It’s time to stop judging the north of England by the state of its high streets

Boarded up shops in Droylsden, Greater Manchester, 2015. Image: Getty.

Bolton town centre is going through an “existential struggle,” a journalist lamented recently in a mournful Guardian article that put George Orwell’s bleak depictions of the north to shame.

The town has been going through a “downward spiral,” Andy Walton wrote, ever since the football stadium moved out of town twenty years ago and a retail park was built away from the centre, sparking the slow death of the town’s commercial heart” as shops and shoppers dwindle.

This is far from the first article depicting an entire town as a wasteland because of the state of its local economy. And these places tend to be in the north of England, rather than other parts of the country.

Earlier this year Vice wrote about the “terminal decline” of Blackpool, painting the entire town as a festering breeding ground for all that is bleak and miserable. And the Spectator once argued that the north’s former industrial heartlands are “decaying” and not worth rescuing. We paint poverty porn pictures for dramatic effect – like in this Economist article, which states: “On the edge of the marina in Hartlepool, an ugly wasteland sits behind a sign advertising ‘luxury sea view apartments’ which were never built.”

But clumsily diagnosing entire towns with death sentences, by focusing on economics and nothing else, is just another way of perpetuating damaging stereotypes about the north. Associating northerners with tea and flat caps is one thing; but blanket statements declaring the death of entire northern towns based purely on high street shopping only fuel the assumptions that northerners are uninformed and uneducated, and the only thing they’re good for is spending. Otherwise, why would the shutting of a few shops spell such disaster?

There’s no denying that large parts of the north are in serious economic trouble. Last year, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report concluded that 10 of the UK’s 12 most struggling cities, based on employment rates, levels of highly-qualified workers and the number and type of full-time jobs, are located in the north. And the north-south divide touches all corners of people’s lives, from unemployment to health, life expectancy, education and job prospects, and lower life satisfaction and happiness.

The consequences of people taking their custom online are felt particularly hard up north. One in four shops is vacant in Bolton, and the rest of the north doesn’t fare much better. Local Data Company, which monitors 3,000 town and shopping centres and retail parks, reported in 2015 that one in five shops in the north was empty, compared with one in 10 in the south. And one year on from the demise of BHS, 47 per cent of its stores in greater London have reopened, compared with just 25 per cent in the north east.

But to say these struggles cut to the “heart” of a northern town is unhelpful, elitist wordplay that suggests there’s nothing else going for the north outside of this one dying component of capitalism.

Bolton hit back after the Guardian’s takedown, and the council’s leader, Cliff Morris, says the town is “nothing like that. We don’t wear cloth caps and clogs.” He went on to list all the improvements happening locally, including museums and award-winning parks.


And the town isn’t alone in thriving outside of high street footfalls. Hull has gone from a struggling city, voted worst place to live in 2003, to this year’s City of Culture. And Lonely Planet gave Leeds fifth place in its “Top European destinations” in 2017, praising it for its “flourishing cultural scene” among other things. 

In the heart of the Lake District, the town of Kendal shows how local economy and culture can be far from mutually exclusive. It faces a “steady and serious slimming down of its economy,” and now needs a food bank – but it also has two museums, an art gallery and an arts centre.

In 2008, the think tank Policy Exchange said many northern towns have no hope of being regenerated, and that it’s time to “stop pretending there is a bright future for Sunderland”. It added that, “People in the north should be told bluntly that their best chance of an affluent future is to move south”.

This year the council outlined a nine-year plan to create 20,000 skilled jobs, mostly in the city’s automotive industry; £1.6bn has been invested in the area’s infrastructure, including new hotels, a “cultural quarter,” improved rail connectivity to London and a “sports quarter,” to name a few.

Walton notes near the end of his Guardian piece that it’s not all doom and gloom in Bolton: a cinema has been built in the centre, the market hall has been renovated and the museum and art gallery are set for investment.

Most importantly, “hopes are pinned on the University of Bolton. The former polytechnic’s teaching and residential buildings have been consolidated in the town centre,” he writes.

But this is good news, he explains, because the buildings will bring with them “a readymade group of customers”. It will, but it will also bring with it far more than a new batch of student loan-happy shoppers. These customers will no doubt also be innovators, creators and great thinkers.

These once-booming industrial northern towns have survived and been shaped by globalisation, Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strikes, and the industrial revolution. Doom-mongering media attention won’t kill them – and neither will the so-called death of the high street.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Second city blues

Birmingham, c1964. Image: Getty.

This is one of those guest episodes we sometimes do, where we repeat a CityMetric-ish episode of another podcast. This week, it’s an episode of Friday 15, the show on which our erstwhile producer Roifield Brown chats to a guest about life and music.

Roifield recently did an episode with Jez Collins, founder of the Birmingham Music Archive, which exists to recognise and celebrate the musical heritage of one of England’s largest but least known cities. Roifield talks to Jez about how Birmingham gave the world heavy metal, and was a key site for the transmission of bhangra and reggae to western audiences, too – and asks why, with this history, does the city not have the musical tourism industry that Liverpool does? And is its status as England’s second city really slipping away to Manchester?

They also cover Birmingham’s industrial history, its relationship with the rest of the West Midlands, the loss of its live venues – and whether Midlands Mayor Andy Street can do anything about it.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

I’ll be back with a normal episode next week.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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