Hebden Bridge: a hippie idyll scarred by heroin

Despite the weather, this town in Yorkshire is routinely listed as one of the most desirable locations to live in Britain.

The locals call it “valley bottom fever”. It’s that growing feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia that comes from spending too long in a town that sits in the narrowing throat of a steep-sided Pennine valley. The fever heightens as autumn sets in and the clouds go scudding over Calderdale at speed and the old rain-worn flagstones of Hebden Bridge become slick with ankle-threatening algae. The overwhelming urge to take flight takes hold – to the dark moors above, to a foreign beach, to anywhere. And if you do you’ll pass the incomers – the “blow-ins” or “offcumdens” – heading up to the hills on the promise of fresh air and cheaper living.

Despite the inclement weather, Hebden Bridge is routinely listed as one of the most desirable locations to live in Britain. There’s certainly plenty going for it: dramatic countryside, a creative community, a fiercely independent streak that favours small businesses over high-street chains. There are one-off places such as the intimate Trades Club, a former working men’s club that has hosted over-subscribed gigs by Patti Smith and the Fall and was voted one of NME’s best small venues; or the sole record shop, Muse Music, where you won’t find a single Miley Cyrus album but there are Magma and Mahavishnu Orchestra releases in abundance.

But Hebden Bridge is also a place of contradictions and controversies. An online search reveals headlines ranging from “Fourth funkiest town in the world” to “Why has Hebden Bridge become Suicide Central?”. Per capita, Hebden Bridge is the gay (specifically lesbian) capital of Britain, yet the MP is a Conservative, Craig Whittaker, who in 2012 argued against legalising same-sex marriage.

Hebden is a stronghold of anarchists, hippies, feminists, punks, socialists, Marxists and free thinkers – a place where freedom of speech and expression is encouraged. Yet when a woman called Heidi Bang Tidy announced her forthcoming burlesque festival at the local (community-owned) cinema via a banner, someone hastily put up another one beneath it retorting “MIDDLE CLASS POLE DANCING”. Meanwhile, one of Hebden Bridge Times’s columnists was, at least until recently, local lad and Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham. He was finally dropped earlier this year after a petition drew attention to the fact he has always refused to apologise for comments he made in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. That said, once likening the town to Sodom and Gomorrah can’t have helped his cause. And the fact he filed his copy from Surrey.

The modern incarnation of Hebden Bridge was founded on a spirit of resistance. As the textile industry declined, by the late 1960s many houses became uninhabited. Soot marked the town that Ted Hughes described in his poem “Stubbing Wharfe” as “this gloomy memorial of a valley” and “a gruesome dead-end tunnel”. But the bohemians took advantage of the situation and a burgeoning community of creatives from Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and beyond gradually moved in to squat the derelict properties. They took over entire streets and saved them from demolition. They baked vegan flapjacks, opened Steiner schools and attended laughter therapy workshops. Some of them gained positions of power. Consequently Hebden is now a green town.

It is a place of poetry, too. Hughes was born a mile down the road in Mytholmroyd and his first wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried a short, steep hill climb away up in Heptonstall: the “Hughes” part of her headstone has frequently been chiselled off by those who believe the former poet laureate’s philandering contributed to Plath’s suicide. Hughes’s house at Lumb Bank, which he once described as “an eyrie over the crevasse of trees and water”, is now a residential writing school run by the Arvon Foundation.

The rural hippie idyll is only half the story. Hebden Bridge is also full of families who go back generations, whose stories are less likely to be told in broadsheets supplements or property programmes. And there are darker sides to the town, too: every autumn, posters appeal for information concerning the 13-year-old Lindsay Jo Rimer, whose body was found battered and weighted down in the canal five months after she disappeared one damp November night in 1993. As her mother, Geri Rimer, said in 1999, “It happened in this community – it still affects this community – and I believe that someone from this community did this to Lindsay.”

Some might also argue that the relaxed approach to child-rearing and the proliferation of recreational narcotics among previous generations have led to drink and drug problems in the town. Alongside Plath are buried young men who have died of heroin overdoses. It’s a subject covered in the filmmaker Jez Lewis’s 2009 documentary Shed Your Tears and Walk Away. Many locals were irked by the documentary’s portrait of – as one teenager put it – “a drug town with a tourist problem” but Lewis only shot what he saw. The film was prompted by the director’s repeated returns to the town to attend funerals of friends who had died prematurely. The problems in Hebden Bridge are those of any post-industrial town, but perhaps the utopian backdrop illuminates them more dramatically.

Ultimately, there is no black and white in Hebden Bridge. It is a town of modern ideas and problems lived out among the skeletal, stony remains of past industries. It represents an England in perpetual transition.

Snow Covers The Yorkshire Pennines. Photo: Getty.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.