Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Acclaiming Aycliffe

It is a British trait to be dismissive of one's home town; but perhaps it is time to regain a sense of civic pride.

Last week, Aycliffe won the equivalent of a gold medal in the Railway Olympics (if you will forgive me an excruciating pun, it was a ‘track’ event).  Coached by Merchant Place Developments and our spectacular MP Phil Wilson, we triumphed over competitors from all over Europe … so that Hitachi – not only the project, but its European rail research and development centre – is coming to Aycliffe!

Thus Aycliffe has its Hitachi as Sunderland has its Nissan … yet Sunderland is a major city.  What has this small town of 30,000 people got, one has to wonder, to be chosen as the place for such a huge and prestigious project?  

Sneers, moans and vicious jibes
A time for rejoicing, you might think – a time to mount the podium, to enjoy the success, to run up the flag? 

Not so for Northern Echo reporter Duncan Leatherdale.  In a sneering and belittling article the next day he chose, not to congratulate, but to attack our town.  Mr Leatherdale wandered round the town centre, collected a few moans, and then wrote them up as an indictment.  The town, he wrote, ‘is showing its age’.  ‘The town is dead’, ‘Aycliffe is down’, ‘everybody is struggling’, ‘it is very depressing’, the article elaborated.

Equally, if you go on Twitter and search for Aycliffe, every day you will find a number of vicious jibes – ‘European Capital of Wrong’uns’, ‘a seriously weird place’, ‘not a very nice place’, to quote some of the more printable statements this week.

Our Abominable Town Centre
Before we go any further, may I agree that our town centre is an ABOMINATION.  The town centre owners seem to regard their intention one day to refurbish the town centre as an excuse to neglect it altogether, and at the moment it looks like a wasteland. 

But it is PRIVATE PROPERTY.  This is not meant to be a political rant, but the town centre is an epitome of Tory Britain – a publicly-owned asset sold off to a private company because (as we’re endlessly told) the private sector does things so much better than the state sector.  Look at Aycliffe town centre, and you catch a glimpse of what is going to happen to our hospitals, to our schools, to our marketised services etc. over the next two or three decades.

A most wonderful place
BUT THE TOWN CENTRE IS NOT AYCLIFFE!  And if it makes you as angry as it makes me, do not criticise Aycliffe, but write instead to the town centre manager and complain!

For Aycliffe, bereft of the scar at its heart, is the most wonderful place.  ‘I like living in this town,’ commented retired William Notley … and, bless him, I do too!

Aycliffe has the most wonderful history.  Our predecessors survived through a Norman genocide, feudal serfdom, Tudor enclosures, Victorian coal owners and Nazi bombs … and, out of it all, Aycliffe emerged triumphant as the flagship of Beveridge’s Welfare State.  We may be standing on the podium of a Hitachi victory right now, but we have centuries of achievement of which to be proud.

And Great Aycliffe has the most wonderful, prize-winning environment.  Visitors are always amazed at our ‘green and pleasant land’.  How many other towns do you know where a ‘green lattice’ takes biodiversity right into the centre of town and links it, through a network of walks and corridors, out into the countryside?  You can’t know of many towns where the play-parks are more modern, or the flower-beds better kept.

And Aycliffe has the most amazing community!  Have you noticed that we have a European Cup-winning footballer, two Olympians, and the UK’s most successful female racing driver amongst our number? 

Of course it is a QUIET town – but do you WANT binge-drinkers marauding through the town centre every weekend? 

Moreover, ‘quiet’ is not the same as ‘dead’.  We have a prominently successful football club.  The Town Council runs, FREE, a tourist-trip for every pensioner, a life-saving fireworks display, a two-day show, fun-in-every-park holiday extravaganzas, and an annual visit from Santa!  This year, we revived the Carnival.  The town is awash with vibrant and well-supported community groups, and crime and vandalism are falling.  A young father, visiting the town, who had reprimanded some teenagers for swearing, confided to me that he would not have dared to speak to teenagers that way where he came from – he would have feared for his safety; instead, our Aycliffe youths apologised and made way for his child to play on the equipment they had been sitting on.  And everybody who visits tells me how welcoming, friendly and caring the people of Aycliffe are.

Unfinished business
Of course Beveridge’s giants still prowl the town, and there are social and civic issues to be confronted; readers know how much I love it when ‘the people’ rise up and campaign about – well, for example, about wheelie bins – and force the powers-that-be to back down.  But that is a not a negative sign – it is a sign of energetic residents making our town the place-they-would-have-it-become.  So do not imagine for a moment that this makes Aycliffe a bad place; Aycliffe is a lovely place, and we are lucky to live here.

Punching below its weight
When Aycliffe was first formed in 1948, it met tremendous opposition from local councils, who resented their upstart neighbour.  And I suspect, even today, that Durham County Council does not fully appreciate the jewel in their crown our thriving and assertive town and trading estate constitutes.  Aycliffe has been punching below its weight for too long, and it is time for us to hold our head up and take our rightful place.

So, let’s challenge the critics and celebrate our town’s genuine achievements.

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