In Middlesbrough lies a paradox. A plaque on the slate-grey paving stones of the north-east English town’s public square says: “No public right of way.”
Centre Square, beside the municipal magnificence of a huge Victorian gothic townhall, is now the domain of architects and property developers. The home of the big Christmas lights switch-on each year, and where kids splash in fountains during summer scorchers, is now sold as a “21st-century business destination”.
Incipient glass and steel, an injection of gloss into a patchily regenerating Teesside, overlooks a quirkier hunk of public realm in the corner. The Bottle of Notes, a nine-metre message-in-a-bottle made of looping white steel letters, is pitched as if washed up on the sand. It’s a Nineties nod to Middlesbrough’s steel-making and ship-building heritage.
This square is the only major open green space in the centre of a town the size of a city. Residents remember the A66 flyover, constructed in 1985, slicing through the town centre – carving up its historic quarter and laying waste to the red-brick Royal Exchange building.
If Victorian industrial heft led William Gladstone to christen it an “infant Hercules” on an 1862 visit, Middlesborough has had its fair share of labours since. In 2019 it ranked as Britain’s most deprived town and it still has some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. As with the north-east as a whole, the majority (almost two-thirds) voted for Brexit, and it developed a reputation as one of England’s “left behind” towns.
Just when we thought every reason for the EU referendum result had been considered, new thinking is surfacing about another, quieter trend. As the Labour Party proposes a “Take Back Control Bill”, stealing the Brexit campaign’s language to sell its plan to transfer power from Whitehall to the regions, focus is turning to what local areas have lost.
“Places to meet” are the top thing people in 225 “left behind” neighbourhoods (which feel they have fewer resources than elsewhere) say they lack. This was put above the need for more jobs, housing, transport and healthcare in a poll by Survation of areas identified by the Local Trust organisation.
Charts by Giacomo Boscaini-Gilroy
A majority, 57 per cent, said they would like more “places to meet”. The loss of community spaces where people can meet for free – rather than buying a coffee or drink – might sound trivial, yet it appears to be the most palpable change in day-to-day life since the austerity years compelled councils to sell off public buildings.
[See also: The Tories retreat to the South]
Private money has moved in to take over, with mixed effects. “With these new buildings, they’re trying to curate a new image of Middlesbrough around this square,” said Andy Falconer, 39, a community development worker who grew up here, gesturing around the square as rain slapped the shoulders of his blue waterproof. “But who is it for?”
The irony, he has found, is that while people have fewer free spaces to gather in, many buildings sit empty. Vacancy levels in Middlesbrough town centre are at 20 per cent, according to a council source. The UK average is 4.7 per cent.
It’s not just here. Persistent vacancy rates in “Red Wall” towns – constituencies that made a historic switch from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 – are far higher than the national average, according to data seen by the New Statesman from the Power to Change charity for community businesses.
To reclaim Middlesborough’s lost spaces, Falconer has opened eight “public living rooms”. They spread over the town, from empty shopping centre units to a disused printworks to the alleyway behind terraces. The first, in 2010, was an abandoned pew found outside a church. “People are looking for connection, especially when times are hard,” said Falconer. “There’s not much in the town centre for them.”
Some of his spaces are lent by landlords for free or for a peppercorn rent, while others are already owned by the community. The Exchange, a former shoe shop between Cooplands bakery and a bubble tea place, was an empty unit offered at no cost from the shopping centre. It was transformed into a bright room of bunting, fairy lights and colourful throws. Children played with Lego and colouring pens while their parents had a break from shopping; pensioners chatted over slices of cake and played backgammon. A woman picked away at a guitar in the corner. Everyone had a cup of tea on the go. Regulars said it was helpful to have a place just to be.
This was just one of 125 public living rooms across the country run by locals but part of a network called Camerados, founded in 2016 by Maff Potts, a former New Labour government housing policy adviser who also worked at the charities Crisis and Samaritans. Having slept rough in his past himself, Potts had become disillusioned with the typical efforts to help people.
“Over 20 years of working with people who had very tough lives, using very traditional approaches, I just felt it didn’t work; it felt soul-destroying, like 20 years of failure,” he told me over the phone. “I needed to try something else.
“Two things I realised seemed to work, which we never, ever talked about or provided or discussed in the services I ran, were friends and purpose. In our conversations, they all wanted to talk about the people in their life, and what gets them up in the morning.”
He applied this ethos – “what if Samaritans ran Starbucks?” – to the first public living room in 2016, a former undertaker’s garage in Sheffield. “We got the coffee on in the mortuary, and then we put a blackboard outside that said: ‘Top five David Bowie songs: come in and argue.’ It worked a treat. If we’d put a sign outside that said ‘isolation and loneliness café’ we wouldn’t have had the same reaction. It’s all about language.”
When a public living room in Rotherham hospital changed its sign from “Put your feet up” to “It’s time to talk #mentalhealthawarenessweek”, its daily visitors plummeted from 1,000 to 40.
Now, funded by trusts and foundations, Camerados gets ten requests for public living room starter packs (which always include fairy lights) a week – triple the number it did in 2021. The rising cost of living is causing a “cost-of-connection crisis”, in Potts’s words: people have less money to socialise. Volunteers who set up public living rooms must find and secure the spaces themselves, and aren't paid.
“In a growing number of communities, the need for spaces and places to meet and form connections is being met by community organisations, which step in where local authorities and the private sector have withdrawn,” said Nick Plumb, head of policy at Power to Change. Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, has adopted this organisation’s call for a “community right to buy”: now a Labour policy to give communities first refusal on local assets up for sale, like pubs, historic buildings and football clubs.
Britain does not have a single area targeted by levelling up, the Conservative government’s pledge to rebalance the economy, where residents feel their surroundings have improved in recent years. Tangible improvements to public space are an electoral necessity. As the desire for “places to meet” beats bigger infrastructure improvements in these places, a political space has opened up too.
[See also: Where next for levelling up?]