Britain: what lies ahead?

All around the country, people are bracing themselves for a new period of economic austerity. Jobs, homes, health and education, transport and the environment all face major changes. At the beginning of this new era, we have asked 10 photographers with connections to different parts of the UK (see slideshows below) to give us a glimpse of what the future might hold.

An innocuous sounding new verb entered Britain’s political lexicon in the freezing closing weeks of last year: “to kettle”. This may conjure up a jolly fireside tableau, buttered toast and tea, that most British of scenes. But this is not the vernacular of Merrie England. It is a coinage for our times, a euphemism of police strategists for the muzzling of crowds, the controlled letting off of steam. It joined the zeitgeist in December when students went on the rampage over the government’s decision to raise university fees. We may hear more of it in the coming months as the budgetary axe descends.

Britain is at the dawn of potentially the most wrenching of years. Talk of a winter of discontent may prove hyperbolic, but not since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher rolled back the state, have we faced such enforced austerity. Some cite the Geddes Axe of the early Twenties when Britain confronted its first world war debts, or earlier. Even in the soft heart of Middle England you can sense the unease. In recent weeks the middle-market press has championed the cause of the “squeezed middle”, a supposed class of hard-working “heart of oak” types whose aspirations are deemed at risk from the government’s zeal. Such concerns – the loss of child-benefit payments to those earning more than about £44,000 a year sparked particular ire – will seem puny to many elsewhere. But they chime with a national concern that Britain is in inexorable retreat.

Certainly as followed from, say, Shanghai or Delhi, the narrative of Britain is one of a country on the wane. There is only one subject for current affairs publishers these days: the shift of power from the west. Keen to maintain its profile as a nation that counts, Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. But the mission is failing and the public is willing “our boys” to return. For gleeful ex-subjects it seems clear: a once-great imperial nation is shuffling to the sidelines. The sweeping cuts to Britain’s defence budget in the autumn underscored that theme. There was little anger in the usually jingoistic British press, but rather nostalgia, resignation, regret.

Yet it would be wrong to suppose the government’s role is now simply to manage decline. Britain is on the cusp of a new era. It may prove bleak; but that is not yet clear. City centres across the old industrial belt have in recent years been redesigned to reflect the tilt of the economy away from manufacturing. The shape of our energy sector is also being recast. Drive through the hills south of Edinburgh and you see forests of giant wind turbines whirring frantically away. The new inner-city towers could prove white elephants. The fad for wind-farms may pass (they are to some a terrible blight). But such endeavours are at least proof of an appetite for change.

Into this time of disquiet has stepped a government of astonishing ambition. In just six months it has launched reforms of every arm of the state. Welfare, health and education are all being rethought – and all this as the government aspires to wipe out the budget deficit within five years. The phrase “age of revolution” seems as apt as “age of decline”, although President Barack Obama’s experience at the midterm elections is a reminder of the political cost of fighting many battles at once.

In the early months of the coalition government much of the country seemed in seraphic mood. Even core Labour supporters knew their party had run out of puff. The pink-cheeked Tory prime minister, David Cameron, and his equally youthful Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, charmed the nation in their first sun-dappled press conference. We seemed tired of the slugfest of two-party politics, ready to break the mould and give a coalition a go. The next day’s gushing coverage set the tone. Even the brutal spending review of the autumn met with little overt alarm.

How distant and Elysian that era seems. The early onset of winter drew a sharp line under such cheer – although it had in truth already been ebbing away. This month has seen a sharp VAT rise. Welfare cuts, and job losses too, will hit hard. Ministers insist they will stand firm in implementing the £81bn of cuts. The rigour is in contrast to the Keynesian stance in the US and is viewed with awe from afar. But this is a medicine that scouts on the front line suspect many can’t stand. As one veteran in a Citizens’ Advice Bureau told me: “We are in difficult and very different times, I fear.”

As Britain embarks on its audacious experiment, across the Channel the Eurozone awaits its own difficult year. Greece and Ireland have fallen by the wayside. Now a greater test for the single currency lies in store as the markets threaten to put the economies of Portugal and Spain to the test. Against this backdrop Britain’s economy may sparkle. It has had a steady start since the coalition took charge. But the government has clearly taken a huge gamble.

For now the starkest victim is Nick Clegg. In Sheffield, where he is an MP, the students who once flocked to him on the basis of his opposition to tuition fees now excoriate him after he did a U-turn and backed the rise. In Bath, a Lib Dem city, the university student union recently disaffiliated the party’s society. You need to have 30 members to gain union funding. It had fallen to seven. So no need to “kettle” the Lib Dems, it seems – they may have run out of steam.

Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor. To comment please e-mail


Bath & Wells, Somerset

Bath, like all prosperous parts of the UK, has a hidden underbelly, which working in this city helped me discover. The Citizens Advice Bureau is anticipating cuts, like all those organisations meant to be helping the “Big Society”. Their offices are very much volunteer-run, but they need paid staff to train the volunteers and supervisors, and as the need for their services inevitably increases, they will be hard-pushed to fulfil the extra demand.

Just down the road in Twerton, Time Bank Plus offers services to people in the poorer areas of Bath. The basic principal is that no money is used, but services are exchanged, and volunteers can build up credits, which they can use for services they need themselves. The same office also organises a weekly organic vegetable drop: the supplies come from a local farmer and are bagged up by volunteers. The idea is to get poorer families eating a better diet at cheaper-than-supermarket prices. They also expect their funding, which comes direct from the local council, to be dramatically cut.

In the nearby well-heeled city of Wells, the new Women’s Institute branch has, by its second meeting, become the biggest WI in Somerset. This group of middle-class women, fully supporting the notion of self-help, is thriving. At the packed meeting I attended they were learning how to decorate cupcakes.

Despite the coalition’s hope that the Big Society can be fostered and nurtured by voluntary help, what this small journey taught me was that it has to be publicly funded and sponsored. So with the current cuts we can only assume this idea is somewhat doomed before it has even begun.

Martin Parr isone of Britain’s best known photographers. He has published many books, from ‘The Last Resort’ (1986/2009), about the British working class, to ‘Luxury’ (2009), “photographs taken while watching the rich and fabulous at international champagne-fuelled gatherings”. He is also an expert on and collector of photography books: his two-volume ‘The Photobook: A History’ (2006), compiled with Gerry Badger, has become the collectors’ bible. His exhibition, ‘Black Country Stories’ is at The Public, New Street, West Bromwich, until January 23. He is a member of Magnum Photos and represented by the Rocket Gallery in London, by Janet Borden in New York and Rose Gallery in California.


The Lammermuir Hills, Scotland

As academics and environmental artists concerned with cultural geography, we have recorded land-use changes in this stretch of the Lammermuir Hills at the edge of the Scottish Borders over the last decade. Two kinds of network feature prominently here today: on the ridge, a recently developed series of wind farms aiming to supplement national energy resources and, in the steep valleys below, woodland habitat networks which conserve natural biodiversity under threat from agribusiness and climate change.

The ridge of the Lammermuirs is scheduled to support an almost continuous line of turbines with a generating capacity of 300MW (enough to power a city the size of Glasgow), comparable to that of Europe’s largest wind farm at Whitelee in Ayrshire. The widespread scaling-up to industrial proportions of many such developments is causing considerable controversy.

The context for these developments is the present “energy challenge”. Without massive savings in energy use, the UK will, by 2020, require more than 20GW of new electricity generation: a third of current peak demand. Our EU targets – also by 2020 – are a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 15 per cent renewable energy generation (largely through wind power).

Criticisms of wind farms, however, include: inappropriateness in rural, upland landscapes; controversies concerning who benefits; damage to wildlife and environment and associated carbon emissions; inconstancy of supply; low efficiency (financially, not technically) relative to other sources; long-distance transmission losses and over-rapid scaling-up of the technology.

Wind energy could become a useful component of the multiple-use, networked landscapes of tomorrow, with benefits for both people and nature, but only if these various problems are properly addressed.

Woods do not live healthily for long if they are small and isolated. They need connections to other woods to retain biodiversity (both species diversity and genetic diversity) and ecological resilience. In present-day “developed” landscapes, natural habitats – including woodland – are often fragmented by land-use changes into patches (“islands”) within a matrix (“sea”) of different habitats. At best, from the point of view of woodland wildlife, the “sea” may be grassland which can be crossed, and at worst, areas such as major roads, which perhaps cannot.

Also today, in a time of rapid climate change, local populations of many species find it difficult to survive on their present home grounds where the climate no longer suits them. In fragmented landscapes they may become trapped on their island of habitat and become locally extinct (unable either to migrate to more hospitable places or to adapt). If local extinction happens, a new population of the “lost” species may move into the island, but only if it can cross the intervening sea.

So, to survive in typical, fragmented modern landscapes, animal and plant populations require networks of suitable connections between the islands of their habitat. “Spatial” (physical) connections are not necessary, “functional” connections are enough – manageable distances over a sea that can be crossed.

Such networks – like the ancient wooded dean seen above – can be maintained, strengthened, extended or even created at a local scale within one small area or they can span whole landscapes or continents. And importantly, because – being networks – they do not monopolise the space, they can “share” the environment with other land uses, in this case agriculture. Such “ecological-scale” strategies are currently becoming part of cutting-edge environmental management.

Dr Patricia Macdonald and Professor Angus Macdonald collaborate on cultural landscape studies at the University of Edinburgh (where he is a former head of the School of Arts, Culture & Environment and she is an Honorary Fellow), and also as partners in the Aerographica consultancy (which specialises in environmental research, record, interpretation and artworks, mainly using the medium of aerial imagery).



Sheffield, England’s fourth-largest city, built on steel making, engineering and cutlery making, suffered disproportionately in the 1970s and 1980s, as steelworks closed and high unemployment set in. Over the past two decades it has transformed itself into a major regional shopping and education centre. Meadowhall, built on the site of the Hadfield Steel Works, attracts more than 24 million shoppers a year and 55,000 students add £500m annually to the local economy. I studied here in the mid-1990s, and wanted to see how the city had changed and to explore how it might fare during another period of economic austerity.

It may well be hit harder than most. The coalition’s recent local government settlement plan shows that Liberal Democrat-controlled Sheffield Council faces an 8.35 per cent budget cut next year (in contrast to Tory-controlled Surrey Council’s 0.31 per cent).

The coalition is particularly significant here given that Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, is MP for Sheffield Hallam. Students queued for hours to vote for him in the 2010 general election, attracted by his pledge to vote against a rise in tuition fees. Having backtracked on this promise, Clegg is now a hate figure for those same students who have organised sit-in protests at the university. They have also launched a campaign to “recall” Lib Dem MPs, including Clegg, who have backed the tuition fee rises.

I wonder whether the city’s new economy will prove robust enough for Sheffield to survive? Will the gleaming new office developments find tenants? Will the queues at the Sheffield Credit Union increase? Will the renovation of Park Hill flats (the sprawling 1950s council estate, the largest listed building in Europe) by trendy developers Urban Splash continue? One thing is for sure, the coalition government, and Nick Clegg in particular, are in for a rough ride from Sheffield residents in 2011.

Simon Roberts studied human geography at the University of Sheffield followed by a course in photojournalism at Sheffield College. He has received several awards including a National Media Museum Bursary (2007) and a World Press Photo award (2010). ‘Motherland’, his first monograph, based on his journey across the Russian continent, was published in 2007, followed by ‘We English’ in 2009. He was chosen as the official photographer during the 2010 General Election. He is represented by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Klompching Gallery in New York and Robert Morat Galerie in Hamburg.


The British Embassy, Kabul

No one in Kabul is really sure where the British Embassy is. Not really sure, not technically. I ask where Her Britannic Majesty’s Embassy (British sovereign territory) is, where it ends and where Afghanistan re-begins, but none of the diplomats is certain. Is it just the office? The whole compound up to the razor wire? Is the car park in “the UK” or “Afghanistan?” The nice Estonian with whom they share the compound says he thinks his Portakabin behind the press office is sovereign “Estonia” but the doorstep is probably back in “England” and the canteen definitely is. (Idle speculation ensues as to what would actually happen if the UK went to war with Estonia: no conclusions are drawn.) There’s a road running between the embassy proper and the sleeping accommodation (confusingly called “the Egyptian site” after the previous leaseholders), which is technically a Kabul public street but no Afghan pedestrians brave the machinegun posts, ID checks, truck barriers and the 500 armed guards who keep the embassy safe. It’s easier to take the long way round. When I asked what the road’s status was, I was told “we pretty much just took it over.” (Five hundred – that’s pretty much a battalion – to secure 140 diplomats and 68 local staff.)

In the end, we’re all wrong. The ugly yellow building, originally built for the Bulgarian Mission, which I’ve been calling “embassy”, is actually a chancery. And any embassy is the people, not a building or a piece of land; though ontologically basing it on the people is equally slippery. The number of staff at what is now the biggest British foreign mission in the world is ballooning (it has tripled in the past three years), yet each person is absent for fully one quarter of their time; for every six weeks’ work they get two weeks’ holiday, with extra travel days (and a “hardship allowance” paid to staff at difficult posts).

Bewildered? I am. All I know for sure is that I’ve been living in this city for seven weeks now – slowly getting used to the ever-present danger, the dust, smog and traffic chaos; learning all the watch-your-back, avoid-that-neighbourhood rules and all the subterfuge necessary to take photographs on the street here. To step from these streets into what is meant to be “my” homeland – a world of Sky Sports and DJ nights at the bar; bacon and eggs and Marmite – I thought I might feel like I was back among my people, back in Blighty; but instead it just felt unworldly, a throwback, paranoid and a long, long, way from home. A corner of a foreign field that is, for me at least, for ever foreign.

