Today, my Facebook newsfeed was even more dispiriting than usual. No, it wasn’t just the remnants of the ‘motherhood challenge’ (neo-Victorian propaganda), or that ‘Happy Friends Day’ video (Don Draper’s Carousel pitch as interpreted by a bot). It was the news, posted by several of my old schoolmates, that Darlington council is facing £12.5m budget cuts.
Now, I haven’t got a lot of love for the town where I grew up, but come on. Being a fairly generic, medium-sized, Northern market town is one thing. Being a fairly generic, medium-sized, Northern market town – which doesn’t even have a bloody market – is quite another.
Under the suggested measures, the council will not only be forced to scrap the covered market, but also both the town’s libraries, two children’s centres, and a number of services for vulnerable people, in addition to several hundred jobs. This follows the closure of its much-loved Arts Centre in 2012, which registered as a low blow to pretty much anyone who ever went there. Kids lost their art classes, teens lost their gig venue, and my mum lost her stock response to “what do you even like about Darlington anyway?”
If ever you needed a case study for Austerity Britain, then here it is: a town that is being forced to stamp out everything that evokes any sense of history or character, locked in a slide towards Dead End Dullsville as the council tallies up its spare change.
For sure, there are some nice boutiques and restaurants now, and a few places to drink where you can have wine that isn’t mixed with blue WKD. But you can spray that Eau De Gentrification all you like; it won’t mask the stench of progressively more biting public cuts.
On Facebook, a lot of people have reacted by blaming council fatcats, contending that this is somehow the fault of ‘overpaid’ council workers with more money than sense. It’s a non-starter: the UK’s average council worker earns £32,500 (and that’ll include those with London weighting).
As Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington council, told the Northern Echo: “I think it will probably upset most residents at one level or another. There are things likely to be lost that certainly I as a child grew up with and to be in this position is outrageous. It is to do with no fault of the council, it is entirely the government taking money off us.”
Why aren’t more people in this position up in arms against the Tories, and against the whole toxic ideology that makes a town choose between a theatre and a children’s centre? It’s all very well railing against austerity when you live in London, and have more than one library within a 20-mile radius, but what about when you’re actually in its firing line?
Aside from a few months after uni, while I had the requisite stint getting my bearings and working in a Wetherspoons, I haven’t lived in Darlo for well over a decade. Those were the boom years. And it’s devastating to see my former hometown become a cultural wasteland because of some disingenuous notion of ‘blitz spirit’.
In Darlington, and god knows how many other ailing market towns across the country, people are told they deserve no better than bland. They get a drably interchangeable high street, a library pared down to a room in a sports centre, interesting heritage buildings replaced with yet more shops. And I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said a million times before. But I’d like to know why the anger this generates isn’t being directed at the source.
Petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/120696
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands