From a current Bath resident …
A recent article in the Daily Mail painted an excoriating picture of Bath, where I live. The headline screeched out the Mail’s trigger terms as it blasted the ‘anti-social yobs who have ruined my once-genteel city’ ─ reducing it to a ‘feral world of rough-sleepers, open drug-taking and alcoholism.’
It’s a personal view written by author and practising psycholinguistic consultant Gillian Bridge who has also written for the libertarian magazine ‘Spiked.’ She writes that she was left heartbroken by what she encountered on a visit to her former home town: ‘the pervasive smell of cannabis’ and young teens trying to get high in doorways, through sniffing deodorants. She tried to find a police officer but found only a Catholic priest who ‘blamed the Liberal Democrat-run council for the transformation of Bath from a genteel, comfortable and civilised place to a lairy, permissive city.’
At this point it’s implied that all those Gillian spoke to blasted the Lib Dems for every perceived problem: the increased pedestrianisation, graffiti, rough sleeping, the proliferation of Airbnbs and student halls of residence in the city centre, the lack of police and the hen/stag dos which had turned Bath into a ‘24-hour party city every weekend’. Gillian’s friends claimed the city was not a safe place to visit in the evening – even Gillian’s daughter would apparently rather be ‘out and about in Central London on her own at night than in Bath.’
A failed negative campaign
Hmmm. No prizes for guessing why this is catnip for the right wing-press (it was also picked up by The Sun and posted on the website of conspiracy theorist David Icke, of ‘shape-shifting lizards’ fame). Local Tories tried to whip up dissent with rhetorical questions about whether the council had ‘surrendered to anti-social yobs’, accompanied by #thisiswhatyouvotedfor ─ but they didn’t get the response they were clearly hoping for.
The Tories ran a negative campaign in the May elections and posted photos of empty streets, implying that tourists were shunning Bath due to the introduction of the Clean Air Zone and a perceived reduction in parking places. Save Our Streets, a group backed by the libertarian-leaning organisation Together Declaration, certainly fanned the flames. They claimed that everyone was up in arms and that the Lib Dems would lose control of Bath and North East Somerset council. In the end, the opposite happened and the Lib Dems increased their tally from 37 to 41 seats and won a second term, losing just one seat in the city to the Greens. The Tories, who had held the council in 2017 and retained 11 seats in 2019, lost nearly all their seats, bar three in Midsomer Norton.
On our local Next Door platform comments ranged from claims that Gillian Bridge’s piece was a work of fiction – ‘utter pish’ ─ especially the encounter with the Catholic priest and the assertion that the author’s daughter would feel perfectly safe in London but not in Bath, to thoughtful appraisals of the state of the nation. Gillian Bridge conceded that many of the problems she found in Bath were prevalent elsewhere: ‘countless other towns and cities across the country have been blighted by anti-social behaviour – often left to spread as police and local authorities seem to turn a blind eye.’ Yet, nowhere does she remove her blinkers and think why that might be.
Bath is a beautiful city but there has always been inequality, with Twerton among the 10% of most deprived wards nationally and, as there has been no Bathexit from the UK, the city is inevitably affected by the policies of central government. This has been exacerbated by 13 years of Tory underfunding to local authorities ─ yet Gillian Bridge seems to have overlooked this inconvenient fact. She also bemoans the lack of police on Bath streets, yet the Police Federation has accused the government of fudging the numbers with its claims of 20,000 new officers, which hardly compensate for the previous cuts.
Steve Hartshorn, Chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, said on August 28, 2023 in a Channel 4 interview that his hands were tied because of inadequate funding and a lack of facilities; the closure of police stations has made it more difficult to process evidence and provide areas for officers to work. When asked who was to blame, he said, ‘I can’t hold anyone to account but the current government.’
Locally, our Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse has campaigned for a solid police presence in central Bath and currently there is a desk in the city’s Lewis House building shared with One Stop Shop. It’s manned during the week, but not at weekends as the government has failed to recruit the full complement of 456 police officers promised for Avon and Somerset in February 2022.
A glib solution
Gillian Bridge’s somewhat glib solution for sorting out what she perceives to be Bath’s problems lies in a comparison with gun toting, gang ridden 1990s New York. It’s well-documented that police, cracking down on petty crime such as graffiti, vandalism, vagrancy and drugs etc., transformed the city so it felt safer to be out and about and community life began to flourish. It’s almost as if, when Gillian visited Bath, she missed the lively bustling centre, with buskers playing folk music, blues or singing arias. Bath is not New York.
In Bath, as in other cities, there are rough sleepers and, as Cllr Mark Elliott commented, ‘A small number, but some. One is one too many in my view.’ He explained that the council has a dedicated team to engage with them but the cases are complex. She has worked in the area of mental health and addiction, yet Gillian Bridge seems unconcerned with the government’s track record in terms of both funding and treatment.
The article is accompanied with predictable pictures of bonneted young ladies parading along Great Pulteney Street and the Royal Crescent, gowns billowing in the breeze, accompanied by dashing young men in top hats. All very Jane Austen and Bridgerton. Photos of uncollected binbags, rough sleepers and a dingy shop front are also included. To make a point. There is an underlying yearning in the article to return to the glory days of the gorgeous Georgians, from the Catholic priest who allegedly bemoaned Bath’s fall from its ‘genteel’ ways to Gillian Bridge’s final sentence: ‘Bath … may never return to its Georgian splendour but it most definitely deserves to be rescued.’ Georgian splendour? Now there’s a thing.
A deep irony
Either Gillian Bridge has a scant knowledge of history or her irony is so deep it’s lost on me. To the Georgians, appearance was everything ─ which is why the facades of the magnificent houses lining the Royal Crescent, Great Pulteney Street and The Circus are visions of architectural perfection, yet the rear views, the parts not on prominent display, feature a mishmash of styles with uneven stones and could be deemed ‘botched’ jobs.
As was pointed out by one commentator on Next Door: ‘We should remind ourselves that large parts of ‘genteel’ Bath became rich off the back of the slave trade and we compare this to someone simply in a hoodie. Who are the real villains in the photos?’ Both Bath and, to an even greater extent, Bristol, were enriched through slavery. Bath was a deeply divided city in the late 18th and early 19th Century. Some areas were considered dangerous, especially around Avon Street where there were numerous brothels. In Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ the heroine Anne Elliott wishes to see an old friend who had fallen on hard times but Sir Walter, her father, is appalled that she plans to visit a less respectable area. ‘Westgate Buildings. And whom, pray, is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A mere Mrs Smith, an everyday Mrs Smith? Upon my word, you have the most extraordinary taste!’
Finally, as a Bath resident of twenty-two years (having first visited over half a century ago), I certainly don’t recognise Gillian Bridge’s picture of Bath as one of Britain’s ‘abandoned towns and cities’ that needs to be rescued from its ‘tragic decline’. It’s a glorious place and I feel lucky to live in a spot where past and present combine to create an exciting future. Politically, I’m at home here as in the Brexit referendum Bath came out clearly in favour of Remain. It still has strong links with Europe and the EU through its twinning associations and our influx of foreign tourists. Yet, it’s a real place, not a Regency pastiche. Like all cities, it has its own problems which need proper government funding to resolve, not populist pap designed to wind up a pitchfork mob. That said, in the run up to the next election, this type of ‘journalism’ will proliferate as articles such as Gillian Bridge’s provide clickbait for the cash-strapped media and are perceived by some as effective ways to politicise locals – even if the messages consist of ‘alternative facts’.