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Artillery Row

Something in the Bath water

Liberal Democrats are ruining a beautiful city with pointless regulations and Remainer spite

What is going on in Bath?

This is a question I ask myself with increasing frequency as the years go by. The city, once a byword for West Country respectability — boasting the perfect combination of London-friendly urban elegance and nearness to the countryside — has developed a strange identity of late.

This may seem like a wild assertion. To many in Britain, the golden Roman-Georgian city in the West Country is one of the treasures of the nation. It sits in lovely rural landscapes between the southern edge of the Cotswolds above, and the mystical Mendips of Somerset below. Quality of life is high, the city boasts excellent schools, the finest rugby team in England, and enjoys a fast and frequent train to London. Thanks to the Elizabeth Line in London, one can commute from Bath to Mayfair, or into the City of London with ease, making it the ideal western outpost from the capital, especially for those enjoying the Tuesday to Thursday office routine. 

But beneath the delicate architecture, summer boules tournaments, and independent bookshops (the locals are immensely proud that the likes of Stephen Fry and Rory Stewart do book signings in the city, of course), there is a strangeness to the city. Some of it goes back decades — Bath has often been a place where swampy west country weirdness and professional bourgeois smartness mix — but new trends have emerged since the pandemic and have taken on lives of their own. 

While the city has not been a Conservative one for a while — the two-year walk on the blue side between 2015 and 2017 can largely be explained by the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote and a split leftwing vote — it has only recently become an expressly ideological one, particularly since 23rd June 2016. Brexit was not a constitutional decision to Bath, but an aberration. In response, some quarters of the city have developed an excitable and performatively European identity: activist group Bath for Europe holds marches and rallies in the city, sells what it calls “the original Bath blue beret” — the uniform of the ardent Remainer — and encourages its followers to bombard newspaper polls and comment sections to complain about Brexit, “that liar Johnson”, and Putin’s role in the Referendum. 

The Bath of the 2020s is ground-zero for the Lib Dem id. Few cities have come to embody the blue-beret adorned, FBPE culture more than this one. However, it has received relatively little attention compared to cities like London or Oxford, which sit more prominently in the national mind. 

Bath is a city whose inhabitants attempt to shun any associations with provincial England, but ultimately embody it themselves. While even the Labour Party is reconciled to Brexit, and the political debate in the capital focuses on immigration and the balance of power between the government and the courts, Bath’s rustic remainers are the political equivalent of Japanese soldiers found fighting on in the jungle, long after the end of the Second World War.

Unfortunately, for the people of Bath, these people run the council of Bath and North East Somerset, and won a resounding re-election last year to take 41 out of 59 seats on the council, on a lower turnout than the election four years before.

What these councillors choose to do with their handsome majority is a picture of Liberal Democrat decadence. They have declared a “climate emergency”, and introduced a raft of new policies in response. Unsurprisingly, these have taken the form of closed roads, low-traffic neighbourhoods, congestion charges targeted at tradesmen, emissions-based parking policies, and park and ride projects. 

Most absurd of all is the “ring of steel”, a collection of collapsible bollards which has been installed around the city centre at the cost of over £7 million, and counting. Originally proposed as a counter-terrorism measure, this metastasized into a centrepiece of the Lib Dems’ anti-car policies, and was swept up in their culture war. The bollards’ installation was bogged with difficulty, costs overrunning, and the councillors opted for the most expensive versions possible — triple the original cost — to prevent any future council removing them with ease. As one would expect, these bollards have been doing their public service by repeatedly malfunctioning, preventing ambulances from being able to attend emergencies in the city. It is a novel innovation to have created an automated Just Stop Oil roadblock, and the Bath Liberal Democrats have done just that. 

Naturally, the real solution to the congestion in Bath … would be to build a proper eastern bypass to the city

Naturally, the real solution to the congestion in Bath — which has always been bad, with around 800 lorries a day driving through the city — would be to build a proper eastern bypass to the city, allowing the considerable through traffic between Wiltshire and Somerset to avoid the city entirely. However, such a solution has been pushed off the table in favour of unpopular park and rides, a stupid 20th century idea whose end cannot come soon enough. 

The last remaining town in the Bath and North East Somerset council which had the temerity to vote Conservative in last year’s local elections have been rewarded by having their free parking abolished. Midsomer Norton, home to 13,000 people, to the south of Bath, is a modest town in the Somerset coalfields, where the rural working class meet the lesser-remembered Somerset coal miners. Today, plenty who cannot afford to live in Bath itself live there and commute to the city for work. While one shouldn’t be surprised that a Lib Dem administration takes a swing at motorists, it rankles to see a council based in Bath attempt to farm revenues out of residents in its periphery, while over £7m is spent on a ludicrous bollard scheme, as it wrestles with a debt of around £6m next financial year.

There is more to life than bollards and Brexit, of course. The city remains pleasant, but it feels like it sits at multiple crossroads at once. The Brussels die-hards mix with those who represent the old Bath, the respectable west country city of Bath Rugby, Bath Abbey, and the Racecourse at Lansdown, and the growing stag- and hen-do economy which turns Bath into a tinsel, streamers, and vomit covered city in the spring and summer. There are two universities — one of reasonable quality, one perhaps not — and as is common these days, these have brought thousands of students of China to the city, who do not leave much of an impact on the city other than rocketing house prices. 

There has also been a wave of families moving to Bath from London, attracted by the property and the schools, turning the city into western outpost of the greater South East. The perfectly chic London coffee chain WatchHouse has opened its first venue outside the capital in Bath, which is hardly surprising.

Like all cities, Bath is full of contradictions. Its people have a choice over where it wishes to go in the future. It may not be able to retain its distinct, West Country identity any more, but perhaps it will eventually see the error of spending its council taxpayers’ money on hare-brained traffic schemes, and demanding builders or plumbers cycle to their jobs instead of drive a van. Sadly, with total Lib Dem control of the council and a weak Conservative Party damaged by national politics, we may have a while to wait yet for the city to see sense.

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