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Pride of place is an economic issue

Civic identity, core to the government’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, relies on investment in public infrastructure.

By Jack Shaw

Policymakers rarely give questions of pride and identity the attention they deserve. When the levelling up white paper was published in February 2022, it claimed that the attachment individuals have to their communities can carry important implications for the social fabric and economic prosperity. A report I co-authored with colleagues at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy came to the same conclusion, though there is often confusion about the ingredients needed to boost pride of place.

Any government that is serious about addressing spatial inequality, therefore, needs to take matters of pride and identity seriously. The state of physical infrastructure can facilitate pride – or hurt it. This has been brought into sharp relief by the prospect that municipal assets are at risk, either through disrepair, closure or disposal. That predates the government’s recent consultation to make it easier for authorities to sell off assets to fill budget shortfalls.

This year Kent County Council has been exploring the prospect of selling off its Grade II County Hall, built in 1824 and designed by Robert Smirke, the architect who designed the facade of the British Museum. Cambridgeshire is selling off Shire Hall, which was its headquarters for almost a century, and comes complete with a bunker in the event of a nuclear attack. Despite knocking down a 19th-century mansion house to build it, Cheshire East also recently closed its HQ, which opened in 2008.

There may be significant municipal architecture in villages, towns and cities across England, but their futures are becoming less certain. Ealing Town Hall – funded by public donations – was established in the late 19th century. Ealing Council’s decision to sell it was thwarted by a tribunal in September, which ruled that it was not satisfied that selling off the building would enable the public to continue to access it.

Elsewhere, there are more encouraging signs. In Leeds, the Grade II-listed Edwardian bathhouse, Bramley Baths, was earmarked for closure a decade ago, until the Friends of Bramley Baths stepped in. It now provides swimming lessons for disabled children and a programme of arts and culture to support youths. The repurposing of postindustrial infrastructure has also created new forms of civic pride, but too often the focus has been on securing a return on investment. This criticism has been levelled at postindustrial parks in the US by the sociologist Kevin Loughran (they are increasingly under private ownership) and the regeneration of city centres in the UK by others.

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In Victorian England the value of municipal assets was understood better than it is today. When Leeds Town Hall was first built in the mid-19th century, the man who oversaw its construction, Yorkshire dignitary John Heaton, described it as “a lasting monument” of the “public spirit” and “generous pride” of the people of Leeds. Heaton spoke of the moral and aesthetic character of municipal architecture. His contemporary, Samuel Smith, mayor of Bradford, was the driving force behind St George’s Hall, now one of the oldest concert halls in the UK, which he described as “the best-known specimen” in England. It was “11 feet wider than the hall at Birmingham” and “exactly the same width as Exeter Hall, London, with greater length and a loftier ceiling”. Municipal architecture was a feature of “place-shaping” and of civic pride rooted in rivalry (unfortunately for Bradfordians, Bradford Town Hall was completed after Leeds Town Hall and Bradford became a city a few years after neighbouring Leeds).

In a similar vein to Heaton, Charles Barry, an architect best known for his role in rebuilding the Palace of Westminster with Augustus Pugin, described the ideal town hall as “the means of giving due expression to public feeling” and serving as the “life and soul” of its city. A ceremony to celebrate the first stone laid in Leeds Town Hall reportedly attracted 60,000 visitors. Municipal architecture was, in short, an expression of local identity in material form. Civic pride, as the historian Asa Briggs has noted, “was having to be paid for in good, hard cash”.

Investing in municipal architecture, as the dignitaries of Leeds and Bradford once did, was in part rooted in patterns of philanthropy that have long changed. Ideas of noblesse oblige, which propelled Victorian philanthropists such as John Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree, have given way. The philanthropists of the 21st century have turned their attention elsewhere. They are rarely rooted to place in the same manner – and how can civic pride be nurtured without sustained levels of such local investment, whether through philanthropy or other means? Where today’s philanthropists do divert funds to communities, research by the think tank Onward highlights that, in England, the “geography of giving” favours London and its institutions.

Even well into the 20th century local authorities played an important role in building “palaces for the people” – though not always for the right reasons. The infamous T Dan Smith, leader of Newcastle City Council, is a case in point. Smith was named Architect Journal’s Man of the Year in 1960, but – beyond his stint in jail for corruption – Smith was criticised for bulldozing historic buildings. John Shipley, who became the council’s leader a decade after Smith left office, described him as a figure who failed to understand the city’s identity: “Newcastle has a long and proud history and we have to build on that – not just ignore it and look for the next big thing.”

Local authorities have a rich tradition of building municipal architecture, confidence and pride in their communities. If the government wishes to build pride of place – as it set out in its missions, enshrined in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act – it should pay heed to the Victorians.

[See also: Can Labour’s skills policy break the “class ceiling”]

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