Geographies of Football: New Towns on the Rise
In January, Matt Bruce described the progress of the Football League’s New Town clubs as ‘faltering’ since joining the 92, but this past week may go down as the one in which their vanguard arrived for real. As Milton Keynes Dons and Stevenage confirmed their play-off berths in League 1, a nail reducing victory at Accrington saw Crawley Town finally confirm a spot in English football’s Tier Three for next season.
While the creation of the new towns of England is a narrative particular to a time and a place, the trio are far from alone — if ageing extras from the film Gregory’s Girl have not yet had the opportunity to see Cumbernauld based Clyde in the Scottish Premier League, those of Livingston have been luckier; while the Dutch of Almere City are already competing in the Eerste Divisie despite their tender years and Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg are now established as a Bundesliga and Europe-participating concern.
Harlow Town, Skelmersdale United, Runcorn and Telford United have stumbled of late despite gaining significant non-league notoriety and Basildon and Bracknell have remained backwaters in round ball terms, but the new found spate of success of those three unloved pioneers will perhaps allow us to take stock and assess whether any wider historical forces are at work. After all, two further communities, Swindon and Peterborough were afforded the moniker of ‘expanded towns’ back in the day and both the local football clubs are performing sparkily.
The New Towns have had chequered histories thus far — while the decline of industry has affected a Corby specifically created for that purpose and Telford has suffered from crime and declining incomes, the more southerly situated experiments and in particular those located within commuting distance of nodes of greater prosperity have begun to thrive.
Sheer size is a factor in the upswing. Milton Keynes has seen significant population growth — 207,063 peopled the borough in 2001 and the results of the 2011 census, due to be made public this autumn, will likely see the 250,000 barrier broken for the first time. Crawley has an estimated population of 107,000 compared to 99,744 in 2001 and Stevenage is up from 79,724 to around 84,000. With Livingston housing 13,000 new inhabitants since the turn of the millennium, these are far from shrinking cities.
Economically, the Milton Keynes area was estimated to possess a GVA (gross value added: a measure of the value of goods and services produced in an area) per capita index 47% better than the national average in 2005 and this shows the steady rise in fortunes. Much of this is driven by services (the importance of retail to the economy as a whole is evident) but even the industrial indicators are up.
In Crawley, the proximity of Gatwick Airport has had a significant impact on the town’s financial health, providing spillover benefits for distribution and warehousing industries as well as aviation itself — Virgin Atlantic is perhaps the most notable company to be based there, while Stevenage is aided by its closeness to the capital and all the advantages that brings — both footballing and otherwise — contrary to popular belief, smaller clubs tend to gain from ‘cluster’ effects — the preponderance of top level clubs in the North West and South East shows how neighbours can prosper alongside one another.
For as I have written before, the satellite businesses that football interacts with include the builders of new stadia, caterers, sponsors and hoteliers along others — it’s held that more money circulating in a region’s economy is good for everyone — and regional innovation systems can result. Where the new town clubs have benefitted most, it has been in close orbit to their erstwhile betters and where a burgeoning middle class has the ready money to attend matches.
Bruce’s excellent article correctly identified the main problem facing the new town clubs — that the newly imported populations kept their allegiances to old heroes on abandoning their old back-to-backs for the spanking new semis — I’ll warrant that Basildon contains not a few West Ham fans for instance. Elsewhere though, that’s beginning to change.
The cost of taking a young family into Stamford Bridge on the 11.41 train from Milton Keynes Central is now prohibitive. Ally that to the presence of a local team improving all the time, a new stadium that provides a more family friendly environment and the inevitable lessening of old loyalties that develop in a second generation and one can perhaps identify reasons for the upsurge.
In the early days, the existing and fleetingly created likes of Wolverton AFC, Milton Keynes City, Stevenage Town and Athletic struggled to turn the heads of the newcomers but the New Town programme is no longer actually new — these communities have truly begun to take root.
That Ashley Young, Jack Wilshere, Gareth Southgate and Paul Dickov all hail from New Towns show that they are far from football free zones and with over half a century having passed since the 1946 Act that created them, these communities are now entrenched — the working class areas that became football hotbeds a century ago are alive and well — only in different form. People like the convenience, the cheap, accessible availability of entertainment, shopping, the free parking, the 20 million trees Milton Keynes is said to contain, the above average provision for education and health — and the presence on their doorstep of a rapidly evolving football club.
Image problems remain of course — and Ian King has posited the theory that the grey concrete uniformity can evoke parallels with on field unpleasantness.
The criticisms are oft repeated: concrete cows, the underhand shenanigans of Graham Westley and Victor Green, brutalist architecture, joyriders riding roughshod over roundabouts, Steve Evans, acre upon acre of metal railings, an appalling environmental footprint, the sweeping away of the pre-existing amateur teams, Steve Evans, the bodysnatching of Wimbledon Football Club, Frankie and Benny’s, record non-league transfer fees, Steve Evans, the Andrew Duke pub, high density estates with no amenities, poor public transport, Steve Evans, urine soaked underpasses, Steve Evans…Jonathan Glancey has described them as ‘cockney siberias’ and if this is guaranteed to enrage the Glasgow Rangers-supporting denizens of Corby, the litany of slurs is indeed long.
But they are here to stay. For sure, sugar daddies (whether identifiable or otherwise) have had an impact and remain more important in securing short term progress than any of the exogenous economic factors I have outlined above — but this creditable finish to 2011-12 has coincided with significant off field improvements.
If MK Dons remain unforgivable as a concept, Crawley saw Steve Evans pack himself off to Rotherham, trailing in the wake of top scorers Matt Tubbs and Tyrone Barnett, pocketing nearly £2 million while they were at it. The inevitable dip in form followed but that win at the Accies helped them over the line and with a wily old pooch like Steve Coppell in place as Director of Football, can assess their prospects from a position of enhanced popularity. There was also justification to the Stevenage fans’ comments below King’s piece — the Hertfordshire club have rarely over spent — and having shed their own pariah in Westley, can also look forward to a future where opprobrium is diverted elsewhere.
Coppell will need all of his nous in attracting players good enough to keep Crawley in League 1 and the Dons and Boro remain outsiders to prevail in the same league’s play-offs, so students of the New Towns project may have to wait a little for further rapid success. It will surely come though — the population of Milton Keynes is now on a par with that of Premier League Southampton and it would be unthinkable to imagine a town of that size not supporting a squad of at least Championship standard in years to come. With sweeping building plans still planned for the London gateway region in particular, others could be following in their wake.