Some time ago I wrote a blog about the kind of place I wanted to live – the Ashbourne of my imagination. I didn’t go for some chocolate-box idyll but rather sketched a vibrant, happy town.
As a counterbalance I thought I should describe the alternative. It is unrealistic to imagine a small country town becoming an inner city ghetto with police sirens forever sounding to a backdrop of tower blocks…
The trademark for me of a small town gone bad is the pervading sense that the party has left. There is no longer a unity and a sense of direction holding it together.
My stereotype is the hundreds of small towns which grew up as mining towns and then the pit closed. The whole reason for the town being there was to provide accommodation around the pit head and the town’s social as well as economic future was linked to the mine and the associated social club. There are hundreds of these across Yorkshire, Wales and Nottinghamshire. It doesn’t need to be a big industrial site (which can often be a necessary blight). It could be a large country house gone to ruin, a working airfield, the loss of a railway station or a recreation ground gone to waste. It could be the gradual shift from an agricultural to an urban economy. It could just be that the town has given up the will to fight for its future and so lays itself to the mercy of greedy planners. Whatever the cause, the impact is that the free market economy gets to work and those who can afford to vote with their feet and leave. We don’t live in a Field Of Dreams world where people will come to utilise whatever is built. Instead they choose the field of their own dreams.
The undesirable town that is left behind is often skewed to a population of elderly, disabled and long-term unemployed. The able-bodied workers and their families have been forced to migrate to find work.
The whole balance of the town landscape is wrong. When you take a big feature or characteristic out of any landscape it changes the balance of it. Somehow you realise that everything around it was ‘leaning’ on it. Take the feature away and everything is out of proportion. Long streets which once led to a focal point suddenly seem pointless and so visitors just carry on through to the other side of town and out the other side.
As a result the remaining infrastructure begins to fall apart. It starts with the schools. Where there was once a thriving generation driving more classrooms, suddenly the school can’t fill its intake. The primary schools are the ones to go first and, after a couple of consolidations there are yet more holes in the town landscape. At secondary level the remain children now have to get on a bus every day to go to a neighbouring larger town for their education. Experienced teachers who have taught in the village for years decide to retire rather than move on and so the schools that are left become the first placement for inexperienced new teachers. Who else would want to live in a declining town? That demographic skewing isn’t going to get fixed any time soon as prospective work age parents realise the schooling isn’t good enough for their children.
The High Street begins to get some gaps. Hard working people employed locally would pass along the High Street as they walked to work or in their lunch break. They needed food and drink and wanted to go out in the evening with their families to eat. A hard week of work meant they wanted to get out in the countryside and pursue their hobbies and someone needed to provide the gear for them. They supported thriving sports teams that competed with neighbouring towns for local pride. But now the town can’t support a local clothes shop – not since the demand for school uniforms disappeared. The income that supported the varied High Street now just wants ‘cheap’ and so the shop names have lots of ‘n’ s and ‘z’ s with garish posters in the window begging for custom.
Those who do still have an income have to travel to shop and so more of the town’s economy drains away. Even the pub trade, once thriving on every corner, has dwindled to the few “boozers” where the piano stops at the sight of strangers.
The other nightmare vision is the opposite. Hundreds of new houses being built to order. Let’s face it, if there was that much demand for local housing – increasing the population by 20% – there would have been queues a mile long outside every estate agent. But they were built regardless and in desperation to get them sold the planning conditions had to be amended time and again. Prices fall across the town until the new houses get occupied.
Yet again the landscape is out of balance. The natural approaches to the town seem to go on for longer – the sprawl begins. Because some houses are now quite a long way out of the town centre people have to travel by public transport. Of course buses come into the heart of the town but, if you are getting on a bus anyway, why not go the other way to the large city centre?
The schools fill to bursting. Class sizes go through the roof and new classrooms can’t be built on the land currently owned by schools. Already the traffic caused by parents at start and end of day blight neighbourhoods. The grass verges are churned up by cars and driveways are blocked. Each child can get less attention from their teachers and so their problems go undetected for longer. Numeracy and literacy standards start to fall. The good teachers get exasperated at the situation and leave. At secondary level the situation is even worse. 20% more children arrive at a stroke and so portakabins are set up on the playing fields to accommodate them “temporarily”. This disrupts the games lessons and so tennis goes by the wayside. Football and rugby gets played with far more players per side than should normally be the case – at least Shrovetide should benefit. Parents in some of the new developments will find themselves unexpectedly out of catchment. Parents with more talented children will find themselves reluctantly using the private school system instead.
The High Street ought to be booming with the new intake but they have no loyalty to the town. As they have to get in a car anyway to go shopping they head off to the out-of-town supermarkets.
Let’s hope you don’t get ill. It was hard enough getting an appointment at the surgery or at the dentist before. A 20% rise in population means that everyone has to typically wait a day longer to be seen.
The traffic and parking are horrendous. Every day is like the school run as people zigzag from one side of the town to the other. Those ratruns which were tolerated because they tended to be used just by a few knowledgeable locals get closed off and this just adds to the problem. Bit by bit the outskirts of the town decide its just not worth trying any more and the Town’s main function is to house commuters for the larger local industries.
Thank goodness it couldn’t happen in your town…