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HomeNewsNiall McCrae: Hail Sunderland where the Brexit worm was first to turn

Niall McCrae: Hail Sunderland where the Brexit worm was first to turn


Unless you are a football fan following your team away from home, Sunderland may never be on your itinerary. Unlike its more illustrious neighbour Newcastle, it lacks architectural splendour, while arterial motorway and railway pass many miles inland. This former shipbuilding town on the North Sea is unlikely to be a rich seam for Conservative Woman readers, returning Labour MPs with little opposition since the beginning of working-class emancipation. Yet Sunderland will be remembered from that dramatic night of 23rd June 2016, when its overwhelming vote to leave the EU cast the first stone against the political establishment of Westminster and Brussels and a complacent intelligentsia.

Long inclined to the left of the spectrum, Wearsiders have become dissatisfied with the broken promises of career-driven politicians who do not share their outlook. Now, no Labour seat is safe in council or parliamentary elections, but the rot has been setting in for decades. Let’s take a trip back to the 1960s, when sociologist Norman Dennis documented the slum clearances and displacement of townsfolk to peripheral council estates. There was plenty of scope for paternalism: thousands of families living in shameful conditions, many in tenements with a shared outside water-closet, children raised in sooty, airless rooms with severe dampness and crumbling plaster. The poor lived cheek-by-jowl in labyrinths alongside the colliery railway, paper mill, piggeries, the imposing power plant, scrapyards with burning rubber, or the docks. Clothes on washing lines were a magnet for grime, and the atmosphere was laden with noxious fumes. Life was a cacophony, and it was hard to sleep when a ship engine was being tested. Few homes had a yard, and playing outside was endangered by the heavy Foden carthorses rumbling over cobbled streets, the deliveries starting daily before dawn. No wonder that a pub stood on every corner, giving some relief from cramped hovels.

In earlier rehousing schemes, families jumped at the chance of a new home in a cleaner suburban setting, but by the end of the 1960s attitudes were changing. After the worst slums had rightly been eradicated, the council was sweeping a broad brush. House inspections were typically completed in two minutes, and in the zeal for mass demolition a damp patch on a wall was enough to condemn a home. Sometimes a whole terrace was bulldozed on the glance of untrained inspectors from a moving vehicle. Compulsory Purchase Orders were issued, and inhabitants were offered two choices of flats, with refusals followed by punitive, threatening letters.

Surveys presented by Dennis showed growing opposition to rehousing, with 62 per cent of residents in one supposedly inhabitable area ‘very satisfied’ with their current environment. Accustomed to their humble abodes, some hardy souls preferred an outside toilet! Home was home, and they valued the proximity of friends and relatives, shops, schools and church, and the town centre a short hop on the bus. People looked out for each other: better the devil you know.

After several generations of co-existence, close-knit communities were torn apart. In the ‘brave new world’ of zoning, which separated residential and industrial areas, housing estates were built further and further from town. Residents paid higher rent, and endured long bus journeys to work. Modern buildings were plagued by broken lifts and vandalism. There were few shops, pubs and other amenities, but no lack of antisocial behaviour in outposts fleetingly circulated by a patrol car. Moving was a lottery with low odds: survey data showed merely a fifth of rehoused people liked their new neighbours. Hearing of older people losing the will to live soon after being moved, remaining denizens of the east end told Dennis: ‘I’ll die if they send me to Town End Farm’.

A house with a garden would be nice, not a perch on the 13th floor. As in other former manufacturing areas such as Clydeside and Hull, the concrete council estates built in Sunderland were poorly designed. The 16-storey blocks of Gilley Law were similar to Ronan Point in east London, which infamously collapsed in 1968. The looming Lambton Tower spurred a correspondent’s verse in the Sunderland Echo, reviving a local legend:

Who hasn’t heard in his home town

Of the famous Lambton beast?

Young Johnny Lambton cut it down

But it’s back in High Street East

For technocratic officialdom, the interests of community were more important than the individual. Housing experts spoke ‘science’ to pursue the agenda, using ‘decision theory’ to explain the reluctance of people with ‘narrow horizons’ to leave their old homes. The authorities decided who should live where, and they had numerous blocks on the outskirts to fill. Despite a declining population, in the early 1970s Sunderland council built a new township for 6000 on a closed colliery miles from town.

Today, Sunderland has changed for the better. The town centre and riverside are slowly being revitalised, while Nissan, a massive employer, has brushed aside concerns about the EU verdict. Yet in The Guardian this week, local photographer Andy Martin said he had been ‘driven out of Sunderland’ by the Brexit vote, having been disturbed by an ‘unusually buoyant’ mood in the town on the following day. If you find Martin’s walkout baffling, see what he thinks about the concrete Utopia of 50 years past.

Hahnemann Court was the archetype of 1960s’ planning folly: four brutalist deck blocks on stilts with carpark below, linked by suspended walkways. Martin lauded its futuristic design, a view seemingly not shared by residents, as the complex was facing demolition. It took a year to pull down, Martin claiming this as evidence of its solidity, although this was more attributable to the hazardous asbestos. From the typical perspective of a Guardian reader, Martin lamented the loss of a wonder of modern architecture – good because it was so radically different, but not so good that he would have chosen to live there.

Like the Brussels bureaucracy, the Labour-dominated Sunderland council preached how the minions should live, but the natives became restless. The ‘Lambton worm’ has been slayed once more.

(Image: Steve R Watson)

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