“… Everywhere we go, people talk about the fate of their town centres with amazing passion, and frustration. Obviously, the Altrincham model of regeneration will not suit everywhere, to say the least. Labour now has a five-point plan for high streets that takes in an end to ATM charges, free wifi, a new register of empty properties, free bus travel for under-25s and reform of business rates. It sounds promising, though perhaps evades something that is glaringly obvious: conventional chain-store retailing is dying fast and high streets need to find new uses. Until this sinks in, the mood of resentment and political disconnection that characterises many of our towns will fester on.
With good reason, the political debate about austerity tends to focus on cuts to such crucial services as adult and children’s social care, education, libraries and public transport. But there is also an overlooked ambient austerity manifested in streets festooned with rubbish and the decline and decay of public space – and it has a huge effect on how people feel about where they live and what politics has to offer them.
… Obviously, young people who are not happy in towns tend to leave. It is the older generations who stick around, and who feel the changes to town life more deeply. Despite the fashionable idea that Britain’s current malaise will be miraculously ended once they begin to die off, they are going to be around for some time to come.
Wherever we go, with good reason, most people we meet have no sense of which bit of government is responsible for this or that aspect of their lives – only that the forces making the decisions are remote, seemingly unaccountable and rarely interested in where they live. Many urban areas have been recently boosted by the creation of “city regions” governed by “metro mayors”; in Scotland and Wales, devolution has brought power closer to people’s lives. In most English towns, by contrast, systems of power and accountability are pretty much as they were 40 years ago.
… What this does to people’s connection with politics is clear. To quote a report by the recently founded thinktank the Centre for Towns, “on average, people living in cities are much less likely to believe that politicians don’t care about their area. Those living in towns are, in contrast, more likely to think politicians don’t care about their area – and won’t in the future.”
There lies the biggest issue of all. The future of our towns will only partly be decided by the high-octane rituals of Westminster debate, and general elections. What really matters is whether they might finally run a much greater share of their own affairs – and, to coin a memorable slogan, take back control.”