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.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.