For much of the last two years – not least on these pages – I’ve been arguing two things: (a) the term “levelling up” completely bombs in focus groups and the only saving grace is nobody in focus groups has heard of it; and (b) the Government’s central short-term strategy to improve life in provincial England should be to restore civic pride.
I’ve comprehensively lost on the first, to the extent they’ve somewhat comically even named a Government Department after the detested phrase.
On the second, while I’m hardly the only one making this point and certainly not the most important, there’s finally hope this is going in the right direction. Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien both understand its importance to their strategy for England.
So, what have people been saying in focus groups across England on civic pride in recent years? And what are the broad policy implications? Here’s a short summary.
Long Eaton: local football clubs give towns an identity
Twenty-five years ago, Long Eaton residents shopped on a thriving high street with a big Co-op department store, a Dorothy Perkins, a Burton’s, a Woolworths and a decent sports shop. Now there’s really only a Gregg’s, a Boots, a Smiths and a Bird’s (by the way, the greatest bakers in England).
Civic pride has deteriorated but, along with the great Victorian park, West Park, there’s a bright spot, which I’ve mentioned before: non-league club Long Eaton United. Along with its decent senior men’s team, there are dozens of women’s, girls and boys teams who all play under the banner of The Blues. It’s a great club that fosters identity and pride in the town.
The Government has become increasingly interested in football; they should pay particular attention to the amateur and non-league clubs of our towns.
Middlesbrough: universities are transformative
“It’s the pride of Teesside”; so said one working class participant of a recent group we did in Middlesbrough of the town’s university. Even locals who didn’t go to university – and whose kids may not either – are deeply proud of their university’s success and recognise the opportunities it’s giving local people. It’s a source of genuine civic pride.
You often pick up the same in other towns and small cities with universities. The Government is about to consult on changes to higher education policy. Whatever they do, they must ensure they don’t damage these universities – which are civic universities in the genuine sense.
Loughborough: local heritage should be nurtured
In a beautiful Victorian swimming pool, Loughborough’s local council has created a fantastic little museum of local heritage. It sits just off the immaculately-kept park, which in turn has one of the most beautiful war memorials in England – the Carillon. In short, Loughborough has successfully fostered heritage in the town. It’s not as if it costs no money to support local museums and heritage sites, but they’re worth supporting: they’re fundamental to civic pride. It’s not about pointless nostalgia, but making people feel like they belong somewhere worth belonging to.
Nottingham: using art to make places look nicer
Once the best shopping city outside London, Nottingham has fallen a long way in two decades. The Nottingham Project is introducing new street art – celebrating figures from the city’s past – to make the place look nicer and to foster civic identity. It is set to unveil new, bigger plans to give Nottingham a much-needed face lift in the next few weeks.
It’s easy to be sceptical about the power of art and the creative industries – and the city ought to be focusing hard on filling empty shops and dealing with anti-social behaviour – but fundamentally a city thrives or fails on the back of whether people want to be there.
Darlington: people love markets
Across the country, people get terribly depressed about the decline of their local markets, some of which go back many decades; this is such a common complaint. Happily, Darlington has opened an improved market, which is generating enthusiasm locally.
The Government should do whatever is required to encourage an explosion in the number of provincial markets, looking at relaxing planning rules and health and safety rules to get them up and running.
Stoke: local businesses are an integral part of the local story
There are parts of the country where they talk with pride about existing businesses who they consider “one of their own”. In Blackpool, they talk about Burton’s Biscuits; in Derby about Rolls-Royce and Toyota and Bombardier; in Stoke, they talk more personally about Denise Coates, the CEO of Bet 365, and the support she gives to the city.
Let’s be honest: most voters want financial support for these businesses form the Government – for example, to step in and bail them out when they face hardship. In all but the most unusual circumstances, this is a bad idea.
However, the Government must be extremely careful about introducing policy change that might harm local businesses in these towns; if they’re all a town has got, local people will hit the roof at damage caused by poor political decisions.
Stockport: living in the shadow of major cities causes problems
Now for some negative lessons. The first of which is that those towns that are struggling most – materially and in terms of their identity – are often in the shadow of the biggest cities. Stockport is one such example; the same is true of Walsall, which has struggled as Birmingham has further developed.
In my experience, these are the towns where civic pride is most seriously tested because they can see affluence and success on their doorstep; it really does feel like they’ve been forgotten. The Government should pay particular attention to these places.
Walsall: the decline of festivals destroys morale
Until recently, Walsall had what locals called a mini-Blackpool Illuminations at the much-loved local park. It randomly disappeared a few years ago, to residents’ dismay; people talk about it as a symbol of wider civic decline. It just makes everyone feel like the place is finished.
Is it really the Government’s job to put Walsall’s festival back on? Look at it another way: no one else is going to do it and it’s a relatively cheap and tangible way of making people feel better about their local town. So, yes, their various towns funds ought to be used for this sort of thing.
Blackpool: anti-social behaviour stops all improvement
Blackpool is a marmite town: people love it or hate it. I have come to love it. Locals love it too, but when you ask them what would make the town better and it invariably comes back to anti-social behaviour and how to deal with it. They complain about open drug use, what they see as aggressive begging, and so on. The same issues with anti-social behaviour come up in other towns like Mansfield or Rotherham; it completely undermines people’s pride in their town.
The Government is recruiting more police, but there’s also a case for enabling town centres to introduce the sorts of security staff you see on the streets in parts of London (like Victoria or Waterloo) who behave as much as if they’re there to help, rather than simply to deter would-be criminals.
Bolton: beware banning the car
In towns across the country, civic pride is tied up with the high street; when the high street declines, people feel their town has been humiliated, as it’s the public face of the place. In promoting civic pride, the Government should be particularly focused on high streets.
There are many policy options available to them but I want to focus on something obvious which local and national politicians largely ignore: the car. Central parking is critical to less affluent English towns. While people will use public transport to do shopping in cities – given the ease of finding a bus or train into a big city and given the number of shops they’ll have available to them in one trip – people simply won’t do that in towns. There’s no chance they’ll wait around for a bus to take them to a small strip of shops.
At the start of the pandemic, Bolton’s council took the enlightened decision to allow free parking in the town centre for two hours to support local businesses; this was phased out this summer, to the irritation of many businesses.
Generally speaking towns should help local people park in or near their town centres. Certainly, there’s little sense in banning EVs from town centres and the surge of EV sales should enable towns to bring the car back in a big way.