It is poverty not migration that is changing the nature of Britain’s towns and cities.
If you want to feel and smell austerity, go to Hatfield – in leafy Hertfordshire, with the rolling hills that EM Forster loved. It provides a microcosm of the changing social geography of Britain today. Hatfield was, until the 1990s, a fairly prosperous town with British Aerospace providing over 7,000 jobs. Now it is a pain of nothingness, boasting the Galleria, an outlet mall on a dual carriageway, the University of Hertfordshire and a clutch of redevelopment plans. And poverty-stricken Hatfield has also become multi-ethnic – and all of a sudden.
There are, in fact, three Hatfields: to the east, the small ‘Old Hatfield’ of Olde English charm with its genteel quaint old houses, the pub where Dickens got the idea for Oliver Twist and a beautiful church clustered around the Marquis of Salisbury’s Hatfield House. Then there is, to the west, Hatfield Business Park on the former British Aerospace land, owned and developed by the private company Goodman which claims it has created 10,000 jobs and built 2,000 homes, Europe’s largest Health and Racquets club, a police station and a University campus. And then there is Hatfield proper in the centre, built up from the 1930s when de Havilland opened its aircraft factory which developed into a New Town as British Aerospace flourished – and then died. It is a maze of anonymous streets, many roundabouts and few dispersed facilities. For everything hinges on the purpose built central shopping centre which is now a desolate pedestrianised howl.
Many high streets are succumbing to the charity shop and the nail bar. But Hatfield can hardly boast even that. Look around its central square. The shop fronts which are not boarded up are few and far between. One belongs to Smarty – selling very cheap school uniforms, another to Beaujanglez -‘giving back to the community’ but in fact selling second-hand goods. Others are asking for your used silver and gold, another sells end of line furniture – ‘stock lines change every week’. The post office is now set back and behind heavy security, so almost impossible to locate. Boots, too, one of the only chain-stores to grace Hatfield, is behind heavy shutters, more fortress than welcoming family chemist.
The outdoor market was always down-market but at least it was vibrant. Now it houses stalls of house clearance items, or a mishmash of out of date cheap food, batteries and garish fleece blankets. And in the soulless windswept area remains just one traditional greengrocer with the loud London melodic bawl, ‘get your taters here, carrots, collies, come on ladies, one pand a pand.’ And who are the ladies? They are African, Asian, Middle-Eastern and, if white, well past middle-age.
In the course of three years the complexion of Hatfield has completely changed. In part this is due to the University of Hertfordshire expanding and becoming the biggest employer in the town and attracting a large proportion of its students from overseas. In part it is the fact that Hatfield’s depressed housing market has attracted new migrants desperate for a home and appealed to local authorities finding places for asylum seekers. Whatever the cause, the irony is that it is now the newcomers who are shoring up Hatfield’s town centre.
There is a newly-opened eastern European food shop selling to Lithuanians, Romanians and Bulgarians where the pound shop used to be. There are two Polish supermarkets. There is now a shop catering for South Indian and African tastes next to a boarded up Smarty in the empty square, opposite the new African unisex hair salon. There are three new shops with hand-written signs drawing your eye to the fact they have halal meat. And there are two well-lit newly-fitted-out ‘oriental’ supermarkets selling fresh food and dry goods from China, Korea, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand. The signs of regeneration are coming from Hatfield’s new BME communities.
But poverty brings with it its own hierarchies of antagonism. There are reported incidents of students being attacked at night. A blog on ‘The worst things in Hatfield’, which encourages people to moan, reveals a depressing litany of dislikes. The students hate the locals for their attitudes, the locals hate the students for being messy and letting houses run down, the students blame their rapacious landlords, some locals blame the asylum seekers, others complain about the Gypsies gathering in the swimming pool car park, drug dealers and schoolgirl prostitutes are said to have made the central square unsafe. But in the offline world, there seems to be a kind of acceptance, that we are all in this quagmire together. This is still a strongly Labour area, no rightwing party has as yet made political capital out of Hatfield.
There is much talk and much written about ‘white flight’ these days, of communities being ‘taken over’ and natives feeling aliens in their own land. The implication is that whites leave an area because foreigners are moving in. But that flies in the face of the reality: it is economic blight that causes white flight. And it is when whites have flown that ‘foreigners’ move in to the interstices of a decaying local economy where services are declining and the future is bleak.
And economic blight – or uneven development – is the other side of the coin of globalisation. Take a closer look at Hatfield. The death blow to its centre was dealt when Walmart moved in during the 1990s – with its bright, modern 24-hour Asda superstore and huge car park. (And it is Asda and two Tesco stores within a few miles of Hatfield that provide the newly arrived students and refugees with jobs at £5.83 per hour rising to £6.03 after 26 weeks – just above the minimum wage.) According to national Tory chairman and local MP Grant Shapps, Hatfield ‘is at the heart of a jobs revolution… twenty years ago it all looked very bleak. Today we’re a showcase for business success.’ But the much-vaunted 11,156 jobs in the new global industries’ business park are not by and large, and apart from Ocado’s distribution centre, going to locals at all. It is unlikely they would have the skills needed for twenty-first century high-tech businesses. These companies such as Pitney Bowes, PLC Logistics, Computacentre and Henkel usually bring their staff with them anyway. And the new housing built on the site is not going to local people either but to middle-class professionals who either work in the new jobs sector or commute from west Hatfield to jobs in St Albans or Watford; they are out of the reach of locals.
As one part of Hatfield thrives, another part appears to be being systematically disembowelled – and not just by private enterprise. The central Hertfordshire library hub and reference centre has just been relocated from south Hatfield to Welwyn Garden City. The local Tory-controlled Welwyn-Hatfield Council stands accused of funnelling funds to provide services in nearby leafy Welwyn Garden City at the expense of Hatfield. A letter to the St Albans and Harpenden Review makes the point: ‘ I find it incredible that the Council can justify … pampering WGC when Hatfield is virtually a “special needs case” … the Hatfield area is rated as the largest for children living in poverty throughout Hertfordshire!’. A recent study revealed that a segment of Hatfield Central was in the top 20 per cent of nationally deprived wards. According to the Lib-Dem candidate for Hatfield South, the deprivation is much worse than figures suggest because the presence of the students actually ‘dilutes’ the statistics and hides Hatfield’s problems.
Hatfield is hidden and not just literally hidden away by the A1 rushing on one side and the mainline train to Scotland on the other. It is hidden because we have not caught up with the way world forces are shaping realities on the ground and turning once viable industrial towns into today’s global wasteland.
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Read an IRR News story: ‘Learning the lessons of dispersal‘