As government decides where to distribute the Shared Prosperity and Levelling Up funds, Owen Garling recommends places should be considered as more than just units of economic production.
It’s always curious when different interests come together, and common threads emerge. For the last week or so, the Spotify algorithm has been encouraging me to listen to the latest EP by LYR, a group featuring the poet laureate Simon Armitage. Listening to it without context, it’s a collection of songs featuring Armitage’s poetry interwoven with electronica and the sounds of a brass band.
However, it turns out that what I had been listening to chimes with some of the themes that I have been working on at the Bennett Institute. Following a link in a tweet shared by the band, I found the story of the condemned pit villages of County Durham.
The article set out how in 1951 – just a year before the Queen’s accession to the throne – a decision had been taken by Durham County Council to categorise all of the county’s settlements. Those with the most potential were classed as Category A; those with the least potential were categorised as Category D.
So far, so familiar. I had only just been looking at the mechanics underpinning the Index of Priority Places. This is the tool used to inform decisions around allocating the Levelling Up Fund to places across the country. It is based on three criteria – places need for economic recovery and growth, their need for improved transport connectivity, and their need for regeneration. Places at the scale of local authority are then assigned to one of three priorities: Priority One, Priority Two, Priority Three. Those places categorized as Priority One were, according to the rules, more likely to receive funding from the Levelling Up Fund.
But the categorisation of settlements was used differently by Durham County Council back in 1951.
Those places that fell into Category D were to be cut off from support for the council. In the rather bland, official language of the 1951 Durham County Plan:
“Many of the rows of houses which grew up around the pitheads have outlived their usefulness. As the uneconomic pits close and coal working is concentrated in more economic workings, a gradual regrouping of population should take place. Indeed the very reason for the existence of some of these small and isolated places will disappear completely and new development and redevelopment in some of the better placed settlements will not only be better adjusted to the future pattern of employment opportunity but will also offer better living conditions than ever before to many of the inhabitants.’”
Rather than extra funding pots opening up to support these places, they were seen to be no longer economically viable, and the decision was taken to cut them off and let the communities wither as people moved away to more successful places in search of work.
An article published in Planning Perspectives provided more information including the fact that the 1951 County Plan categorised 114 of the county’s 357 settlements – or nearly a third of all settlements – in Category D. For these settlements, applications to Durham County Council to build council housing would be turned down and the powers-that-be saw no future for them.
The revised Durham County Plan of 1964 continued with this policy, but split Category D into two new categories: “no development but the settlement would continue to exist” and “no development and rapid clearance of existing property.” The list of affected places increased to 121.
It was only in 1977 – the Queen’s silver jubilee year – that the policy ended when Durham County Council decided to encourage investment in villages that had previously been categorised as Category D.
As a result of the policy, a number of the Category D villages were obliterated and no longer exist, having been either bulldozed or becoming sites for open-cast mining. Other villages were reprieved, either through organised resistance from their community, or because of complications in how the local authorities could acquire the houses for demolition. Unlike the slum clearances taking place in urban areas across the country, there were no plans in place to re-use the sites for housing, and so the same procedures could not be applied. However, those that remain, do so against the backdrop of nearly 30 years with no investment in their basic infrastructure.
It is no surprise that work by Local Trust and OCSI to inform the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods noted that, alongside the outlying housing estates in Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, “the highest concentrations [of ‘left-behind’ areas in the North-East] are found in former mining communities around County Durham and Northumberland Coast.”
Whilst the story of Durham’s Category D villages is associated with a specific time and place, and notably with places reliant on a single industry, jumping forward to 2022 – and the Queen’s platinum jubilee year – what can we learn from Durham’s Category D villages?
Places are more than just units of economic production. Durham County Council’s policy of assessing mining villages purely through their economic output missed out on the importance of communities to people. Whilst the theory of people moving to where the work is may appear seductive. In practice, things are not that simple. People having connections with the places that they come from may be stronger than the economic consequences of staying put.
Equally, the structure of the economy is always changing, and with it the fortunes of places. Perhaps rather than writing places off, policymakers need to work with places that are at risk of extinction to ensure that they can benefit from any future changes to the economy. Co-ordination and investment for the future are key. Think, for example, of the Italian hilltop settlements so well-known by students of the Italian renaissance that were seen as economically redundant in the first half of the twentieth century before a growing appreciation of the culture and history saw a boom in tourism in the second half of the century.
In some ways, the Levelling Up White Paper takes this into account, seeing levelling up as a mission that is “part economic, part social, part moral” and identifying the pivotal role that pride in place needs to take in achieving any of its goals. Yet at the same time, places have been categorised using a relatively blunt set of criteria for funding streams such as the Levelling Up Fund. And the question still remains whether a focus on pride in place, without a clear definition or set of measures, will be able to remain given what is likely to be a worsening economic position.
Places matter to people. As the article in Planning Perspectives describes, once places were categorised as ‘Category D’ their inhabitants rallied around to support their homes and communities. An argument could be made that one of the main drivers of pride in place at a local level are the pressures from changes imposed upon people. The role of protest and opposition in pride in place – be that in Category D villages, along the route of HS2 or against local developments – is one that can not be ignored. But equally, it is not clear how it could be harnessed.
Places still matter to people. Heritage is important. Whilst outside of the North-East there may be little memory of the Category D villages, people are still engaging with the impact that they have on communities. Alongside the EP by LYR there is also a concert at Durham Cathedral, a short film setting out the background to the project, as well as a play by Durham-based playwright Christina Castling which is touring round a number of the one-time Category D villages.
The importance of heritage to pride is something that chimes with the findings of a recent report by Public First. The report found that working class residents of six towns and small cities in the North and West Midlands have a “a strong, palpable, desire to foster a connection with their industrial history . . . people instinctively understood that developing that link could play a very important role in rebuilding a distinct sense of civic pride in the places that they live.” Connecting this sense of heritage could therefore be a way in which policymakers can work with communities to develop a sense of their future opportunities.
Finally, the example of Durham’s Category D villages sets out the human scale of change. The impact of decisions made 70 years ago are still being felt by communities today. And those decisions themselves were taken in the light of events – the mining of the West Durham coalfields – that started in earnest 70 years before that.
Perhaps ‘three score year and ten’ is the timeframe against which decisions should be measured rather than the short-term timescales often associated with policy pronouncements, or even the medium-term timescales of initiatives such as levelling up that look forward over the forthcoming decade.
Image source: National Library of Scotland