John Harris

Journalist & Author

‘Send more rich people!’ The reinvention of the once-great naval city of Plymouth

Plymouth relied on its dockyards for 350 years and when they fell into decline the city started to question why it existed at all. In the latest in his series of urban reports, John Harris finds an insight into the future of all British cities

Twenty years after their cultural peak, the 1990s seem to have been fixed in the culture as a decade of primary-coloured hedonism, and politics almost wholly free of substance: the time of Union Jack guitars, the supposed End Of History, New Labour in its vacuous pomp, and a long economic boom. Particularly in the wake of the crash of 2008, most of this has taken on a warm nostalgic glow: a sense of good times lost, and an innocence to which some people would dearly like to return.

But in Plymouth, the 1990s were not like that at all. With the cold war a fading memory and its dockyards shrinking at speed, in the early part of the decade, this once-great maritime city registered an unemployment rate of over 14%, and its neighbourhoods became mired in decline. In 1981, around 15,000 people had been employed at the local naval dockyards; by 1997, that figure was down to around 4,000, where it has remained ever since. As the British city said to have been most damaged by German bombing in the second world war, Plymouth had been faced with the challenge of rising from the wreckage left by the Luftwaffe, but its self-understanding as a great naval centre had remained intact. Now, with the very essence of its identity disappearing, it inevitably crumpled.

In terms of its scale, what happened here was on a par with anything in a pit village or a steel town

Why the fuck would a hairy-arsed place like this … be interested in culture? Because people’s sons and daughters are

It was a notorious place: everything went on there. It was always bad: sirens at all hours

Related: The great reinvention of Manchester: ‘It’s far more pleasant than London’

Related: Can a new Bradford emerge from a hole in the ground?

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