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'Rotting From the Inside': Will Austerity Swing the Vote in This Midlands Town?

A decade of decay has seen Northamptonshire Council go bankrupt, but will cuts to public services decide the election in this marginal seat?
03 December 2019, 9:45am
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Father Oliver Coss.

“He who rules Northampton, rules England.”

These are the words of the rector of Northampton All Saints parish church, Father Oliver Coss, who I meet during a visit earlier this week. The town has recently become an unlikely subject of reports in The Nation and The New York Times, which describe it as a “flashing red light” warning for the dangers of austerity. Austerity measures imposed by the government have led to the effective bankruptcy of the Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council – even local Conservative MP Andrew Lewer concedes that the failure was at least the partly caused by "national drivers" of austerity imposed by his own party.

Local authority spending has been stripped back to all-but the basic legal requirements, with transport subsidies, library services, elderly care, disability care, domestic violence support and early-warning monitoring systems for at-risk children reduced to a bare minimum. The impact on local communities has been extreme, with claims made this summer that the town now contains some 14,000 children living in poverty.

Coss and his church have been at the front line in helping to support residents, providing shelter, food banks and mental health support. There have been reports of campsite communities pitching up in the graveyard of the church, and of local thugs pissing on them and setting fire to them. At one time, Coss claims there were 11 tents in the graveyard of his church alone. This is a town that has always held the respectable associations of the commuter belt, been a centre of local farming and agriculture communities and is situated between a some illustrious stately homes. Its descent shows that nowhere is safe from the scourge of austerity.

Despite the hardship, Father Coss is emphatic about the town’s significance and contextualises its place on the electoral map as part of its long history: “The Vikings knew that if they could just capture Northampton then they would be in a strategic position to hold the country,” he says. “In in our own era, it’s not just its central location and connectivity, but how typical it is of the country, which makes Northampton such a bellwether for parliamentary elections.”

On 12th December, Northampton could well prove crucial. In 2017, the Conservative candidate Andrew Lewer won the southern constituency by 1,159 votes, while Conservative MP Michael Ellis retained the north constituency by just 807 votes. These are key marginals that Labour will be looking to claim.

Eamon "Fitzy" Fitzgerald: "There’s a homelessness problem here, and clearly we haven’t got enough houses to fit everyone."

Talking to people around the town however, it’s clear that the political mood is divided. Outside the church stands a large market square, where business is slow. We meet Eamon Fitzgerald, or Fitzy, the town’s most outspoken green grocer and a former Green Party candidate for local councillor. He laments the broader decline of local commerce, pointing to the shopping centre nearby which stands almost half empty. He’s undecided how he’ll vote, as is his son. Yet on a notice board hung at the end of his stall, handwritten signs rail against the rise of Boris Johnson and the inability of parliament to enact Brexit. “I’m not a racist,” he says. “I rely on eastern European people to run my stall. But there’s a homelessness problem here, and clearly we haven’t got enough houses to fit everyone.”

The view from shoppers is equally ambivalent. A mum, her friend and her 21-year old son tell us they’re dissatisfied with life in Northampton, scared to go out after dark because of fights breaking out. “We need to educate ourselves about who to vote for,” Jodie Stamps tells us, while her son, Danny shakes his head.

“I don’t believe in politics,” he says, “everyone in power is just looking out for themselves.” At the butcher stand next door, the vote is firmly for the Conservatives. “I’ve always voted Tory,” says Sean Walters, while his colleague, Graham Jackson, nods his head. “Me too.” Whatever their political leanings, everyone we meet is united by a sense of dissatisfaction and anger.

A handwritten sign about Brexit on Fitzy's notice board.

Down the road, the town’s library has been rebranded a Library Plus. Here you can do a variety of tasks, like paying your bus pass or registering a death. We’re told to avoid the main reception area where the grieving can be found, preforming tasks that would have otherwise been the purview of a local registrar’s office. In the next room, a large group of new mothers can be found breast-feeding.

