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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.