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Opinion

The worst places to live in the UK? Britain’s run-down towns aren’t funny anymore

There’s too much suffering prevalent to whistle in the wind, writes James McMahon

The new year brought an unwelcome update in the annals of Aylesbury, the market town slap-bang in the middle of Buckinghamshire.  

In the 17th and 18th century, the town was famous for its production of highly desired lace. It was once notable for housing the Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery, the £47 million Waterside Theatre and as the ‘spiritual cradle’ of the Paralympic Games. But now according to the newly updated iLiveHere poll – a yearly ranking of the very viral 50 Worst Towns To Live list – you might know Aylesbury best as being the very worst town to live in England. 

The new number one scooped first place with 25 per cent more votes than second placed Huddersfield. “What can I say?” writes one wag on the poll’s homepage. “The fact that Stanley Kubrick saw fit to film some of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ here was horribly prescient…”

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I have a complicated relationship with the iLiveHere list. My birthplace, Doncaster, has long been a perennial fixture of the Top 50. Sunderland, the city in which I attended university – and was home for some years after – regularly features. Both locales are tough places to live – and ones sometimes difficult to love. 

In Doncaster, me and my friends would refer to our town as ‘The Donx’, aware that our home was just as famous for being the most violent town in South Yorkshire as it was for horseracing. In Sunderland we would joke that there were more pasty shops per head than anywhere else in the country. Which is a fact we made up, though if someone was to tell me it was true, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.

And so for years, perversely, I enjoyed the yearly publication of the iLiveHere list. Much of this was about saving face. If where I lived wasn’t going to be famous for something good, at least I could celebrate it being famous for something. In both Doncaster and Sunderland I was keenly aware of the brutal decline of the industries that supported the area. In Doncaster, coal. In Sunderland, shipbuilding. But now we had a new industry; misery and deprivation. And we excelled in production. When The Idler’s ‘Crap Towns: the 50 Worst Place to Live in the UK’ was published in 2003, a book that arguably kickstarted the trend of ranking the UK’s most beleaguered towns, it was a Christmas stocking filler that was met with mirth, not shame.

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A lot has happened in the two decades that have followed the publication of Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran’s bestseller. The meltdown of the world’s financial markets in 2008. Nearly twelve years of Tory austerity beginning with the electoral victory of David Cameron in 2010 and  – at the time of writing – no end in sight. There is, of course, the global pandemic that has left many businesses on the brink of collapse. Communities divided and aggrieved by the promise/failure/lies/inertia of Brexit. 

I find it hard to celebrate my hometowns’ crapness now. There’s something about the high-street being besieged by the zombified victims of ‘Spice’, the synthetic cannabinoid that ravaged northern towns from 2017 to the present, that ruins the punchline, y’know?

It’s unlikely that many in the queue for the foodbank will scroll the new iLiveHere list with mirth. It’s impossible to imagine anyone from a household totting up the rising cost of living might pause the process of deciding between buying beans or tea-bags this week, and think, “lol. Peterborough made the list again!” 

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And in those communities where the suffering have been exploited by the dogma of hate – the multicultural Huddersfield (2), Bradford (10), Oldham (13), three cities in which far-right activity made headlines last year – there are few laughs to be had. We might smile, make a fist of it – but look closely and you can see sadness in the eyes.

And yet there is hope. In Sunderland, old friends tell me of the city centre’s regeneration. The recent opening of cultural hub and performance space The Fire Station is the fulcrum of a £18m redevelopment in the area, one which is hoped to bring 100,000 visitors a year into the city. Good news for the local economy. Even better news for the many peddlers of steak bakes. In Doncaster, a £25 million regeneration of the town centre is teeing up another bid for city status. Something I laughed at when we attempted it twenty-years ago, and yet, with growing employment rates and the attraction of new business and industry, seems altogether feasible. I draw the line at changing my beloved Doncaster Rovers’ name to Doncaster City, mind.

Because here’s the thing, the iLiveHere list isn’t funny to me anymore. It’s too real. Too omnipresent. There’s too much suffering prevalent to whistle in the wind. These days I celebrate change, not crapness. I’m sure I could find others who would agree with me in newly vilified Aylesbury and beyond.

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