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.

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


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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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.



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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Five reasons why cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600 is a bad idea – and one silver lining

Capture 7Constituency boundary changes don’t just matter to map anoraks or political obsessives (I’m a bit of both). And the proposals won’t just mean a cull of MPs: they will reshape our politics by disenfranchising millions of voters. With no suggestion of proportional representation for the House of Commons, or a democratically-elected Lords, the new boundaries will make our electoral system even less fair. And just when Theresa May’s government needs a strong opposition, the changes will further distract and divide Labour, pitting many of its embattled MPs against each other.

I’m a lifelong Labour man and it’s no secret that the changes will almost certainly hit Labour hardest. But there are many reasons why reducing the number of MPs by 8% is bad news for everyone, regardless of political allegiance. Here are five problems with the proposals – and one silver lining, though you have to look very far ahead through the clouds to spot it.

1 It’s a myth that Britain has too many MPs

It’s often claimed that Britain has too many legislators per head of population. But there aren’t too many politicians in Britain. If anything there are too few. Continue reading

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Politicians should get out of Westminster for its restoration – and stay out

154886067_df8f06da75News that the Palace of Westminster will be out of bounds for six years for the £4bn mother of all restorations has provoked a stream of predictable responses. A strange coalition of metropolitan Guardianistas like John Harris, nationalists and devolutionists are angry that Parliament won’t be moving to a new building outside London, either permanently or temporarily. Traditionalists have welcomed the news that Parliament should move back to a restored palace in 2029, six years after the restoration begins in 2023. But just about everyone has questioned the logistics of decanting the Lords to the QE2 conference centre, and the Commons to the Department of Health building off Whitehall, in between times.

Oddly, hostility to the palace has focussed as much on its supposedly elitist Gothic style as on its London location. Few have stopped to think about the building’s form, size and shape – its bones – rather than its superficial architectural style.


I worked part-time in Westminster as an MP’s researcher from 2008 to 2012. I am known to love Victorian architecture and was often asked by friends how much I loved working there. The answer was not that much: although I worked for an MP (Nick Raynsford) I admired, and alongside some great colleagues, I found Parliament a difficult place to work in. Continue reading

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Does Brexit Mean Brexit?

CaptureHours after the EU referendum result came in Boris Johnson stood at a podium stating how much stronger Britain would become, and staked his claim to be Prime Minister. Just a week later, on June 30th, he was gone from the Tory leadership contest. Then just two weeks after that, on July 13th, he was made Foreign Secretary by new Prime Minister Theresa May. In many ways Boris Johnson’s career trajectory is the perfect metaphor for Brexit: every week its direction, and its definition, changes.

What does Brexit mean? Seven weeks after the UK voted to leave the European Union at the on June 23, the country remains divided over a result that many believed wouldn’t or couldn’t happen. To some, Brexit must mean a complete break from the European Union; to others it is “taking back control” while still remaining part of the single market, while many people hope that it doesn’t mean anything.

Even those who pushed hardest for Brexit seem uncertain about what it now will mean in practice. In post-referendum interviews Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage both seemed to backtrack on two key pledges of the Leave campaign: £350m extra for the NHS and an end to free movement. Now even the Brexit-backing Institute of Economic Affairs (or one of their bloggers at least) is backing British membership of the European Economic Area, whereby Britain would continue to be part of the single market but would almost certainly have to commit to free movement. Continue reading

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Brexit is not a working class revolt, or a resurgence of racists. It was an Oldie rebellion, pure and simple

captureOne Saturday morning a few weeks before the referendum there were two Vote Leave stalls on the streets of Thrapston, the Northamptonshire market town a few miles from my home. I was in a hurry, buying eggs and vegetables at the market, and in no mood for a political discussion when I was approached by a friendly-looking, 60-something man in a red Vote Leave T-shirt. I had to think on my feet to politely decline the leaflet he offered. “No thanks, I’m a Labour voter,” I told him foolishly. “So am I,” he replied.

Amidst the torrent of political shocks since the referendum – Cameron’s resignation, Corbyn’s leadership crisis, the defenestration of Boris Johnson and the voluntary departure of Nigel Farage – one question has been too little pondered. Why exactly did so many Middle Englanders (many of them Labour voters) vote to leave the EU?

