Crumbling Britain: thousands like my elderly aunt suffer as the public realm decays

The first in a New Statesman series examining the reality of the age of austerity – and how it is affecting people’s lives.

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My mother’s eldest sister has lived in the same modest house in Potter Street, on the edges of Harlow, in Essex, for more than 50 years. Auntie Connie, as I call her, will celebrate her 90th birthday in May and is very much the family matriarch. She is lucid and moral and has a deep sense of history as well as an instinct for fair play. A lifelong Labour voter, she is also respectful of her local MP, Robert Halfon, an advocate of “white van conservatism”. (There are no Labour MPs left in Essex and every district in the county voted for Brexit.) She has lived in Harlow since 1953, having been attracted there in the early days of the new town by the opportunities it offered to those escaping the bomb-ruined streets of east London.

The original village of Harlow (renamed Old Harlow) is mentioned in the Domesday Book. This and other long-established settlements – Potter Street, Parndon, Netteswell, Tye Green, Latton, Churchgate Street – were subsumed by the chief architect-planner Frederick Gibberd into his urban master-plan after the town was created by the Attlee government’s 1946 New Towns Act. Over the ensuing decades, these settlements were built on and around, developed, expanded but not erased or demolished. Even today, Potter Street, though in need of much regeneration, retains something of the character of a village.

I know Potter Street well because we lived there in a rented maisonette and then in a council house for the first six years of my life, before my parents bought their first property on a quiet cul-de-sac elsewhere in the town. My first school was a short walk from Connie’s house. The local doctors’ surgery was located at Osler House in Prentice Place shopping precinct – we could see its imposing front door from the window of our maisonette – and it was there that we would visit our austere family doctor; back then there were still family doctors, which meant continuity of care was possible.

In Gibberd’s original master-plan each discrete settlement or neighbourhood in the town had its own self-supporting infrastructure: a shopping precinct, community facilities, a pub (invariably named after a butterfly or moth), a GP surgery, a sub-post office, and so on. But like much of the town these neighbourhood communities suffered from neglect and underfunding. Prentice Place is no exception: once vibrant, today it is desolate and run-down. And in late February the West Essex Clinical Commissioning Group announced that Osler House is to close, leaving as many as 3,000 people scrambling to find a doctor.

Residents were especially outraged that there was no advance consultation or warning before they were sent letters dated 21 February informing them that Osler House would close on 30 April. It was a fait accompli. No questions asked, please. Nor was Robert Halfon or the district council consulted before the decision was taken. The GP surgery is run and operated by a private company, The Practice Group.

Osler House patients were advised to register at surgeries at Bush Fair or Church Langley: but both areas are inaccessible to Connie and many other elderly residents like her; to reach the Church Langley Medical Practice my aunt would have to take four separate buses – at the age of 90!

I discovered what had happened in an email titled “Go on, Connie!”. I opened it and clicked on the accompanying link to a video that featured my aunt being interviewed outside Osler House. In the video – which went viral – she expresses outrage at the decision. You can see she is close to tears so deep is her frustration.

When we spoke, she was as angry as I’d ever heard her. “It is an absolute disgrace,” she said. “And the whole thing has been so underhand. Why was a private company running our local GP surgery and allowed to close it down? Why was there no consultation? We are still hoping to reverse the decision – but we are fighting giants.”

Connie has always believed passionately in Harlow and in the ideal of the egalitarian state; from the beginning, she believed in the bright promise of the new town, in what it represented, how and why it was created, its mission. She stayed on when nearly everyone else in our extended family left the town, some of us alarmed by decline.

Robert Halfon has called the closure of Osler House “a terrible and short-sighted decision”. He is correct. It is also symbolic of a deeper countrywide malaise. For in every town and city people are experiencing what Connie and the residents of Potter Street have experienced: the arbitrary closure, with scant consultation and concern for the consequences, of essential community services – doctors’ surgeries, child centres, libraries, post offices. The public realm is decaying. Central government funding for local authorities has been reduced in real terms by 49 per cent since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (by 2020, the figure is estimated to be 77 per cent). Even where I live in the leafy shires, the roads are breaking up and potholed; the schools are over-subscribed; one of the nearby hospitals was until recently in “special measures”; the doctors’ surgeries are over-stretched; Sure Start child centres are closing. This is the reality of Crumbling Britain in the age of austerity – and in the coming weeks we will publish a series of articles about what is going on and how it is affecting people’s lives.

What invariably kills Tory governments, in the end, is private affluence and public squalor. Today too few Conservatives are sufficiently conservative: they seldom speak of the value of community, of the shared institutions that bind us together and give purpose, dignity and meaning to our lives. And so, Britain crumbles. 

Jason Cowley’s essay on Harlow and the Brexit Murder is published in the next edition of Granta magazine

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge