Farnworth fights back

(based on my ‘Points and Crossings’ to be published in Chartist magazine, May 2018)

In previous rants I’ve commented on the appalling state of the town where I spent most of my childhood – Farnworth – and questioned why people weren’t rioting on the streets. Well it’s started. A ward by-election a few weeks ago saw new political party Farnworth and Kearsley First (FKF) win by a substantial margin over Labour. Traditionally, Farnworth has been a rock-solid Labour area. Yet  FKF’s Paul Sanders won with 1,204 votes while Labour came second with 969. UKIP got 169 votes while the Tory garnered a mere 153. The Lid Dems did much worse, polling just 23, with the Greens getting 18.

So what’s going on? Part of the problem is the marginalisation of small to medium-sized towns following local government reorganisation in the mid-1970s, coupled with de-industrialisation. There’s something about having your ‘own’ council that bolsters identity and engenders a sense of pride, and participation, in a place. Being part of larger units, often with meaningless names which mean nowt to nobody (Kirklees, Tameside amongst others) only make things worse. ‘Huddersfield’ is a big enough place to have its own council, but so is Dewsbury and possibly Batley. Lumping them all into one unit and calling it something meaningless in the hope that people won’t think Huddersfield, Bolton or Bury dominates, is laughable.

In the case of Farnworth, Horwich and Westhoughton whoever decided these things had the sense to call the new council ‘Bolton’ which is the obvious dominant town, but it didn’t make the loss of your local council any more palatable. Westhoughton and Horwich at least got their own ‘town’ councils, with limited powers. The Labour politicians then ‘representing’ Farnworth, in their wisdom, declined.

Farnworth Town Hall

The fine town hall ceased to echo to debates of political heavyweights like its fiery socialist leader Rev. John Wilcockson and became an administrative branch office for Bolton. Yet at one time Farnworth Council was a pioneer in health care, slum clearance and environmental improvement. Its council housing was among the best in the country. All lost at the stroke of a centralising bureaucrat’s pen. And then the mills and engineering shops closed down.

With even the best of intentions, a local authority in which one centre dominates will always be seen by the smaller towns as being against their interests. And often there’s more than element of truth in the perception. It’s a particular problem (in my experience) with Labour authorities in which most of the elected members are from the large centre, which is often economically deprived. Again, it’s not uncommon for the smaller ‘satellite’ towns to be more affluent and often returning non-Labour councillors. So the governing Labour elite can justify ignoring the ‘satellite’ towns on the basis that a) they don’t vote for us and b) they’ve fewer social and economic problems anyway. Yes it stinks, and it’s politics. In cases like Farnworth, where the ‘satellite’ town is both Labour-voting and economically dead or dying, the excuses are even thinner.

The new leader of Bolton Council, Linda Thomas, has gone on record suggesting that the regeneration of Farnworth is a high priority, but a lot of people would say it’s far too late in the day and the rot set in back in the 1980s, with precious little having been done since. The so-called ‘trickle down’ theory that investing in a large centre will somehow help the peripheral towns is a fallacy. It isn’t true for Manchester and its own, larger satellites, and is no more true for the ‘sub-satellites’ like Farnworth (or Radcliffe, Middleton, Darwen, etc.).

Turning it all round is difficult. But where smaller towns have their own council (be it parish or town) they can make a difference and bring a focus, in a way that Labour’s much-loved ‘area committees’ or similar, never will. But it’s ultimately down to the communities themselves, supported by their councils, having the guts to get stuck in, stop blaming everyone else, and just do it. So, forming your own political party – like Farnworth and Kearsley First – could be part of the solution. It will almost certainly bring out the worst in many Labour politicians but they should realise their own failings and understand why groups like FKF have come into being. If they had any sense, they’d extend a hand of friendship to the new councillor (and others to come) and work with them in the interests of the town.

A town council for Farnworth and Kearsley, matching what other Bolton ‘satellites’ Horwich and Westhoughton already have, would make a lot of sense and give a real focus for the town’s regeneration, even though town councils have limited powers. That should change.

The debate on what makes for an appropriate size for a local authority is an interesting one and I would always go for small units with a manageable size and identity. Farnworth has a population of 30,000 which for local authorities in many towns in countries like France, Germany and Italy is on the large side. Yet in the UK there’s still a mentality that going for bigger and bigger councils (as in Wales at the moment) brings benefits. It’s blindness. Small councils bring focus, good governance and strong community support. It makes sense to share appropriate facilities with neighbouring councils but above all maintain that local democratic base. Let elected regional authorities have responsibility for the strategic stuff.

From what I’ve seen of them, FKF supporters aren’t local UKIPers – they’re the sort of people who would be involved in community activities and probably in the past would have naturally inclined towards Labour. The May elections will show whether Farnworth and Kearsley First was a by-election flash in the pan, or the beginning of a much bigger shift in people’s thinking. Like its more affluent neighbour in Frome (Somerset), Farnworth could shake the establishment’s foundations. I hope it does.

Paul’s website is www.paulsalveson.org.uk