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February 11, 2009

The capital cities have failed us

‘‘Deprived of their status, Scotland’s principal towns have suffered a damaging loss of self esteem. Where I ask you is the civic pride in North Anything?’’ Kenneth Roy, in his column in Scottish Review, laments the damage wrought by successive and alienating changes in local government.

Kenneth Roy, Scottish Review

One hot night in London, I spotted the greatest living Englishman pushing his bike along the west end. In the capital of the United Kingdom, they cope with heat better than they do the occasional fall of snow. The after-theatre traffic was gridlocked, the filth piled high, the odour indescribable: all was normal. But the greatest living Englishman looked disconsolate, as if he would rather be anywhere but this malfunctioning city. Had I been a friend of Alan Bennett I might have addressed the subject directly: ‘Look, you’d be happier in Leeds. You know you would. There’s that wonderful train from Leeds that takes you to your beloved Settle. Then you could just bike it to Giggleswick. Why don’t you go now, while there’s time?’

It would be difficult to think of a figure more representative of provincial England than Alan Bennett. He was once asked for a symbol of enduring national values and replied at once, ‘The town hall’. It was a superb answer, and strangely touching. The town hall, whatever its many defects, is not only the repository of such civic pride and satisfaction as we have left but is a last bulwark against the deadly centralisation of power and money in the overcrowded capital.

If we compare England and Scotland – I know little of Wales or Northern Ireland – the idea of the town hall has been protected rather more jealously in England, where the municipalities have been preserved more or less intact as powerhouses of local government. You cannot visit a provincial town of any size in England without being reminded of Bennett’s town hall, both as an architectural statement, often of Victorian magnificence, and as a place where serious people meet and important decisions are made. Likewise, from many train windows, you are constantly aware of what a marriage of civic enterprise and entrepreneurial ingenuity has achieved within our own lifetimes, transforming post-industrial dereliction into such handsome modern cities as Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds.

Of course it wasn’t just enterprise and ingenuity that made this metamorphosis possible. The backdrop was a long period of unbroken prosperity. Now that it is abruptly over, we can see all too clearly what we did not detect before: that most of the new prosperity was glittering but insubstantial, built on such froth as retail fashion, property and entertainment. To borrow the cant of the age, it was unsustainable. We have discovered in a few painful months that it didn’t amount to much, that it was no substitute for our lost ability to make things of value. Leeds, I hear, is already suffering badly. No doubt the same is true of many other places which looked invulnerable last summer. The town hall will have to work hard to magic-up imaginative solutions to the long malaise ahead. But at least in England there is a town hall, still. There is therefore some hope of local remedies, local strategies, being devised and adopted; an inherent self-resource which may prove to be resilient.

The picture in Scotland is quite different. The notion of municipalities as a potential for good disappeared with successive reforms of local government, each more alienating than the last, so that only the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, and the towns of Stirling and Falkirk, give their names to the councils which govern their affairs. I can see the logic of the four first-named; but why have Stirling and Falkirk survived when all others have been sacrificed to larger, amorphous units? There seems no sense in it other than bureaucratic expedience.
Kilmarnock, where I work, is part of a meaningless construct called East Ayrshire – few knowing where East Ayrshire begins or ends; fewer caring. The former capital of Scotland, Dunfermline, no longer appears on any map of local government, having been absorbed into the heterogenous all-purpose authority of Fife, while Greenock finds itself in Inverclyde, Paisley (our largest town) in Renfrewshire (I was so uncertain where they’d put Paisley I had to look it up), Motherwell in North Lanarkshire. Deprived of their status, Scotland’s principal towns have suffered a damaging loss in self-esteem. Where, I ask you, is the civic pride in North Anything? And from this loss in self-esteem other consequences have inevitably flowed: a diminished sense of identity, a loss of incentive and creativity, a detachment from responsibility for our own towns, a growing feeling that they exist only as road signs or shopping centres. Or, if we are lucky, in the names of our football clubs, to which we devote our residual local patriotism in the absence of anything else that matters much.

The recession is not here for a year or so. As we slowly pay off our debt, it will be here in a milder form for maybe 10 or 20 years after it is declared over. We need a new spirit of realism about that, but also about the limits of central government’s power to meet our drastically lowered expectations. The answers no longer lie in the capitals of London and Edinburgh, if they ever did, for London and Edinburgh have been found wanting, spectacularly so. They lie within us as communities. But as we lift our heads from the pig’s trough in which we have been buried for all the years of New Labour, and are startled to discover a barer, bleaker landscape, we observe to our dismay that there isn’t much left that we could decently call a community. ‘You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone…They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’. It may not be too late to rip up the parking lot and start again; we could begin by rediscovering Alan Bennett’s town hall.