Northampton, a town that needs to grow up and become a city

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. I started with Bedford and my second outing is to another county town 20 miles away: Northampton.

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It feels a bit like London’s West End did back in the 80s: there’s a lot of downmarket employment and letting agencies, and a lot of takeaways, sticky pavements and pigeon droppings.

Northampton’s many things – a county town for almost 1,100 years, a boot and shoe capital, a 1970s boomtown – but chic it is not. Historically it’s been ignored rather than ridiculed; it hasn’t been the butt of jokes as Slough, Blackpool or Milton Keynes have. But that may be changing. The 2015 Channel 4 comedy series Not Safe for Work centred on a civil servant, played by Zawe Ashton, who’s forcibly relocated from London to Northampton (“Not Northampton….” sighs Ashton in the show’s trailer). In the latest series of Line of Duty a character cited “A work function in Northampton” as an alibi (“sounds amusingly tedious”, wrote the Telegraph’s TV reviewer).

“Is Northampton rubbish?” asked Ross Noble in an episode of his Freewheeling series last year. The answer from locals was a qualified yes. A Northamptonian’s DIY documentary on YouTube tells a similar story: “Northampton’s not what it was”, ”Too many kebab shops,” “An OK cinema,” “Lots of good bars and clubs,” “Too many charity shops” and “When you see the lift tower you know you’ve come home” are the most complimentary vox pops. If Northampton ain’t rubbish it’s certainly dull, average and ordinary, these answers suggest.

You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the real gripes: “Too many immigrants”, ”You hardly ever hear English spoken on the street any more”, and so on.  Northampton’s always been a cosmopolitan place (it had one of England’s largest communities of Jews until their expulsion in 1290) but the arrival of tens of thousands of non-white immigrants since the 1960s is still resented by some. Because of its central location and proximity to the M1, the town has many warehouses, distribution centres and “logistics hubs” which depend on cheap migrant labour. More eastern Europeans have arrived in Northampton in the last decade than almost any other English town, causing some tensions (in 2012 the Daily Mail reported on a “shanty town” of homeless migrants just off the A45).

Like its near-neighbour Bedford (with which I started this series back in April) Northampton has an image problem. The place constantly talks itself down: when I first visited All Saints, the town’s main church, the churchwarden lamented the town’s “dreadful modern buildings” rather than proselytise about the church and the town’s other ancient buildings. This town wears its antiquity lightly, and takes a lot for granted. Continue reading

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To win next time, Labour must overcome its Midland problem

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The 2016 Christmas market in Birmingham. The city’s benefitted from huge investment but too little of it has reached the rest of the Midlands

Theresa May is utterly humiliated, forced to rely on the Democratic Unionists for a majority. Jeremy Corbyn has exceeded all expectations. Far from losing ground, Labour made a net gain of 30 seats – not just in the north and Wales but in London, the south-east, south-west and Scotland. Corbyn’s critics have been silenced and his position as leader is now in no doubt. Theresa May, by contrast, is on borrowed time, as is her government. The prospect of another general election, either later this year or early in 2018, looms large.

I was on the doorstep in Bedford – one of the seats that Labour unexpectedly gained – on election day and it was clear that something was afoot. To my surprise, no doors were slammed in our faces: instead Labour voters were turning out in their droves, as were former Tory and UKIP voters and those who’d never voted before.

But it’s easy to forget, amidst all the jubilation on the centre-left, that Labour lost this election. Badly. Labour won 262 seats, nine fewer than Kinnock did in 1992, and only three more than Gordon Brown in 2010. Given that both 1992 and 2010 are remembered as catastrophic defeats for Labour, it’s difficult to see the 2017 result as a triumphant success.

