Will The North rise again?

The anthem of the (non-existent) Northern liberation front would be The Fall’s splendid The North Will Rise Again, penned by Mark E Smith, in a moment of relative sobriety. Or maybe not, but it’s Fall-like weirdness has some good insights. It’s more memorable lyrics include:

I’m Joe Totale
The yet unborn son
The North will rise again
The North will rise again
Not in 10,000 years
Too many people cower to criminals
And government crap
The estates stick up like stacks
The North will rise again (x4)
Look where you are
Look where you are
The future death of my father

But that was then. Are things better? No, they sodding well aren’t. Try walking round towns like Farnworth, Accrington, Batley, Dewsbury. It makes me furious. Why aren’t people rioting (in a moderate fashion) in the streets? Last Saturday I went back to Farnworth, where I was brought up as a kid (by my gran when mum was out working at Burton’s). Back then it was a lively town with its own council, based in a fine town hall. The market was brilliant and I can remember the children’s swings next to it, close to the public baths. It’s all gone. The market has disappeared, even on a Saturday afternoon the streets were quiet. Farnworth Council was swept away by local government reform in 1974, possibly the worst act of political vandalism visited on this country in the 20th century. The fine council estates that Farnworth Council built after the First World War look deprived and unhappy. The new ‘shopping complex’ built in the 70s is mostly empty, with the private owners sitting on their ‘asset’ doing nothing. On Friday I spent a bit of time in Dewsbury. This was another once fine town with a strong textile base and some substantial buildings which remain, in a sad state. The grand co-operative building is slowly being re-built by Kirklees Council, which replaced Dewsbury’s own local authority the same time as Farnworth’s democratic governance was destroyed.The centralisers say that these changes were necessary to make better use of resources. It simply isn’t true. Look at the ‘secondary’ towns in places like Kirklees, Wakefield, Bolton, Tameside and Blackburn – e.g. Dewsbury and Batley, Castleford and Normanton, Farnworth, Hyde, Darwen. Are they thriving examples of local prosperity, ushered in by benign super-councils? Anything but.

The causes are not simple and you can’t just blame uncaring councillors and officers in the super-councils imposed by Redcliffe-Maud. The key issue has been industrial decline, particularly the collapse of cotton, wool and coal. But not enough was done by anyone to mitigate the impact and create new industries. The absence of a strong regional tier that could have intervened strongly to revive town centres didn’t exist. Even super councils didn’t have the resources to make much of a difference. Alongside that, and less easily definable, was the surgical removal of a small town’s heart – the local council. Former town halls like those in Farnworth, Dewsbury and Hyde remain partly in use by different council services. But they are no longer the local powerhouses they once were. We need them back, with real power. The super councils were a product of 1970s thinking and have had their time. Get rid of them and replace them with strong sub-regional combined authorities working with a new regional tier. Existing town councils can make a difference. Places like Horwich, Colne and – most obviously – Frome benefit from a team of locally elected people who work together for the benefit of their communities. They need stronger powers but at least they exist and do stuff. When I lived in Farnworth we had a strong local campaign for get a town council – it was vigorously opposed by the Labour hierarchy in the Bolton super-council. The reason? It might have risked giving the Liberals a political toe-hold. I suspect that attitude is still alive and well in much of the Labour Party, though there are some signs of change (he says, with a pathetic display of giddy optimism).

What’s the solution? We need a strong, well-organised movement which can build a cross-party consensus in support of real Power for The North. The seeds were laid by The Hannah Mitchell Foundation…but how can it go forward?