In the centre of Wigan until relatively recently lay a working men’s club. Once a thriving hub of community life, it is now a McDonald’s employing young people on minimum wage contracts. It is always busy, the staff are friendly as you’d find anywhere in Wigan, but there is still a lingering sense that these community institutions that help to shape and define us have been lost and with them something important.
In one sense we have been lucky. Many high streets across the country have seen a proliferation of money lenders and derelict buildings. Austerity has sped up this process, but it is not the sole cause. Over recent decades, as we’ve shown at the Centre for Towns, towns have lost good jobs and working age population, costing us spending power and putting us on the frontline of decline.
A wave of retail, pub and bank closures have left a trail of devastation on high streets, and it is our towns most affected by this tsunami. 50% of bank closures, 92% of M&S closures, and 85% of House of Fraser closures have fallen on towns, according to Centre for Towns data.
The losses have been felt widely. Bus networks have been decimated - 10% of the network has been lost since 2010. These are more than simply institutions. As HuffPost UK’s What It’s Like To Lose series is showing, across the country they are the heart of our communities.
A model of growth that does not care for these institutions is pulling apart our social fabric and creating widespread distrust with politicians. There is a disconnect between people who feel that loss deeply and a political class that shrugs its shoulders and talks of growth, progress and inevitability. This is the England once spoken for by William Morris, George Orwell and Benjamin Disraeli. But the remnants of these traditions in British politics are scarce and there is little sense, beyond local politics, that anyone speaks for them.
Those in towns are significantly more likely than city dwellers to say that politicians “don’t care about me or my area”. The EU referendum provided an outlet for these many frustrations in towns across Britain but still little has been done to acknowledge them. At best they are ignored, at worst told they are nostalgic little-Englanders setting their face against progress.
This is not just a British phenomenon. In towns across Germany, France, Austria and the USA a similar process has taken place creating huge political upheaval and social unrest. Responding to the gilets jaunes protests in France last month President Macron said “it is as if they have been forgotten, erased. This is 40 years of malaise that has risen to the surface. It goes back a long way, but it is here now.”
His response, to commission a series of citizens assemblies to deliberate on the problems and priorities in very different communities, shows a respect that is still absent from British politics. A process of dialogue and handing power back to local areas is likely to succeed where attempts to turn proud communities into metropolitan suburbs in Britain has failed.
There are some signs that this is starting to be understood. There is a growing recognition across the political spectrum that fundamental change is needed if those towns that are now the key electoral battleground are to be won.
But still the political system is stuck and this decline continues. Back home in Wigan the latest institution facing closure is our crown post office, one of 150 set to close bringing the total to a staggering 60% of these flagship post offices that will have been lost in the last five years.
At Centre for Towns we have mapped the post office closures, finding that nearly every British town has lost a post office in recent years. We can’t afford more of this. Campaigning in the town centre recently I was reminded that a crown post office has stood proudly on the town centre site for 134 years. It has survived two world wars and a global financial crash but cannot survive three years of Tory government. From Northern Rock to our local libraries these institutions are our social fabric. Their decline tells a story of a political system that has lost its way. It is time we listened.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan and co-founder of the Centre for Towns thinktank
In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.