The biggest challenge for politics, for all of us, is to reconnect community with place.
My job involves turning in places with my camera, spending a couple of days to take the temperature, then moving on. But In 2017 I became fascinated by Stoke-on-Trent, and in particular a place known as Portland street. One long-term resident called Sarah told me the community had the “heart ripped out of it”, first by a failed regeneration scheme that left it with lots of empty houses. Then everything else was gradually closed - the corner shop, the pub, even the post box. The central green space had become somewhere people took drugs.
What kept me coming back was the determination of Sarah and a small group of residents to turn it around. A defiant bonfire-night party; Clay workshops for children reclaiming the green space; a project to re-open the pub as a community centre. Bringing people together in those spaces made Sarah feel “we can be a community again.”
I had spent ten years asking people about politics in places like Portland street for the Guardian’s Anywhere but Westminster series. The idea was to conduct political journalism where people actually live, rather than its usual spaces - the TV studios, parliament or increasingly, social media. Years before Brexit became a word, I saw the rise of anger, and feelings of disconnection to national politics. Very often this was related to people’s feelings about their place and how it was changing or declining.
For many, politics has shown itself to be powerless to do anything about this decline, or maybe uninterested. It is always about the action at the top and the centre - the personalities who lead the parties, the machinations at Westminster. Local government has been gutted over the years by cuts to its budget and power.
When I saw the Brexit vote, and the list of places that voted for it, I saw a strong dimension of “place” to the result. People who felt where they live had been ignored. One of the many tragedies about Brexit is that it has turned into the ultimate expression of what many people voted against - a drama so removed from ordinary people and places it could be happening on mars.
Rather than use Brexit as a moment to seek to reconnect face-to-face, too many people have retreated into the comfort of online communities, where our exchanges are stripped of the non-verbal aspects of communication, and it’s easier to “other” people who don’t think like us.
The effect of technology on the way we use space is often to remove us from it. We gaze at a screen rather than observe our surroundings; we block out the sounds around us with headphones. We get our shopping from somewhere else, and increasingly we get our community from elsewhere too. Those communities may be growing in scale, but they are losing diversity. And they are losing their link to physical place.
So for me the biggest challenge for politics, and for all of us, is to reconnect community with place. No kind of Brexit outcome will heal the divisions in our country on its own. Or fix our high streets, or even change people’s behaviour towards the environment. Those things will happen if people come together in physical places. Money, power and policy ideas should flow toward people, like the women in Portland Street, who are on the ground fighting to make those places stronger, vibrant and sustainable.
And technology is also a crucial part of the fight support “place”, perhaps precisely because of its detachment from place. There is a new generation of community builders I meet, like Wavemaker in Stoke, committed to building the local digital economy that can keep young people from leaving; In Bolton, I chanced upon Recode - who run 14-week coding bootcamps to adults out of an empty unit in the shopping centre; and in Doncaster I met Lindsay, committed to staying in her hometown where she worked partly a carer, partly as a “fat-proud feminist” Instagram Influencer. The future of community is somewhere in the kinds of places these people are creating.