High Hopes & Low Expectations – reflections on a home town

February 18, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Posted in British Politics, Distractions | 1 Comment

After three hours on a coach from Sheffield to London, we break down in some soul-destroying depot outside Milton Keynes. After about thirty minutes sat stationary, with most of the passengers either loading up on nicotine or staring impatiently out of the window, the group of lads at the back of the coach finally notice something’s amiss.

“What’s goin’ off lads? Are we there yet?”
“Nah Kev, I reckon we’ve broke down or summat”
“Oh yer fookin’ kiddin’! Where’d they buy the coach from, our Daz’s Dad?!”

The back of the coach erupts with laughter and rocks gently from side to side as scowls and soft punches get dished out playfully. A few moments later the laughter dies down and they start thinking about what they’re going to do about it.

“Summat’s up ‘ere lads, I reckon we should find out what’s goin’ off”
“We should get out and push, show them lasses how Wombwell lads are built!”
“Ere Gav, go find out what’s goin’ off will you?”
“Why me? How come I’ve got to fuckin’ well do it?”
“You’re Head of Transport, innit?”
“Head of Transport my arse! You can fuck right off! All I did were find out the fucking coach times!”

These were pretty typical Barnsley lads, kids who’ll happily coast through college by getting Ds and Es without harbouring any wish to attend university. They know their place in life and they’re mostly happy with it, flitting between the pub and some mundane 9-5 in Meadowhall, via the bedroom of whichever girl falls for their charms. They’d saved their money for a Big Night Out in London, using whatever wages they earn by folding clothes and scanning bar codes to feed the flickering flame of their youth. They were working to live.

They will have been there on Saturday as well, drinking down the atmosphere with half a dozen pints, taking pictures outside the Shankly gates, bantering with Scousers and eventually watching their team take an improbable, unimaginable victory with them across the other side of the Pennines. They were living the reasons to work.

Maybe it’s inevitable in a former colliery town, but I’ve heard the saying ‘you’ve gotta work to live, not live to work’ a lot in my short life. Most of the people in this town don’t expect too much out of life. Their main goals – having a place to live, a job that pays the bills, enough money for the weekend and a two-week holiday in Cyprus or Tenerife – speak of a people who are modest, unpretentious and blessed with a fine line in mockery of those who act otherwise.

At the same time, these low expectations stung me when I was a kid. I was an awkward child with a soft voice on top of a soft frame who liked playing football but not getting tackled, who got taken to Sunday School, who liked books and always behaved himself in class. I never fitted in with the other kids and they knew it. These low expectations became a soft bigotry that has always made me view the town with everything from respect to compassion to disdain.

But these low expectations could never be an excuse for the social, economic and moral decay of the town after the pits closed (a programme begun in 1984, the year of my birth). Without new job training, the most an ex-miner could hope for was a job as a security guard or shifting shopping trolleys around the local Asda, and there were no new jobs for the kids just coming out of school with pretty much the exact same qualifications their fathers had. Drink, drugs and all their related evils started to suck the heart of once-strong communities, and the scars are evident whenever you take a ride through areas heavy in council housing – places like Athersley, Wath, Worsbrough Common or Grimethorpe. It’s too much to say the town lost a whole generation, but there were still thousands of kids who were lost through government negligence. And when you lose people like that, it’s difficult to get them or their kids back.

The picture isn’t entirely bleak, at least not anymore. Aided by regeneration in nearby Sheffield and Leeds, the town’s beginning to seize upon its new best asset – the M1 motorway. Homes are being built at a breathless pace, new businesses are setting up on the cusp of the M1 and money is gradually being spent turning the town centre into a more attractive place to work & spend money. But that still won’t solve the problems in those areas of high crime and unemployment that have improved only marginally since New Labour came to power.

Take Kendray for instance. As far back as 1999, it was determined by Barnsley Council that this densely-populated working class area was ‘unsustainable’ (which, one would assume, is councilspeak for ‘a pit of complete fucking despair’) and had many homes that did not match the government’s standards of decency. Think on that for a moment: people were living in homes not fit for humans.

The rebuilding plan the council agreed upon was ambitious, slow-moving and not destined for any fleeting, attention-grabbing success. Many of the old slums would be torn down and replaced by good quality family accommodation, a new medical centre and academy (or ‘school’, for the old-fashioned among us) are set to open, renovations would be made to local amenities and a new Safer Neighbourhood Police Base would be set up to provide decent community policing. Whilst it’s still too early to judge the scheme until all the pieces are in place, its clear that its already making a marked improvement into the lives of residents, giving them and their families a more hospitable environment in which to work, live and fulfil themselves however best they see fit. So much so, in fact, that the Kendray initiative won an award in 2005 for Outstanding Neighbourhood Management partnership, and is being seen as a model for how to begin urban regeneration.

For all the talk of cracking down on violent youths or anti-social behaviour, the dirty secret behind all of these proposals is that without genuine improvements in the communities they live in, any successes the police may have will fix none of the root problems. This is a Government that has certainly been tough on crime, but in an age when we have seen progress towards ending child poverty stall and the gap between rich and poor continue to grow, they can’t seriously claim massive success in tackling the causes of crime.

So why not implement some of what they are doing in Kendray on a larger scale? The answer is money. By Barnsley Council’s own estimation, the completed work will have cost upwards of £100 million pounds in an area with a population of around 5,000. £100 million for 5,000 people. The best solution is never the cheapest one. It’s never the most politically expedient solution either. It won’t win over Daily Mail man or his Express-reading wife and the people who would benefit from it live in solid Labour constituencies. There is nothing to gain politically from choosing the most expensive solution.

And so we ask our police to find new ways to tackle crime and ask our Justice Department to seek tougher sentences because at least that way the government being seen to do something, anything, even if it will achieve little in the long term. The people of Barnsley aren’t the only ones to sometimes suffer from the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’; you’ll find plenty of them in Westminster, too.

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  1. […] written before about how a culture of low expectations persists here, and it’s prevented the town from […]


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