Paris Gourtsoyannis: How potholes helped cause Brexit

The disaffection that fuelled Brexit was strongest in forgotten, decaying towns, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Potholes are a 'great leveller'. Picture: TSPLPotholes are a 'great leveller'. Picture: TSPL
Potholes are a 'great leveller'. Picture: TSPL

It’s the smallest hills we choose to die on – and the smallest holes we want to be buried in, too.

Nothing fills a newspaper’s postbag like potholes, as I’ve been told on more than one occasion by successive editors. Pile up a stack of local newspapers on any given day from across the country – indeed the world – and it will be peppered with as many stories about potholes as west Edinburgh’s Dundee Street is by the real thing.

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More ‘sophisticated’ media outlets may scoff, but potholes are a great leveller: they represent a universal experience of urban decay. Like many British cities, Edinburgh is a grossly unequal place, but there’s egalitarianism in the terrible state of its roads. Potholes really are an everyman (and everywoman) problem.

They also sum up the failure of local government: councils bearing the brunt of austerity have neither the money to fix the potholes that are already there, nor do they have the powers to stop new ones from forming.

The cost of fixing Scotland’s roads is thought to exceed £2 billion; across the UK, it could be as much as £10 billion. Meanwhile, local authorities can do little to stop utilities firms from ravaging freshly laid road surfaces.

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Potholes are far from the only symbols of urban neglect. In so many other ways, local government has been powerless to protect the fabric of urban life: to stop big shopping developments draining the high street; to shake down developers for the cost of essential infrastructure to support new housing; to maintain good transport links outside the big cities; to stop employers leaving or attract good, new jobs to replace them.

What have humdrum local government gripes got to do with Brexit? Research from the Carnegie UK Trust suggests quite a lot.

A report published last month, Remaking British Towns after Brexit, highlights that neglected and impoverished urban areas – too small and too distant to benefit from the economic engines of cities – were where the highest concentration of Brexit votes could be found.

While cities and rural areas draw the attention of policy makers, towns fall in between and are often forgotten. As one of the authors, Glasgow University professor of public policy Duncan McLennan, reflects: “These difficulties primarily arose because of UK failures in managing places rather than membership of the EU.”

Calling for a much more targeted approach to how power and investment is distributed to local communities, Professor McLennan warns that “although it may be too soon to really know what the precise impact of Brexit on towns will be, it’s clear that there needs to be action now to ensure that present neglect ends ... whether Brexit is soft, hard or even cancelled.”

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Devolution has so far meant giving new powers and money to national parliaments, to London, and latterly to big, artificial urban agglomerations. Could the constitutional shake-up of Brexit mean that is about to change?

On the day the Conservative Party conference got underway in Birmingham last week, Scotland on Sunday revealed that the UK Government was preparing to take control of hundreds of millions of pounds in EU Structural and Investment Funds, previously administered by Holyrood, which are now likely to flow in large part directly from Westminster to Scottish local authorities after Brexit.

It’s a move that will require little change to the devolution settlement as set out in legislation, but could produce a huge shift in the power relationship between Edinburgh, London and local communities.

South of the border, where there isn’t the possibility of an independence referendum to influence the politics of who gets what money, a cross-party group of ‘metro mayors’ is now asking for control of money from the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU development money. Which approach will actually serve the needs of the UK’s neglected towns?

We think of Brexit a dam breaking under the pressure of enormous, pent up demands: a rejection of mass immigration and a rebellion against globalisation, or a yearning for sovereignty and a more accountable politics.

That may be true, but how much were those feelings incubated in crumbling urban settings stripped of their locus of control?

All politics is local, it’s been said. Those trying to stop Brexit and those trying to deliver on its promises would do well to remember that, and start by filling the potholes.