Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.
The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.
During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.
These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.
However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.
One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.
Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.
I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?