Matthew Parris

Three cheers for the renaissance of the provincial towns and cities of England

Three cheers for the renaissance of the provincial towns and cities of England

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Bradford is to demolish huge swaths of its own centre. Acres of hateful Sixties concrete are to be pulverised in the year ahead, according to a tiny article in the Guardian this week. Much of Broadway, Cheapside and Petergate are to be bulldozed as part of the city’s programme of ‘reinventing’ its core. An architect, Will Alsop, has made plans for surrounding the Victorian city hall with a lake; a buried stream is to be uncovered; and great blocks of brutalist mid-20th-century building will be coming down, storey by storey.

Three cheers for this news, almost unnoticed in London. A cheer for a dawning 21st century which has the guts and self-confidence to own up to the mistakes we made in the last and start again. A cheer for the provincial towns and cities of England, among many of which a quiet renaissance is under way. And a cheer for the lightening of spirit which has (I believe) accompanied the death of heavy industry, of mining, and of the cradle-to-grave socialist ideal whose physical embodiment in art and architecture lent a brutal edge to so much that we built after the second world war. Grace and humour are returning to the symbols we make for our age.

I took a Virgin Voyager train from Southampton to Chesterfield last Thursday. Winchester, Basingstoke, Reading, Oxford, Birmingham, Derby and then, after Chesterfield, the service continued to Sheffield, York and finally Newcastle. I like cross-country trains. I can work on them, tapping my laptop as urban and rural England sways by.

And I love these new Voyager trains. The carriages are quiet, and warmly and brightly upholstered; there is an electrical socket by every seat for laptops; and (perhaps because secondary railway lines are not built straight and fast but the timetables are tight) the train has a feeling of bustle about it, scurrying busily across the countryside in a cheerful hurry.

But what I like most about cross-country trains is their subversive hint that England does not consist of one big bull’s-eye, London, radiating a series of straight lines like spokes into the outer darkness. All roads do not lead to London. There is an England from which London can be subtracted, which still has sense and form, bits of which can visit other bits of which without even thinking of the metropolis. There are people in Oxford who simply want to go to Sheffield on a Thursday morning to see friends or relations; builders in Birmingham who need to be in Newcastle for lunch; none of them with any business in London at all.

I glanced at station signs from the carriage windows as this England flew past. Oxford: so much friendlier to the pedestrian than when I was a little boy visiting my grandparents there. The city council has found the courage to say no to through-traffic, every fourth shopfront seems to be a coffee shop, bar or restaurant, and a feeling of intelligent affluence rules.

Birmingham: improving tremendously. With the demise of the old Bull Ring, the growing attraction of the city for conferences, exhibitions and conventions, and the pleasant, confident provincialism its citizens have always shown, the spirit of the place is lifting.

Chesterfield used to be a pretty hard-bitten town. Only its famously bent spire seemed able to see a joke, steel-related industry and coal-mining gave its streets a mean look, its ancient market was spoiled, and on a Friday night there was violence in the air.

Now the spire is illuminated beautifully. People have bought their council houses and the brick semis sprout new porches, showy front doors and flowering bushes in their gardens. The marketplace is restored to its old integrity, lined with shops and stacked with barrows. There is a new station — light and airy, with a coffee bar — to replace the glorified hut we used to have to endure, and there is even a gay night in one of the clubs.

For the first time in living memory the town elected a Liberal Democrat MP at the last election — Tony Benn’s old seat: the very thought! — and all at once people in Chesterfield seemed to have aspirations.

Inspired by the success of the Angel of the North, a local team are planning a fantastic, science-fiction sundial on the scale of the pyramids, near the turn-off from the M1. They have already raised three quarters of the money they will need, and the model I have seen gives promise of a soaring structure of steely, pastel-coloured light. I think we shall call it the Angle of the Midlands.

The same is true of Sheffield. I used to think it sad that wretched, low-paid jobs in the cutlery industry were escaping to Korea and Taiwan, but somehow they seem to have been replaced with better jobs. The grimness has gone, HSBC has arrived, Sheffield University goes from strength to strength, and Sheffield Hallam, which was once a polytechnic, has been one of the real success stories of John Major’s abolition of the divide.

Meadowhall shopping centre is too busy for the likes of me, and there is a feeling of style and pace about the city. Where the new jobs and the new money are coming from is a mystery to me, but it seems that Thatcherite economists were right after all. Perhaps we really can all live by exhibiting in each other’s galleries, inventing new computer games and dining in each other’s restaurants.

I was in Newcastle for a week in October, making a television documentary 20 years on from my experiment, as a Tory MP, living on the dole. The feeling then was of impending doom, as shipbuilding died. Now, under the distant, watchful eye of the Angel of the North, new buildings, art galleries and cultural centres have sprung up, old buildings have been refurbished and new uses found for them.

It is easy to sneer that the economy which has replaced heavy industry is not a ‘real’ economy; that the jobs are not real jobs; and that nobody ever filled his stomach on the conceptual art on show in the gallery in the old Baltic Flour Mills. But unemployment has more than halved in the city in the 20 years since I was there. I never thought I would say this, but there is a sort of gaiety about the town. Like Barcelona or Bilbao, Newcastle is selling itself brilliantly, and it has something to sell. At a glance, I would say that the nightlife in Newcastle is now better than in Barcelona.

Provincial England took some heavy knocks in the last century — knocks which London largely escaped. Now I believe it is finding its feet, and finding its heart. My first memories, aged three, are of the dreariness of what Bradford once was. Good luck, I say, to a Bradford ambitious to remake itself.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.