“Here, perhaps, is our hyper-individualised future, to be accompanied by a national soundtrack beamed out of the capital: no sense of place, no dependable local news, no spaces to gather – nowhere, indeed, to organise the kind of collective self-help that has recently been revealed as many communities’ last line of defence. In what looks set to be an age of disruption and disaster, we could not start from a worse place.”
John Harris www.theguardian.com
Last week, as the government announced the reshaping of its dysfunctional test-and-trace operation, one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic was once again made plain. First, reports said that the current centralised, privatised call-centre operation was to be cut back; by Sunday, the chosen term was “wound down”. Expecting any clarity from the people in charge is clearly a mug’s game, but what looks definite is that getting flashpoints of infection under control is now to be fundamentally overseen by local councils. Reluctantly, it seems, ministers are starting to acknowledge that the anti-Covid effort – which is still too top-down – will only work effectively if it is rooted in communities.
The fact that whole swathes of basic administration are best handled at the local level is a banal insight that has eluded British governments for decades, and so it has proved again. For all that we are encouraged to think of the pandemic as a national issue, all outbreaks are essentially local – and like extreme weather events, they demand effective on-the-ground action and communication, and the kind of strong institutions that affirm people’s sense of place and solidarity. After a decade of cuts to local services, Covid-19 has cruelly highlighted the importance – and lack – of both. It has crystallised a question that goes beyond matters of politics and government into some of the most basic ways that places function: if the coronavirus has proved that doing things from the grassroots up is so crucial, why are so many aspects of our everyday lives being pushed in the opposite direction?
Last year, I wrote about drastic changes to local commercial radio, and the broadcasting giant Global getting rid of around 60 local breakfast and drivetime programmes, remodelling local news bulletins, and closing studios in places such as Chelmsford, Kendal, Lancaster, Norwich and Swindon. Now, the radio company Bauer is folding almost 50 local stations into a national radio network branded Greatest Hits that will carry programmes made in London. To meet the demands of licences, a smattering of non-national programming will continue, but will be regionally produced rather than falling to individual local stations. In the midst of an ongoing emergency that demands as many information outlets as possible – not least to advise about local lockdowns and what they entail – the gap between these moves and the most basic notions of social responsibility is obvious.
And this is only one small part of the story. A month ago, the BBC confirmed that it was cutting 450 jobs from its regional news operations. Weekly current affairs programmes will no longer be made in Nottingham, Salford, Tunbridge Wells, Southampton and Plymouth. Meanwhile, the demise of local newspapers continues apace. Reach, the UK’s largest publisher of local and regional news, is shedding hundreds of jobs. Last week, it announced the end of the Lichfield Mercury and the Sutton Coldfield Observer; in Wales, another company is shutting the weekly Glamorgan Gem, which publishes different editions across six communities. More than 245 British papers have closed in the last 15 years; in the US, the scale of extinction exceeds 1,800 titles.
There is an urgent conversation to be had about the demise of print publishing, and how to bring local journalism to new audiences: the recent arrival of dozens of local news websites – in places from Falmouth to Crewe – which trade under the brand of Nub News is encouraging, but there is still far too much scorched earth. Again, the pandemic throws everything into sharp relief. If social media is awash with misinformation – much of it local chatter – and national politicians have now decisively moved into the realm of Trumpian mendacity, then whatever guarantors of fact people can access are precious. Clearly, the demise of local media makes the search for truth even more difficult.
What is often missed in accounts of these changes is the way they dovetail with the process of austerity. First, crucial foundations of anywhere’s sense of place come under attack: libraries, youth clubs, community centres. When local media closes, the capacity to present those changes to people and hold those responsible to account shrinks, often to nothing – something seen recently in the serious claims that nearly half of the UK’s leisure centres are in danger of closure, and the fact that such a jaw-dropping prospect seems to have barely sunk in. Something comparable applies to the newly accelerated decline of high streets, and our mounting jobs crisis. Even if big things happen, they increasingly appear as dull and unarguable as the weather.
Here and elsewhere, the 21st-century human condition is perhaps reducible to living far too quietly and fatalistically – something that came to mind when the government announced its proposed free-for-all on new housebuilding. Visit the new residential developments that now ring so many towns and cities, and you will see our increasingly rootless, anonymous, nondescript way of life frozen in bricks and mortar. The houses are sometimes nice enough, but these confounding tangles of avenues and crescents have little sign of any shared amenities aside from tiny play areas and the odd retail development. Quaint street-names, usually chosen to create the impression of a heritage that never existed, only further the sense of somehow being nowhere.
Now, as the decline of local journalism means that building proposals get far too little attention, the government wants to sideline the role of councils in the planning system. The promise is of a rapid building boom that will use design templates redolent of “Bath, Belgravia and Bournville” to deliver housing “that is beautiful and builds on local heritage and character”. But anyone who has watched what has happened to British housing will know what is surely coming: more and more Unplaces, in which community and collective purpose are beyond people’s grasp because the physical means to create and sustain them simply do not exist.
Ministers are set to get rid of section 106 agreements, the arcane-sounding provisions – named after part of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act – that often compel builders to include affordable housing in their developments, but also to make contributions to parks and public spaces, local education and community centres. Whatever small sense of shared experience and inclusion in the wider community that exists in new-build developments is frequently dependent on these things. But along with the community infrastructure levy, section 106 deals are to be replaced by a nationally determined charge for developers that is already the focus of alarm and scepticism. Given that their whole thrust is to speed up housebuilding and free developers from supposed red tape, it is not hard to see where these moves point: to places made up of cookie-cutter housing, and very little else.
Here, perhaps, is our hyper-individualised future, to be accompanied by a national soundtrack beamed out of the capital: no sense of place, no dependable local news, no spaces to gather – nowhere, indeed, to organise the kind of collective self-help that has recently been revealed as many communities’ last line of defence. In what looks set to be an age of disruption and disaster, we could not start from a worse place.
- John Harris is a Guardian columnist