Stories of inequality and declining urban areas often focus on larger cities. They speak vaguely about ‘the North’. They bypass smaller towns in the Midlands. They bypass Northampton.
Most people can’t tell you where it is on a map: rarely does anyone visit. Yet Northampton is one of the largest towns in the UK. And just like ‘the North’ it is being hammered by austerity and neo-liberal economics, political collapse and a smashed local government system. Inequality is a living, breathing force that traps many thousands of people, and our town, in a spiral of decline that is unrelenting.
Yet on paper, it’s not poor; it does not trouble complex indices of deprivation; most people work; educational standards are not the worst. But it is collapsing. That collapse is measurable in a range of indicators that are less obvious.
For some two years it has had no elections. No viable system of local government. Trapped by Brexit and fears of electoral loss, its citizens have been denied democracy, since its county council was made bankrupt, taken into special measures, and is allegedly planned for abolition, absorbed into a new unitary also containing two areas to the west.
Some say that this happened because of a tragic combination of officer and councillor incompetence; people who really had no idea how to run anything, working with people with destructive and untested political ideologies, who ran the budget through the ground and headed for Hell.
The local borough council, also due to be abolished, seems to have been mired in corruption and financial mismanagement allegations, and suffered a crippling lack of trust amongst voters and the wider community.
The voluntary sector and community sector is likewise in freefall, destroyed by grant cuts from the statutory sector and ideological drivers of the allocation of what remains.
There is a talent shortage too. A significant percentage of pupils with ambition and good A levels leave the town, largely to London or abroad. This is because there are no suitable jobs for them here.
There are jobs: in warehouses, earning the minimum wage, working anti-social hours on zero-hours contracts. Jobs for young people are especially challenging, with the low wages they supply trapping young people in sofa surfing or staying later than they want with mum and possibly dad.
One of the results of that is homelessness: 120 people attend the Hope Centre’s daily drop in for the homeless and disadvantaged; 100+ people sleep rough every night in tent cities surrounding the town non-centre.
Another is the upsurge of local crime. The grandad told by his 13 yr old grandson that every classmate carries a knife; the local newspaper reporter who bemoans that they no longer have the capacity to cover every stabbing; the TV blue light show that told victims and criminals alike that there was only 1 police officer available at some times of day for over 200,000 people.
It’s a sad story, much sadder if you live here. For many, there is profound apathy about achieving change. There is a very small middle class; this is not Bristol, Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge. There is no thriving green movement or visible LGBT energy at scale. Advertising of an event is often greeted by stony silence on social media. This is a seriously depressed town with few moments of energy and respite from the harshness of hardscabble existence. And this has led down some very dark paths indeed: nationalism and hostility to those communities who share the same inequalities – eastern Europeans most particularly.
There is a weary sense that solutions are not going to come out of traditional sources: local authorities, political parties, middle class activism. Solutions, if any, will come from the very communities and services working at ground level that are most aware of, and most victims of the problems described.
In the next submission to #everydayinequality we will look at some emerging responses to austerity in Northampton.
By Robin Burgess, Chief Executive of Northampton Hope Centre
This article represents the personal views of Robin Burgess not those of the Northampton Hope Centre or The Equality Trust.
Hope is a progressive anti-poverty charity that works to improve the lives of anyone affected by poverty, especially homelessness, through services, training, campaigning and advocacy.