistently ignored” by Staffordshire County Council and a new name might change things. He says he settled on Buffalo after looking through parish records and noticing the address of the father in one baptism entry from 1880 was Buffalo, USA.

“We have tried everything else so maybe it is just Fazeley that’s the problem,” he says. “It is my impression that if we change the name, they may sit up and take notice.” And so they might. If, however, his reasoning is right, he might as well be assured of success and rename the town Bum or Tit.

Residents of Newtown in Powys would also have been pleased to hear Ms Jowell describe their town as just about anything other than the name it has lived with for over 700 years. A survey found most of the 11,500 inhabitants wanted a change to differentiate Newtown from the 100 or so others of the same name around the UK. New Bilbao might have been just the thing, but it’s been used already.

Unlikely though it may seem, Blackpool is also in need of a change. Its ambitions to take advantage of a relaxation in the gaming laws and reinvent itself as Lancashire’s Las Vegas are doomed, according to an authority from the original Sin City.

“Blackpool sounds a gloomy name,” says Erika Brandvik, of the Las Vegas tourist authority. “There is a dark, ominous ring about it. If you are going to have a glamorous, exciting entertainment and gambling centre, you need a glamorous name. Las Vegas is an exotic name, it sounds warm and sunny.”

Unsurprisingly, Alan Cavill, manager of Blackpool Challenge Partnership, disagrees: “Blackpool is a huge brand name with lots of nostalgia and a warm feeling attached to it,” he says. “It’s got everything to do with fun, frivolity and a little bit of naughtiness.”

Just like a national treasure, in fact. How about renaming it Jowellsville?

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