Just over 20 years ago, the then senior editor at The Economist, Frances Cairncross, published arguably the most influential and widely-read late 20th century study of technological change on economic and social life. It was called The Death of Distance.
Part investigation of what had already happened, part prediction of what would happen next, it chimed perfectly with a globalised, self-confident moment when Bill Clinton was still President of the United States and Tony Blair had just been elected British Prime Minister. The Berlin Wall had been torn down eight years previously, and the Soviet Union had been in its grave for six.
The infinite potential for the “world wide web” to underpin the world-wide spread of free markets, liberalism and good governance seemed hard to argue with. Prices would fall. Markets would open. That long-predicted phenomenon, the global village, would finally come to pass. And politics would be reduced to a periodic shuffling of the managerial team — based not on ideology but on “key performance indicators“. For a few years, The Death of Distance was a must-read to be picked up in airport bookstalls by executives living the globalised dream, and stored in briefcases alongside 2G mobile phones and very early Blackberries.
In 2019, such fin de siècle dreams seem very far away. Place still matters. The most successful cities and areas continue to pull away from the rest under almost any metric you care to use, whether economic growth, life chances, health or lifespan — and this is particularly true if you are poor. Meanwhile, far from being reduced to a “retail” exercise in choosing different variants of the same globalised flavour, British politics is now an all all-you-can-eat buffet — from full-service socialism through dirigiste Toryism to a post-Brexit bonfire of the regulations.
The social enterprise that I run, Create Streets, understands that place will always matter. We work with community groups to co-design proposals to try to improve them. This has allowed us to form a snapshot of how people feel about where they live and what is happening to it. Whether rich or poor, town or country, nearly everyone worries about the current state and future outlook of where they live. Of course, there is an economic side to this, especially in ex-industrial or seaside towns where shops, pubs or services are closing. And, depending on your politics, you may wish to blame “austerity”, as crime rises and begging and homelessness rise.
But, grievous though these are, there is something more profound going on even in quite prosperous areas: people are losing their sense of home, of their place in the world. They worry that their local neighbourhoods have lost, are losing or are going to lose their heart, their sense of being from here.
Many people feel themselves to be the victim of forces beyond their control. This may be because of the firm headquartered in New York or Hong Kong that shuts an unprofitable subsidiary — but it is just as likely to be development that feels alien and unnatural in its form, conception or ugliness. One woman giving evidence to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, which I co-chair with Roger Scruton, could have been speaking for many when she wrote that “Developers … parachute in and seem to know what is best for the area.”
Another commented: “My local experience is that the community is seen as an inconvenience to be swept aside during the planning process. Consultation has fallen to almost nil … developers hold considerable sway.”
The battle for Brexit Britain
One woman, born in the Caribbean and now living in a challenging neighbourhood in north London, told me simply: “I want a development with heart.” She could have said the same in the shires of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and received widespread agreement.
I could quote many others, many of whom spoke of a deeper need that we almost all share, a need for a home that is not subject to uncontrollable outside forces.
Globalisation and technology have brought marvellous new liberties. The sum total of human knowledge, once only scratchily accessible in the best-stocked university library, now nestles in your pocket. The produce and products of the world, once only accessible in season or to the rich, are increasingly available all year-round, container-shipped, freeze-packed or even 3D printed on demand. Immigration has brought many of the brightest and the best from thousands of miles away to live, study and work in Britain. But we still need to know who we are and where we’re from.
Of course, smart politicians have noticed this. Do you recall a year ago a political broadcast by the Labour Party called “Our Town”? (If not you can watch it here.) It was deservedly successful on social media and featured an at-times desperately moving montage of British urban decay, of abandoned factories and pitheads, rusting playgrounds and decaying streets. The actor narrating might have also been the ghost of English towns and his most effective lines were the least narrowly political.
“These streets were once full of spirit and hope. A proud community, where an honest day’s work could earn you a decent day’s pay… We want to restore the pride in our towns and bring our high streets and communities back to life.”
While much of the broadcast was a call for higher spending, the wider point about the absence of pride, life, community or hope went far beyond this. Those running focus groups for the Government have clearly discovered similar concerns, as indicated by the blizzard of spending announcements since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, boosts to the Northern Powerhouse and millions for new or historic high streets. The Conservative Party conference featured multiple conversations about left-behind towns and regional growth.
The slow death of Britain's towns
But it’s not just about the money. In fact, I am not even sure it is primarily about the money. I’d go further and argue that chucking money thoughtlessly can even be counter-productive, ripping the heart out of a community rather than strengthening the one you’ve got.
Examples abound, the most shocking being the post-war regenerations of so many British towns where naively utopian town planners took advantage of bombed buildings and the invention of the internal combustion engine to turn beautiful, if rather smoke-begrimed, town centres into deserted concrete wastelands of empty plazas and passing traffic. The Borough Engineer in Coventry openly revelled in the opportunity that German bombs gave him to pull down far more of the city than the Luftwaffe had ever flattened.
“Ah,” you might say, “but we know better now” — but I am not so sure. There are many pretty shocking examples from the past 20 years, including the perverse and malign Pathfinder Programme, which tried to revive northern cities by knocking down Victorian homes; the public sector infrastructure investment to create out-of-town shopping centres which promptly drained life and sustainable vitality out of the town centre; the Barbara Hepworth Gallery outside Wakefield, which acted to undermine the city centre Art Gallery and, therefore, the city itself.
Some politicians would argue that the solution is to devolve power. Local politicians, runs the argument, understand the trade-offs on their patch better than national officials whose minds are pulled in a multitude of different directions every day of the week. I have sympathy with this argument, but I think it is incomplete. The problem is that many of the worst examples of destructive infrastructure investments were the work of empowered local politicians unhindered by central government or bureaucratic constraints.
Nor, I think, does it go to the heart of the problem, which is that too often we have forgotten how to consider in our decision-making the pride, individuality, moral purpose and human wellbeing of our towns and cities.
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Yes there is a place for Boris-style boosterism. Sometimes you need the new, the big and the shiny. But we need to re-discover how to make decisions based on value and moral purpose, not just outputs. We need to find ways to make modest bottom-up investments, empower people and neighbourhoods and let a thousand flowers bloom. This needs some money, and it needs some devolution — but it goes so much further. I was very struck by the evidence one architect gave to the Building Beautiful Commission earlier this year, who recounted how working on a PFI project he was “told by the contractor to put in a more expensive material that looked cheaper because there was real sensitivity about anything in the NHS looking expensive”.
This is perverse, crazy, even Kafkaesque. A hospital is a noble building built for a noble purpose, it should not be built to look disposable and cheap. Many of the proudest structures in England’s towns and cities are 19th century civic buildings, such as Rochdale Town Hall or St George’s Hall in Liverpool. Somehow, somewhere, we have lost not just the ability but even the desire to create public buildings of beauty and moral worth. We need to rediscover that confidence and ability.
But it is not just re-learning how to build new civic buildings with aesthetic standards somewhat above a portacabin. We need to make streets and squares more humane, more walkable, less congested and with cleaner air. We need to look at examples where cities have made people want to live and work there, such as Seville, Copenhagen or even Little Holland in north-east London.
But we also need to look beyond the everyday and take into account the psychologically and existentially crucial, hard-to-measure issues in urban decision-making: residential happiness, sustainability, sense of purpose and pride in your home. Those are what make the difference to a town, making them not merely a place on the map but a living community where people want to live.