The row over the New York Times’s depiction of austerity Britain misses the point

A serious discussion about the real, human impact of cuts should involve local people, not faraway ideologues. 

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Prescot, a town of 11,000 in Knowsley, Merseyside, is an unlikely flashpoint for a transatlantic row over fiscal policy. Yesterday saw just that.

A New York Times report on the impact of austerity on Britain – a theme the NS is covering with our Crumbling Britain series – chose Prescot  as its main case study, along with Liverpool and Knowsley as a whole, and painted a bleak picture of a public realm gutted by cuts.

PRESCOT, England — A walk through this modest town in the northwest of England amounts to a tour of the casualties of Britain’s age of austerity.

The old library building has been sold and refashioned into a glass-fronted luxury home. The leisure center has been razed, eliminating the public swimming pool. The local museum has receded into town history. The police station has been shuttered.

Now, as the local government desperately seeks to turn assets into cash, Browns Field, a lush park in the center of town, may be doomed, too. At a meeting in November, the council included it on a list of 17 parks to sell to developers.

Sobering stuff. Or is it? Almost as soon as the report was published, the backlash began. Christopher Snowdon, of the free market Institute for Economic Affairs think tank, tweeted that he sensed a “strong smell of bullshit” from the report’s opening paragraphs.

In a thread of tweets later fleshed out by the Spectator, Snowdon seemingly debunked the description offered by the NYT (though, unsurprisingly, nobody has thought to offer the same treatment to, say, the description of benefits assessments later in the piece).  

He contended that a "brand new police station was opened in Prescot in January, alongside a new fire station”, noted that "the museum moved to a new location in 2012” with its site being requistioned for a £26m Shakespeare playhouse; claimed its library was still open on the grounds that it was "tweeting two days ago and I doubt it has closed in the meantime", and flagged that the leisure centre two miles away in Huyton was "fully open with two swimming pools”.

Plenty of people on the right were delighted to see the case for the prosecution demolished so comprehensively. Some familiar with the area also objected to the presentation of Prescot – even those who agreed with the NYT’s core argument, namely that austerity had been bad for the town.

But others said Snowdon’s rejoinder was itself inaccurate. Prescot’s library and museum, for instance, have both been moved to a smaller site in its shopping centre, where it serves communities who have lost their own libraries. The same is true of the new police and fire station, and the town’s leisure centre hasn’t been replaced like-for-like, despite the presence of the well-appointed facility in Huyton.

So who of Snowdon and Peter S Goodman, the NYT economics correspondent who wrote the piece, is right? The answer is neither – and both. And therein lies the problem.

Neither man is local: Goodman for obvious reasons, while Snowdon said he had not visited Prescot for 25 years and instead cited “this thing called the internet where you find local services and discover, for example, that Prescot police station is not shuttered”.  Nor can either of them be said to be really drawing on lived experience of austerity in Prescot, for which a few minutes’ Googling or day visiting is no substitute.

A serious discussion about the real, human impact of cuts can’t and shouldn’t be litigated like this, with faraway places used as footballs by people working backwards from more or less static ideological premises. It’s the voices and experiences of local people that matter – but with places like Prescot less and less likely to have dedicated media of their own, amplifying them is ever more difficult.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.