In 2015, Northamptonshire Library and Information Service LibraryPlus moved into a Wellbeing Community Interest Company (CIC). It is now part of the Public Health and Wellbeing Directorate of the council, and – in addition to providing books – is also required to perform several public health roles, including practical support to young mothers and those suffering from dementia. Despite this, the council had nevertheless planned to close a further 21 libraries across the county, leaving just one library for every 60,000 residents (the European average is one library per 16,000). The plans were found to be unlawful by the High Court. The libraries remain open for now, but they’re nevertheless struggling with limited stock and limited computer services.

At a table in the far corner sits Noel York, an older man and art history enthusiast who laments the library’s waning supply of reference books. “I’ve always used the library to educate myself and learn about the world,” he says. “But these days I mostly go to Bedford Library where they have a bigger collection and public wifi.”

"Rat Island" in Northampton.

Father Coss had told us about a patch of land to the north of the city centre sandwiched between two main roads and more recently christened “Rat Island” – a disparaging reference to the homeless community who had been living there and a purported outbreak of vermin. We pass by it, as well as a series of boarded-up buildings along Sheep Street, on our way to the Hope Centre. This homeless charity is mentioned by almost everybody we meet in the town as a fundamental pillar of the community, and a backstop in saving the lives of some of the town’s most vulnerable. We meet the organisation’s CEO, Robin Burgess.

“We are no longer just a homeless charity,” he explains. “We are very much a wider poverty, disadvantage, austerity charity. There are about a 100 rough sleepers in the town centre, but there are a lot more homeless people than that. About 80 of those sleeping rough come into our centre every day; and that’s augmented by another 50 or so who are disadvantaged in other ways – either pre-homeless or post-homeless – or just poor. I ran the drug services here in Northampton all through the 90s and I’ve lived here ever since. Things have gotten much worse recently. It is testament to 10 years of austerity that the town is gradually rotting from the inside.”

I ask if either of the local MPs have been down to visit Hope since the last election.

“Not that I can recall,” Robin says.

Robin Burgess, CEO of the Hope Centre.

Civil society, charities and the church are clearly being tasked to keep people alive and provide the services that are no longer being provided by the state. And it’s obvious that they’re struggling. Hope receives just £5,000 a year from the council. For the rest, it relies on public donations.

“You can visibly see the deprivation and the degradation of the Northampton urban environment and the people within that,” Robin explains. “We are busier than ever before. We can’t seat people. And the numbers showing up are proof of the savage failures of the state and the incompetence of the local authority. All services – social care services, children’s services, education services – are in a state of complete free-fall.”

“I think the politicians around here often feel let down because they’ve done a lot of the government’s dirty work for them,” Father Coss explains. “They’ve taken their medicine, they’ve been austere, and they’ve made their people bleed and hurt, and at the end of it, because of the various somersaults that Whitehall did after 2015, there was nothing left for them.”

“It’s a parable for our modern times that deal makers are not the only people we need, we need people who can govern while actually giving a shit about people.”

A notice on a door at Conservative Association club in Northampton.

Before we leave, we make one final stop at the constituency office of Northampton North MP, Michael Ellis. Ellis is the former Minister for Libraries and oversaw the proposal for their closures in Northampton. I have been unable to secure an interview with him despite making several enquiries by email and phone. When I arrive at the office door, which sits on the first floor above the Conservative Association club, a young man in a Barbour jacket greets me. He explains that Ellis is unavailable, and that his office will not be passing comment on the issues facing the residents of Northampton North, where he hopes to retain his seat. I am told to leave before having the chance to ask any further questions – not by the main entrance where I came from, but by the fire exit and down a row of metal steps into the carpark where a St. George’s flag stands tall against the fading light of a cold and bitter afternoon.

A relatively quiet commuter town and once the heart of the British cobbling industry, Northampton has nevertheless become one of the most newsworthy and relevant regions to this election. How it votes on 12th December might just be, as Father Coss claims, a symbol of where Britain is headed in the years to come.

@nrolah / @theomcinnes

Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.

Correction: This article previously stated that Hope receives £5,000 from the National Lottery. In fact it receives this money from the council.