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To understand Britain’s malaise, visit Shildon – the town that refused to die | Aditya Chakrabortty

In 1951, the county of Durham condemned 114 villages to a slow death. The older, smaller coalmines were approaching exhaustion, which meant, officials said, “many of the rows of houses which grew up around the pitheads have outlived their usefulness”. These “rows of houses” were homes to 100,000 adults and children. Now they were designated Category D.

D for de-industrial. D for demolish. D for decline.

Families living there would receive no more investment: neither electric lights nor doctors’ surgeries. Before their homes were torn down, they were expected to move out or die out.

Many refused to do either. This weekend, I visited some hamlets just outside the town of Shildon, in south-west Durham. About seven decades after the order for their execution, rows of small houses were still standing. Some were boarded up; others had cars parked neatly outside. On this afternoon of bright sun and biting wind, men stood like sentinels outside their front doors and kids growled by on dirt bikes. Eldon, Coundon Grange, Coronation: these former pit communities were half-populated, half alive. It was eerie and melancholy, but it was not death.

If Durham’s category-D villages are remembered today, it is as historical curiosities, summoned up by black and white footage and oral testimony. Yet these settlements without a future offered a foretaste of perhaps the central political issue of our time: how do people live when money has discarded them?

As the UK has gone from the world’s first industrial nation to its first post-industrial state, that question has grown ever-more insistent. Today, it covers more than a few extinct coalmines; it takes in steelworks and trading estates across the country. Tony Blair and David Cameron tried to drown it out with culture and finance and tech startups; newspaper columnists ignored it for Westminster trivia. But just like those communities in County Durham, it has refused to fade. Indeed, today that same stubborn question shapes the political trajectory of so many rich countries. Not by chance were the supposedly shock victories of Brexit and Donald Trump named in a renowned essay by the LSE professor Andrés Rodríguez-Pose as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter”.

Sometimes it takes just one single day for a place not to matter any more. For 160 years, the small town of Shildon mattered a great deal. It was there, in 1825, that passenger railways began, when George Stephenson drove a steam locomotive hauling the world’s first passenger train. It was where coal was transported from the nearby mines and to the rest of the world. And it was at the Shildon works that railway wagons were made in their thousands and sold as far afield as Malaysia.

Then, on 30 June 1984, the factory described as “the jewel in British Rail’s crown”, and which still turned a profit, was shut. About 2,600 jobs went with it. Today, as rail works in Derby and nearby Newton Aycliffe face closure, Shildon serves as an awful warning of the consequences. In some ways, its fate was worse than those of nearby mining villages, because no thought or planning went into what would happen next.

Everywhere in Shildon reminds you of what was there 40 years ago. Roundabouts are decorated with tall white rail signals, the remaining pubs bear names such as the Locomotive, and a coal wagon sits at the entrance to the tatty shopping street. But for today’s twentysomethings, the battle in the early 80s to save the works is as far back in time as Dunkirk was when the “Shildon shops” closed: it was their father’s war, and only a memory to them.

Not long after the works closed, the head of the council admitted: “We have not a hope in hell of becoming a tourist area or a Silicon Valley and very little chance of attracting a Nissan-type project.” For all Margaret Thatcher and Blair talked of upskilling or a knowledge economy, Shildon already had a workforce of artisans – and they were condemned to unemployment.

Shildon used to have 14,000 people; now it has about 10,000 – and according to the last census in 2021 they are older, sicker and vastly more deprived than most of the rest of the country. In the heart of town is a large park with glorious views, won by the railway workers early in the 1910s. But money has left this town over the past couple of decades. The street market has gone and there is no longer a single supermarket or bank in town.

Despite having three primary schools, the town’s sole secondary was recently bulldozed and next door to it the leisure centre is rumoured to be next for closure. The editor of the Shildon & District Town Crier, Archie MacKay, says the stories are so reliably bleak that he deliberately puts only good news on his front page.

There is the impressive Locomotion museum outside the rail station, but it is too far from the centre of the town to boost its economy. And round the outskirts are new housing estates and the big shopping chains, for those who commute on the A1 and spend their money elsewhere. It’s a reminder that the simplistic slogan of “just build more houses” will do little to repair homes or house those people on low incomes. It can kill communities even while building others.

Paula Nelson started the town’s food bank as a stopgap. This year, Shildon Alive is marking its 10th anniversary. Last week, it dished out 500 meals for kids; this week it will do 800. Demand is higher than ever and so exhausting for the charity’s staff and volunteers that some have had to go off sick. “I panic when I come into work,” says Nelson. “I get scared.”

In this election year, you will hear a lot about pernicious austerity and awful Brexit and rotten old Boris. It is a lovely half-truth the country will tell itself about why it is in this mess. Shildon is a reminder that the problems facing the UK go back decades. What does politics mean here? Last Saturday, Jamie Driscoll visited the town’s railway institute to campaign for the north-east mayoral election on 2 May. He had been Labour’s man, until the party in effect bullied him out for the crime of sharing a stage with Ken Loach. Now he is standing as an independent, on a strategy of getting votes from the disfranchised. It’s a gamble, as he admits: “Many are so disappointed they won’t vote Labour again; but loads are so disillusioned they won’t vote at all.”

Yet he pulls a decent crowd, who ask serious questions about schools and buses and jobs. No one asks about immigration or statues. There is no searing politics here, just a desire for basic services – a bus that runs a bit later in the evening, a future for their kids. “At least he came,” one person says, as they leave. At least he cared enough to come.

“People have lost their fight,” says the town councillor David Reynolds but he doesn’t think they’ve given up. He tells me his mum still lives in a house in a village Durham declared Category-D. “She didn’t want to leave. Her family, her friends, everything was there. Why would she?”

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist