30 May 2022

Learning from New Labour’s ‘Levelling Up’ mistakes

By Ed Dorrell

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 2003. I was a newly appointed reporter on the Architects’ Journal and I was flicking through a copy of my new mag. The cover was an image of a reimagining of Barnsley as a ‘Tuscan hill town’ conceived by the celebrated architect Will Alsop. It was a beautiful image, it was arresting, it was thought-provoking. But it was also, evidently, bonkers.

Back then, of course, we were in the midst of the white heat of the John Prescott and Tony Blair-inspired regeneration revolution. We were in the era when New Labour, its quangos and its many municipal local authorities would commission so-called ‘starchitects’ to transform the towns and cities of the north of England.

It was exciting to be part of it, but anyone with a passing knowledge of the 2019 election results will tell you that it wasn’t a wholly successful set of initiatives. None of the north’s post-industrial towns sprang into life like an Italian renaissance picture. Of course, there was significant renewal in the centres of some of the north’s biggest cities – Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool – but outside the major conurbations, in the suburbs, small cities and towns, post-industrial decline continued at pace.

And ultimately Labour paid the price for this failure, losing a vast numbers of council seats and constituencies in the Red Wall and handing Boris Johnson a landslide two and a half years ago.

All of which has led the current Conservative government’s focus on levelling up – its very own effort to transform the fortunes of the places like Barnsley. The approach is rather more sober than Prescott and his ennobled architects (we are in considerably more straightened times), but there is a lot in common too, most obviously the question of what to do with town centres and high streets that have been the focal point of years and years of economic decline. What are the tools and what are the raw materials that could kick start a civic renaissance in our former industrial heartlands?

Which is where my most recent piece of work for Public First – published today – comes in. Intrigued by a conclusion from a PF Levelling Up poll last autumn that found that residents rated local heritage more highly than many other aspects of their town as a driver of civic pride, Historic England commissioned us to find out more. And that is exactly what we did through a major – and I think unique – focus group study into the views Red Wall residents have about historic buildings in their towns and cities, and their connection with industrial heritage.

What we found confirmed that there was something missing from Blair et al’s dream of northern England’s regeneration: that we shouldn’t just be trying to build a radical vision for the future; we should also be building, or reinforcing, a connection with the past.

Having spoken to working class people in six different towns and small cities in ‘levelling up’ country, we found a strong, palpable, desire to feel a connection with their industrial history. More than that, we found that people instinctively understood that developing that link could play an important role in rebuilding a sense of civic pride in the places that they live, be it steel in Sheffield, the potteries in Stoke or the railways in Darlington.

A warehouse worker in Stoke memorably put it like this: ‘I’d just say personally it is part of the culture of that area. And I relate to that as part of my identity, because that’s where I’m from. So to me, the history feeds into the culture and the culture feeds into identity. So for me, I can see it all linked in. Home, it’s part of my identity.’

But often the people we spoke to worried that this connection was becoming frayed, or had even been cut altogether. They were desperate that that connection be maintained.

‘If you go to London and there’s plaques up about different buildings and everything – I think that should be in every town,’ a Darlington childminder told me. ‘We should have a row of houses with a plaque saying, “here stands the houses that used to be the houses for the railway workers”, it’s got a bit more sort of oomph to it.’

And this last quote tells us something else important for those thinking about levelling up and civic pride. People are hugely fond of their town-centre historic buildings – the great 19th Century municipal architecture of banks and townhalls – but they feel even more loyalty to everyday buildings that their relatives would have used. Time and again people told us about old department stores, swimming pools and football stadiums.

These are the things that connect people to their towns and cities. These are the things that make their sense of belonging tangible.

It is to their credit that ministers do seem to get this – at least in part. The Levelling Up White Paper included a long passage about the £95m High Streets Heritage Action Zones, and this is welcome. They are right to make this a centrepiece to the way that we think about levelling up and urban renewal.

But there is a lot more to do. Civic pride won’t just magically be renewed by a white paper – it needs to be cherished, just like our historic buildings and industrial heritage. And if a rich developer with an ego-driven architect in tow comes along with a fantastical vision for urban transformation, politicians must remember to be very, very careful: that link with the past is ever so delicate.

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Ed Dorrell is a Director at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.