In the ten days since the results trickled in, it’s been repeatedly claimed that this was a working class revolt: a two-fingered salute to globalisation, and to the political establishment, by the dispossessed and disenfranchised. But if it was a working class revolution, it was a very uneven one. Although nine of the ten most prosperous local authority areas in the UK  voted to remain, at the other end of the scale the picture is a lot more confused. Of the ten most deprived areas only four voted Leave by a landslide (Hull, Middlesbrough, Sandwell and Barking & Dagenham). Another three voted heavily for Remain (Liverpool, Manchester and Tower Hamlets) and a further three voted Leave by a narrow 51%-49% margin (Knowsley, Birmingham and Nottingham). Continue reading

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The demise of Boris Johnson – the Quintin Hogg of our times – shows that the age of Balliol superiority is now over

Capture.JPGThe spectacular collapse of Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministerial hopes earlier today have a striking historical parallel. Boris is not – and never has been – the Donald Trump or Winston Churchill of contemporary British politics, or even the Falstaff or Dennis the Menace. Johnson’s career, and its apparent demise, now bear an uncanny resemblance to a half-forgotten giant of Conservative politics: Quintin Hogg, Viscount Hailsham (1907-2001).

The similarities between Quintin and Boris – both politicians who were almost always known by their first name only – are manifold. Not only are they both Etonians, they both studied Classics at Oxford (Hogg went to Christ Church, Johnson to Balliol), and they both served as president of the Oxford Union (57 years apart: Hogg in 1929, Johnson in 1986).

While still in their thirties, they both then became Conservative MPs for Oxfordshire seats (Johnson for Henley, Hogg for Oxford itself) and both soon acquired a reputation for changing their minds on matters of national importance. Hogg had been elected as a Chamberlainite, pro-appeasement candidate in the Oxford by-election of 1938, but later turned against Chamberlain and backed Churchill’s coup in 1940. Similarly Johnson has repeatedly changed his mind on the Iraq war, the European Union (and Turkey’s accession to it), and immigration over his 15-year political career.

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How working the night shift alongside European migrants made me more determined to vote to stay in the EU, not less

Flogo_markor two months in the run-up to Christmas 2015 I worked the night shift at a Royal Mail sorting office in Peterborough. Media commentators are often quick to appoint themselves as experts on the labour market, but most have never stepped inside – let alone been employed in – places where Brits work alongside Eastern European migrants. I have, and the experience made me even more determined to vote Remain in the EU referendum today.

If there is an EU migration crisis in Britain then Peterborough is its ground zero: the city has seen one of the biggest influxes of EU migrants in recent years. According to the 2011 census 9.3% of its population moved to the city from overseas between 2004 and 2009. The 2011 census found that 18.4% of Peterborough’s residents – and in reality probably more today – were born outside the UK: one of the highest percentages for any council area outside London.

The workforce at the sorting office was roughly a third EU migrants, a third working-class young Brits, and a third older British workers – mostly men like me – who wanted a bit of extra spending money for Christmas. Migration has caused pressures in Peterborough – the council is considering opening primary schools in converted railway depots – but in the sorting office there was little friction between the three groups. Continue reading

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A month on, Sadiq Khan’s victory in London no longer looks mould-breaking. In fact it’s a welcome return to politics as usual

A month on, how mould-breaking does Sadiq Khan’s election as mayor of London feel?

Yes, it was a historic moment: the first time that a Muslim was elected as mayor of a western capital city. The message it sends to black and ethnic minority Londoners, and to Islamists who argue that there is no point in Muslims engaging in western democracy, is resonant. The New Statesman’s George Eaton was right to describe Sadiq Khan as “The anti-Trump [who] shows the politics of fear can be beaten.

And amid generally lacklustre local election results for Labour the election of Khan – and a similar victory for Marvin Rees as Mayor of Bristol – were a vital lifeline for Jeremy Corbyn, helping to scotch talk of a leadership challenge.

But Khan’s victory is also a return to politics as usual. The 2016 mayoral election was in many ways just like every other mayoral election since 2004: a maverick Tory candidate (Steve Norris/Boris Johnson/Zac Goldsmith) is pitted against a left-leaning Labour candidate who has beaten off a challenge from centrist rivals (Tony Banks and Nicky Gavron in 2004, Oona King in 2012, Tessa Jowell in 2016). An acrimonious election campaign has been accompanied by accusations of dog-whistle messaging, name-calling and dirty tricks. He (the victorious candidate always has been a he since the post was created in 2000) distanced himself from his party’s leader, seeming happier to share platforms with members of other parties. And a newly-elected mayor has once again been accused of reneging on a key manifesto pledge within weeks of entering City Hall. In all these respects Sadiq Khan’s successful run for Mayor of London was identical to Ken’s and Boris’s. Continue reading

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