Thursday, 30 April 2009

Rotten Borough: a play about Hackney in how many Acts?

The Times' Business pages is not the first place you would look for an article about Hackney, but Ian King's column today described the borough as 'the success story that Labour is writing off'. Ian charts Hackney's rise since the meltdown of the 1990s to become the 'poster child for new Labour': vastly improved public services, a benign environment for businesses to flourish; a place where a diverse range of people want to live. He then makes the strange assertion that 'at a time when Mr Brown is hurtling back towards old Labour ideology, they (businesses) are flourishing in a borough run very much in line with the modernised approach that the Prime Minister is junking.'

I can't think of a single Brownite policy, piece of legislation or regulation that should impact negatively on the success of small businesses in Hackney (beyond the general economic mess we are all blaming each other for). However, for Hackney to continue to thrive may require some new thinking from the centre of government.

Every party, in very jargonistic terms (anyone for 'new localism' or double-devolution?) talks about the need for the centre to let go. Not necessarily to town halls, but out and down, to the rims of various wheels.

Given the experiences of the last twenty years, if government can let go in Hackney, it can let go anywhere. When Tony Blair talked about the 'scars on my back' from forcing change onto public services, his experiences in Hackney in the 1980s were as damaging as his Prime Ministerial predicaments.

But do we really understand what happened in Hackney, or other London boroughs, during that strange period of ratecapped neglect after the GLC was abolished? To move on, double-devolve, give power away in the way we need to, the story of Hackney's 'rotten borough' period seems worth telling. Amidst the chaos and corruption, there are bound to be some individual stories that can reveal the human experiences and emotions, the quiet and loud victims of political processes.

We probably all agree we don't want to go back there, but do we really understand what 'there' was like, and how it can be avoided?

Today I asked Hackney Archives about their records from that period. They revealed a gap in their collection of council minutes, from around 2003 for about three years. Any gap is an incentive to dig. Who does Hackney think it is?

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