Report: Ten Towns – Northampton: a view from the middle

Northampton is right in the middle of English society. Its location makes it a conduit between larger population centres, which provides the basis for many of its industries. In income, crime rate, and educational attainment it’s close to the national average. Both constituencies within the town, and all of the others within Northamptonshire, voted to leave, with around 60% of residents voting to divorce the EU. Here is a summary of the findings from our first fact-finding trip to the town in December:

 

There are economic clouds on the horizon…

Some major local manufacturers like Carlsberg, who export heavily to the European market, are waiting to see what the negotiations bring, but would be threatened by reductions in trade opportunities. The distribution industry, particularly strong in Northampton because of its location between major regions of England, would be harmed by decreases in trading volumes as well.

 

Until recently, inter-communal relations were good…

There is a large Polish community dating from the 1940’s that remains well respected, and takes a prominent place in the town’s Remembrance day commemorations. However, new arrivals from eastern Europe have been perceived very differently. Some residents report anti-social behaviour (some based on linguistic and cultural differences) and sometimes a link to organised crime.

In the communal spaces of some large workplaces – in warehousing, for example – there is effectively a Polish table, a Lithuanian table, a Romanian table, an English table, etc. Little genuine mixing took place with new economic migrants, with predictable harm to their integration into the broader local community.

 

Neither a big city nor a small town…

Northampton inhabits a space somewhere between the bustle and flexibility of a city and the tight-knit community of a small town. Companies often test out products there because it is fairly typical of the UK. But the downside of this is a sense of mediocrity and a corresponding lowering of ambitions.

 

Issues around identity seem to have played a big role…

In some deprived areas, the ‘Leave’ vote appeared to be the obvious default option for many people – something that followed from their patriotic identity. This may be storing up potential conflict for the future, because the simplicity of this equation (patriotism = self-sufficient independence) is incompatible with the complexities that Brexit will actually involve. While there are few signs of anger so far, there is a lot of confusion about why we haven’t left yet.

Some within black and other minority ethnic communities in the town see certain EU rules – e.g. on recruitment – as discriminatory, and are conscious of the need for a renaissance in Britain’s place in the world. Identity-based backlash against social change may have played a role here, too – members of South Asian communities joined white British locals in anger when a local curry house trumpeted their progressive hiring of an eastern European chef. These communities – like many others locally – were split in terms of the referendum vote.

 

Living standards are also a significant concern…

The social housing stock locally is reported to have halved, with an increase in short-term private lets and houses of multiple occupancy. This has been harmful to family integrity and creates barriers to strong community connections. Low and stagnant wages are common and – in combination with benefit cuts – have reduced incomes and damaged the economies of already-deprived communities. The distribution industry has also been in the forefront of increasing surveillance and discipline in the workplace. These factors contribute to a sense of economic stagnancy and social decline, fueling alienation.

 

But there is good news!

Some core industries – especially in the traditionally strong leatherworking and footwear industries – have a global reach, and may be able to thrive regardless of the difficulties on the horizon. There is also significant investment in a new University campus closer to the city centre that may provide some momentum to economic and cultural development in the area.

Finally, a wide range of local stakeholders recognise the broader message of the Referendum vote, and the need to understand its drivers fully. The University will be launching a research project with extensive public engagement in early 2017, looking at the Referendum vote, its aftermath, and lessons for democratic practice; CommonGround may be involved in this excellent project as it progresses.