The anthem of the (non-existent) Northern liberation front would be The Fall’s splendid The North Will Rise Again, penned back in the 80s by Mark E Smith, in a moment of relative sobriety. Its 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. Yes, dear Chartist readers, have a day out from North London, or even Didsbury and Headingley, to visit these failing Northern towns. The state they’re in makes me furious. Why aren’t people rioting in the streets? Recently I went back to Farnworth, now part of Bolton Metropolitan Borough, where I was brought up as a kid. Back then it was a lively town with its own council, based in a fine town hall. The mills were still flourishing. The market was brilliant and I can remember the children’s swings next to it, close to the public baths. It’s all gone. What remains provide space for car repairs or cheap-jack furniture sales. Farnworth Council was swept away by local government ‘reform’, based on the Redcliffe-Maud Report, in 1974. This was 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 are now deprived and unhappy. The new ‘shopping complex’ built in the 70s is mostly empty, with the private owners sitting on their ‘asset’ doing nothing.
A few days after my visit to Farnworth I spent a bit of time in Dewsbury, on t’other side of The Pennines. This was another once fine town with a strong textile base and some substantial buildings which remain, but in a sad state. The splendid arcade which would be regarded as a gem in any thriving town, is closed. 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. 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. Towns 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 to 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).
Or vision for local government should align with our larger vision for a socialist society. If you believe in centralisation and distrust the idea of community empowerment, stick with your 1970s ‘super councils’. There’s a ready-made excuse now with austerity why they can’t do anything. But it’s not true. People can make a difference if they have meaningful control. But we need to get back to a genuinely local scale. Frome works because it has a combination of dynamic and engaged people with a local council that can make a difference. We need to tempt bright, creative people back to the Farnworths, Darwens and Dewsburys. It’s the people who will make a difference but they need to have the tools to do it. Small, energised local councils.
Featured image The Fall Perverted by Language Tour, Hamburg (Markthalle), 13.April 1984. Rest In Peace: Mark Edward Smith (5 March 1957 – 24 January 2018) was an English singer, songwriter and musician. He was the lead singer, lyricist and only constant member of the post-punk group The Fall. He grew up in Prestwich, near Manchester.