Simon Norfolk was born in Lagos, Nigeria and lives in Brighton, England. Since the publication of his first book, ‘For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory’ (1998), he has concentrated on the effects of war and its aftermath in different countries around the world. His second book, ‘Afghanistan: Chronotopia’ (2001), won the European Publishers Award and was nominated for the Citibank Prize. His most recent book, ‘Bleed’, about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, was published in 2005. His work has been exhibited throughout Europe and America and his prints are in many museum collections. His photographs from Kabul will be included in an exhibition of his work at Tate Modern in May 2011. He is represented by the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, Gallery Luisotti in Los Angeles and the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York.



China clay, or kaolin, is a fine white clay mineral which can be created in rare circumstances through the decomposition of granite. It has an extraordinary range of uses – it is a key constituent of ceramics, paper, pharmaceuticals, food, paint and a host of other commodities. For 250 years china clay has been extracted from a series of pits around St Austell in Cornwall. The extraction of one ton of clay can result in up to nine tons of waste, so the pits are surrounded by “mountains” of unwanted granite waste and the mica lakes that make the landscape so distinct. The whole area of the pits is approximately 64 square miles.

In recent decades, increasing global trade has led to the contraction of the Cornish china clay industry and where once 7,000 employees extracted three million tons of clay, now 1,500 extract one million tons. Production and refining are no longer carried out in Cornwall and the port of Par has recently closed.

Imerys, the French company that owns the bulk of the china clay industry in the south-west, and Cornwall County Council, are faced with the challenge of what to do with this unique landscape. Once production stops at a pit, it fills with water, and the hills of waste are so extensive that no amount of earth-moving will ever be able to restore the area to its previous state. A new eco-town is proposed north of St Austell; walking trails increasingly provide amenity access across some of the area; the Eden Project has successfully transformed one pit and numerous other proposals are regularly put on the table. Health and safety are primary concerns for both Imerys and the council and much is being done to stabilise the redundant pits at the moment. But as for the future, who really knows what will happen?

Jem Southam began to document the British countryside in the 1970s, particularly the south-west where he lives and works. Characteristically, he returns to the same place again and again to trace the changes over seasons and even years. He uses a large-format camera to produce 8 x10 inch negatives, which have an exceptional level of detail. He has had solo shows at galleries including Tate St. Ives (2004), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (2006) and his work is included in many collections including the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, US. Southam is professor in the School of Arts and Media at the University of Plymouth. He is represented by the James Hyman Gallery in London, and by the Robert Mann Gallery and Charles Isaacs in New York.


Baysgarth School

Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire

I was born in this small rural town on the south bank of the Humber estuary, a wide, muddy, silver-brown, slow-moving river. The relentless flatness of the landscape all around creates both a meditative calm and a restlessness of spirit – the kind of restlessness that drives you far away.

In many ways it was a fine place to grow up. My family worked on the river, and as small children my sister and I would look out of our bedroom window at the lights over the water and imagine it was the end of the world. These were the lights of Hull, the city on the other side. For years we took the ferryboat across the river, right up to my years at art college. By the time the new bridge opened in 1981, I’d already left.

Thirty years later I returned to my old school to make these portraits. Demonstrations were taking place across the country against the raising of university fees. I was one of the last generations to benefit from a free education, and would never have been able to afford to follow my ambitions had the situation been different then.

From outside, the school was little changed. The major difference must be a common feature of most schools now – a fence and a buzzer system to enter the school itself. I was curious to meet this generation of students, to see how they held themselves before the camera, how they expressed themselves through their uniforms or, in the case of the older ones, their own clothes; in the tilt of the head, the position of the hands, the fix of a gaze.

For them, this is a time when, in a fragile way, anything seems possible. My wish is that their ambitions can be fulfilled regardless of their geographical or economic position.

Vanessa Winship was born in Lincolnshire, but has lived for much of the past decade in the Balkans, Turkey and the Caucasus, where she has completed two books, one on the Black Sea, ‘Schwarzes Meer’ (2007) and the other, ‘Sweet Nothings’ (2008), portraits of rural schoolgirls from the borderlands of eastern Anatolia. This work has been exhibited widely and won first prize in the 2008 World Press Photo portrait stories category, the Iris D’or in the Sony World Photography Awards, and the Godfrey Argent Prize, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. She is represented by Galerie Vu, Paris, where she has an exhibition opening on February 3.