Like most observers my predictions were way out: in a blogpost on the eve of the election I predicted a Tory majority of 55. But the gist of my argument – that Theresa May would do better than she deserved to, and that Labour had no chance of winning – still held true. Exceeding expectations is not the same as winning. Continue reading

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The big surprise of this election campaign? Not how badly Theresa May has fared, but how well

CaptureA screeching U-turn on long-term care bills. Uninspiring, robotic TV appearances – and several non-appearances at leadership debates and Today programme interviews. An inability to think on her feet, answer unscripted questions from the public, show herself as a team player, or display a smidgeon of humour, courage, imagination or even humanity.

The charge sheet against Theresa May is long, and no matter how well the Conservatives do at the ballot box tomorrow her flaws have been brutally exposed during this campaign. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, Michael Howard and even William Hague were all far better on the campaign trail.

It’s often been pointed out that the Tories have fallen from a 18-point opinion poll lead at the start of the campaign to an average lead of just 5.7% in the last seven days. But a 12% fall in the Tories’ lead does not mean a fall of 12 points in Tory support. In fact, the Tories have been in the high to mid forties in almost every poll, and have only fallen by about 3-4% since the campaign started. Even after a poor election campaign fronted by the increasingly wooden Theresa May, this BBC graphic shows the Conservatives are, on average, still well ahead of their standing in almost every poll in the last year of Cameron’s premiership. Continue reading

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If Macron wins it proves that despite five years of terror, France can resist the siren calls of fascism. I’m not sure Britain could

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Candidates’ posters outside the Mairie in Beziers: by French law, every commune must display posters in an identity parade like this in the run-up to a presidential election

Imagine that a terrorist had shot dead four police officers, in two daylight attacks on the streets of Winchester and Southampton, a few months before the 2012 Olympics. After a few days at large he attacks the playground of a Jewish school in north London, killing a teacher and three children aged three, six and eight (the latter, a girl, is grabbed by the hair before being shot in the head).

A few days before Christmas 2014 vans run over shoppers in Bristol and Liverpool, injuring dozens but miraculously killing no-one. But just three weeks later, masked gunmen attack the London offices of Private Eye, killing a police officer, a receptionist and 11 journalists and cartoonists. In August 2015, a massacre on a Eurostar train speeding through Kent is only narrowly averted when an American tourist wrestles an automatic weapon from a terrorist’s hands. That November, gunmen and suicide bombers attack a music gig at the Brixton Academy and nearby restaurants and bars, killing 130 young Londoners and wounding dozens more.

Worse is to follow in 2016. After a couple of foiled attacks on police stations in Cardiff and Edinburgh in January, in June a police commander and his wife are stabbed to death by a so-called Islamic State terrorist at their home in Essex, in front of their three-year-old son. The following month a terrorist drives a lorry through a crowd of spectators at a  midsummer firework display in Torquay, killing 84 and injuring hundreds more. Ten days later, a vicar has his throat cut while celebrating holy communion at a village church in Yorkshire.

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I’ve Anglicised the locations but in all other respects this is precisely what France has suffered in the last five years. It’s difficult to overstate the collective trauma, the soul-searching, and the racial tension that such an onslaught has caused. Had Britain faced such a sequence of terrorist attacks, try to imagine the fear, anger and confusion. How would voters react? Would they turn to established political leaders to guide Britain through the turmoil, or look in a new direction? Continue reading

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Somewhere in England: Bedford, a quiet success

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, will look at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. First up: Bedford.
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Alfred Waterhouse’s Shire Hall and the spire of St Paul’s church

Donald Trump lives in Bedford.

Bedford NY that is, until he moved into the White House in January (his neighbours there include actors Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Bruce Willis, Kate and Rooney Mara and the designer Ralph Lauren).

In the US there are more than a dozen Bedfords, two of them in New York state. As well as Trump’s swanky outlying suburb, 40 miles north of Manhattan, NYC itself has Bedford Stuyvesant, a traditionally African-American district of Brooklyn, now being rapidly gentrified. The Bedford is one of Chicago’s most exclusive cocktail bars. It’s a Wonderful Life was set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls.

