Local Politics V: ‘Boffins get grant to investigate sex entertainment’

That’s the front page story in today’s Adver, Swindon’s local paper. It’s a wonderful example of badly written local journalism, trying to suggest an element of controversy where there isn’t any. The story refers to an award by the made by ‘the Swindon-based’ ESRC to Phil Hubbard and Rachela Colosi, to study the impact of ‘sex entertainment’ (i.e. lap dancing clubs) on local communities. The hook for the story is a claim that this is a waste of money (although the project seems to have quite ‘respectable’ objectives, of course). 

In principle, of course, every single research award made by RCUK could count as a local story, in so far as they are all made by ‘Swindon-based’ organisations. Every so often, one of these sorts of stories does crop up in the Adver. Not the sort of ‘impact’ one suspects the ESRC is primarly seeking to generate. Swindon actually has a long history of trying and failing to establish a University presence of some sort, which is still seen as a key element in future local economic development strategy. There are not enough ‘boffins’ actually living here, it seems.

And what else makes this a ‘local’ story? Might have something to do with the fact that Swindon seems to have a thriving ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sector all of its own. At least two, in fact, one of which has opened since we have been here, bucking the downward economic trend in the midst of recession. And in fact, I think the imaginary geography of nighttime Swindon  would stand as a good case study for the project reported in today’s paper – there is a clear divide between the town centre and ‘Old Town’ as nightlife destinations, based on age certainly, class too – the latter area has seen three or four Bars and Gastro Pubs open in the last two years as it consolidates it’s reputation as the ‘safe’ and ‘nice’ part of town to go out in. 

So I’m told. I haven’t had a night out in ages.

Local Politics III: public life in the digital city

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was tangentially involved, mainly as a researcher of sorts, with something grandly called the Oxford Motor Industry Research Group, which was actually a group of academics with links with shop stewards galvanised in the summer of 1989 by plans to close the car works in Cowley. The group was led by the activist-scholar Teresa Hayter (author of, amongst other things, Hayter of the Bourgeoisie). I seem to remember that part of the politicking around the future of Cowley, which dragged on well into the 1990s, involved plans to transfer all car production to Swindon. The Oxford plant wasn’t closed completely in the end. I, on the other hand, have indeed ended up in Swindon.

Twenty years on, there is a big mini hanging on a wall outside the BMW plant, locally referred to as Pressed Steel (good name for a band). Swindon used to build trains, now it builds cars. Even the major architectural landmarks in the town are car-related: the Magic Roundabout; Norman Foster’s Renault Building (now home to a fantastic soft-play centre for kids); the defunct speed cameras; the switched-off street lights.

What with the speed cameras covered, and the street lights turned off, it’s boy-racer heaven here. Turning things off and failing to gets things to work has become a bit of a signature of recent local council initiatives. In November 2009, shortly after we moved here, it was announced with great fanfare (locally, that is, though it made national news too) that Swindon was to become the first place in the UK to offer free wireless internet to all households. A scheme funded largely by the borough council was to be rolled out across the whole town, apparently, by April 2010. This was hailed by the controlling Tory group on the Council as an innovative public-private commercial venture. “Trailblazing Swindon Council is working with the private sector to make Swindon the first town in the UK to provide free internet access for all its residents”, they said.

Needless to say, things haven’t turned out quite as planned. The deal struck between the Council and Digital City Ltd, the company set-up to develop the free wi-fi scheme, has been mired in controversy from the start. The £1.5million project was leveraged by a loan from the Council to the tune of £450,000, but the loan deal was characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability, related to the specific type of cabinet system adopted in Swindon, which meant the deal was basically signed-off by a couple of senior Tory council leaders.

After countless delays, earlier this year Digital City was dissolved and the leading business figure behind the scheme declared bankrupt, amidst calls for the resignations of the leading Tory councillors who had signed-off on the deal. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering what happened to the money, and whether the loan will be repaid.

This has been the hottest political story in town for almost two years now, and it revolves around questions of proper procedure. The general complaint around the scheme has revolved around the level of scrutiny involved in loaning public money to the Digital City venture. The story has attracted regular attention in the local paper, but has in particular been kept alive by Swindon’s vibrant little blogosphere (you can track the story over two years here and here for example). And it even became a regular-ish feature in Private Eye, here and here, as a model of dodgy local government dealings.

The MP for South Swindon until 2010, Anne Snelgrove, raised the issue in Parliament shortly before the last election, when she lost her seat. She publicly acknowledged the role of local bloggers and websites in subjecting the Wi-Fi deal to scrutiny and making it into an issue (the Tories, meanwhile, complain that the deliberate ‘politicizing’ of the scheme is part of the reason it has struggled to get off the ground, or, should that be into the air?).

The latest twist in the story is the recent announcement that a new investor has been found for the scheme, although just who this is remains a big secret for now. But the Council assures everyone that the money invested in the Digital City venture will be recouped under the new agreement: “The council will also receive a share of the profits from the multinational company which is stepping in to run the new wireless internet system, although for “commercial reasons” its identity is still a secret.”

This is now dubbed Wi-Fi 2 locally. At the moment, ‘free Wi-Fi’ has still yet to be materialised in Swindon.

I like this little local story because of the neat relation it exposes between the promise of everyday hi-tech communication and the dull ‘materialities’ of lampposts (suddenly peculiarly central to political issues in the town), council procedures, and local journalism. But also because it illustrates how ‘new media’ can bring a new dimension, a certain sort of dispersed keenness of scrutiny, to very local issues – Swindon’s public realm these days includes bloggers poring over Council minutes and/or taking the mickey out of local politicians’ promises and excuses.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.