The Economist proposes this week that we should shut down some of Britain’s failing cities: places like Middlesborough, Burnley, Hull and Hartlepool. The basic argument is that they can’t be saved; that keeping them going is expensive and hopeless; that the best thing the residents can do for themselves is to move out; that the best thing for government to do is to let big cities grow while these places shrivel and die.
Why should we save towns like Hartlepool? There are three main reasons. First, it’s a decent place to live. All right, I’m prejudiced: I lived in Hartlepool for two years, and I rather liked it. It’s well located by the coast, there’s good access to major facilities in the big towns, it’s reasonably well served by rail and road, and some parts are lovely even if the economic decline isn’t. I understand why people want to live there – and why some of them wouldn’t be dragged from it if they were chained to tractors trying to pull them away. The second reason is it’s there. That means it has its own communities (if you know Hartlepool, you’ll know why that’s in the plural) , the places where people live, grow up, live with their families, meet their friends and form the ties of everyday life. That’s precious, and difficult to replace. The third is that it has a wide range of valuable resources – houses, roads, infrastructure, schools and so forth – which would otherwise have to be replaced. Let’s remember, because it’s something no government has focused on for forty years, that Britain has a thumping great shortage of houses. The idea that we should board up and walk away from tens of thousands of secure, well maintained homes, to go to places where there aren’t any, is absurdly profligate.
How can we save a town? It needs money, because without investment in the areas, and money for people to support business and commerce, the decline will go on. It needs industry, because we have to move the work and the economic activity to where the people are – not the other way around. And it needs people, who will come to an area because it is a good place to live, not just because – or even if – they work there.
It’s a tall order – but if anything, it should be easier than it used to be. One of the ways that the world has changed is that people don’t need any more to live, work and socialise in the same area. If we can get people living on Teesside to live on large, isolated private estates with little more than access to the motorway (you know where I mean), we should certainly be able to get them to live in established communities with good facilities.
The argument that we should leave towns to wither and die comes from the laissez-faire idea that anything that happens in an economy is natural and we have to bend with it. It assumes that people don’t matter; it’s thoroughly bad economics. And the people who would suffer most would be those with least access to the alternatives, those least able to afford housing elsewhere – just the people who would be hurt most by this policy.