Just about every large western city has a suburb called Bedford, and Bedford Hotels – in Brighton, London, Sidmouth, Tavistock, Blackpool, Brussels, South Africa – are almost as ubiquitous as the Hotel Bristol. Bedford is a brand name that crops up on just about everything – a millennial blog template, a guitar made in Sheffield, an American wine importer, a Californian clothing retailer, a 1960s television set and a new e-cigarette brand, Bedford Slims. From the 1930s to the 90s Bedford was a British truckmaker, later renamed Vauxhall by its owner General Motors (even Vauxhall’s Griffin logo has its origins in Bedfordshire: it is derived from the heraldic crest of Falkes de Breauté, who was granted the Manor of Luton by King John, and whose London home Fulk’s Hall lent its name to the district of Vauxhall). Continue reading

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One place where the Trump presidency may do no harm? Cuba

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Dereliction and fresh paint side-by-side in downtown Havana

I’ll leave aside – for now – his misogyny, racial prejudice, egotism, and contempt for democracy and the rule of law. I will even cast my eye away from Michael Gove’s fawning interview in the Times at the beginning of last week (one of the lousiest bits of journalism I’ve ever read), and the horrific inauguration speech at its end. Instead I’ll look at a place just 90 miles off the American coast, which has been overlooked amid the turmoil of Donald Trump’s election and where – believe it or not – one part of Obama’s legacy may be burnished, not dismantled.

Trump has promised to cancel every “executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama”. On healthcare, climate change, and relations with Russia the question is not whether Trump will shift away from Obama’s positions, but how far and how fast.

trump-tweetCuba is one of the few policy areas where Trump could go either way. Donald Trump’s ghoulish tweet announcing “Fidel Castro is dead!” just a few hours after the Cuba leader had died last November might indicate that his attitude to Cuba will be like his attitude to just about everything else: insensitive, narcissistic and goading. But in fact, the ongoing thaw in US-Cuba relations is one Obama initiative that Trump may support.

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Continue reading

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Think out-of-town shopping centres are a thing of the past? Take a look at Rushden Lakes and despair

cineworldThe river Nene – the slowest-flowing river in England, and its tenth-longest – meanders through Northamptonshire past water meadows and dozens of former gravel pits, long ago flooded and now a nationally important habitat for wetland birds. Northamptonshire’s an underrated county, the Nene is its under-rated river, and one of its most verdant stretches is between Irthlingborough and Wellingborough.

Canal boats chug by; several are moored nearby.  Before long you’re out of earshot of the A45  (the main road between Northampton and Peterborough, which runs parallel to the river), and out of eyeshot of nearby warehouses. You travel back in time: the Nene was made navigable back in the 1730s and apart from the occasional flood defence and modern road bridge, it has remained remarkably unspoilt since.

But this tranquillity won’t last much longer. Here at Rushden Lakes a huge out-of-town shopping centre is under construction, two miles from Rushden itself and nowhere near a railway station, with the tills due to start ringing in July 2017. As well as ruining the tranquillity of this valley Rushden Lakes threatens to suck the remaining life out of three nearby towns: Rushden itself, Kettering and Wellingborough. Even Northampton, the county town 15 miles away, is worried.

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The Nene valley: formed by a glacier in the ice age, it is surprisingly unspoilt

We’re supposed to have moved on from them in the nineties and noughties: “sheds on the bypass” with thousands of square  metres of retail, little or no public transport and acres of car parking, blotting the landscape and sucking life out of town centres nearby.

Back in 1994 – when John Major was still in Number Ten – Tory environment secretary John Gummer introduced new restrictions on out-of-town shopping, following a backlash against a rash of centres opened in the Thatcher years. The guidance contained the so-called “sequential test”: from then on anyone proposing a new shopping development had to look at town centre sites first, then the edge of town centres, and then out-of-town locations as a last resort. And out-of-town shopping centres should not get planning permission at all if they harm the vitality and viability of nearby towns. Continue reading

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