If you pass through the magnificent steel arches of the 1950s Runcorn Bridge over the River Mersey towards Liverpool on a freezing winter’s afternoon, the plumes of steam from the Fiddler’s Ferry coal-fired power station dominate the skyline. Over the bridge into Widnes, a mountain of scrap metal comes into view. On top of this pile of recycled steel is a St George’s flag. The flag, now a little threadbare, was erected during the summer to show support for England’s football team in the 2010 World Cup.

The site of this metal-processing company and surrounding areas are likely to be cleared in the next few years to make way for the new Mersey Gateway project. The chancellor, George Osborne, recently gave the government’s commitment to provide the funding for this new toll road bridge over the River Mersey. Construction is planned to start in 2012 with the new landmark bridge opening in 2015.

The graded piles of steel are destined to be transported to Liverpool docks where they are likely to be exported to China, melted down and re-formed into fridges and other consumer products available for sale in British shops.

John Davies is a British documentary photographer, famous for his large, detailed views of the industrial and post-industrial landscape. In 2006 a selection of his work was published in ‘The British Landscape’, with a major retrospective exhibition launched PhotoEspaña in Madrid. This work was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2008. He is represented by the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London where his vintage prints will be on exhibition later this year.



As a photographer, London has been a very generous and lucky place for me. When I first came here 15 years ago it was on the night coach from Belfast and it took so long to reach the centre, I couldn’t believe how big the city was, and how full of life, with people from every corner of the world. The city is driven by adventurous people in search of a better life; people with direct experience and knowledge of others’ cultural identities and that’s what makes it so special.

All the pictures here are the result of collaborations between myself and strangers. Working as a photographer on the street I tend to observe, wait for all the elements of the picture to come together and then for somebody to step into the frame. It is at this point that I say, “Excuse me, would you mind being in my picture?” This exchange creates its own energy. There’s a good feeling because my request is genuine and sincere – qualities that can be communicated even when language is a barrier. I have a Hasselblad digital camera with a screen linked up to my phone, which I use as a monitor to show people the pictures I’ve shot of them so far. They’re usually very generous with their time, and eventually we find a good picture that communicates something that we’re both happy with. Finally, we exchange contact details. It’s an enriching process, a very positive exchange.

All these pictures were taken in the East End of London, in Dalston, Whitechapel and Shoreditch. The picture of the dog and woman was shot in Brick Lane at the Sunday Market. For me this is the most multicultural part of the capital. It has a wonderful mix of city workers/dwellers, tourists, immigrants, illegal immigrants, overseas art students, families, fashion people, design people, market traders, junk sellers and entrepreneurs in all shapes and sizes from all over the world. I saw the junk shop display, knew it was a powerful juxtaposition of stuff, and just needed a subject. Then there they were. The dog walked out of the shop and I asked the owner if they would be in the picture. It turned out that the dog was a professional model and sat beautifully. When everything was in place and I was ready to shoot, the sea of people making their way along the narrow street stopped, parted and waited for the picture to be finished. They waited for about 10 minutes while I was on the opposite side of the road trying to get it right. That’s the generosity of spirit I’m talking about.

Hannah Starkey graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1997 and had immediate success with her large-format semi-staged photographs, many of which focused on the situation of young women living and working in London. Since then she has continued to reflect the experiences of women through her images, which have been exhibited and collected by galleries and museums in Europe and America. Her work will be exhibited at The Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick, January 15 to March 12. She is represented by Maureen Paley in London and by the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.



Belfast is still in transition. The city is emerging positively after nearly four decades of conflict. Despite the massive economic woes facing the south of Ireland, the rigorous cuts by the British government and the nudging threat of dissident republicanism, Belfast is in better shape today than it was 10 years ago. It is progressing inwardly, its city centre is energetic and promising, but take a 20-minute stroll outside the centre and you are walking into the past. Belfast remains a divided city where, even today, only one in 10 people marry outside their religion – the same ratio as during the Troubles. The division is seen in the many so-called “peace walls” dividing the city’s Catholic and Protestant communities. Built as temporary structures at the beginning of the conflict in the late 1960s, the peace walls have steadily grown in number and with each year that passes have become higher. Northern Ireland has now nearly 60 peace walls, the majority in west and north Belfast. That said, what they symbolise – division and hatred – often goes against the newer, emerging Belfast, which has changed beyond recognition.

Belfast now boasts Ireland’s tallest building, although filling it is a worry; it has a stylish arts quarter, restaurants the city has never seen before, an expanding university, and an active, populated, centre. There are still massive hurdles to face. The past still hasn’t been fully confronted – the new shopping centres, apartments and bars seem to be trying to compensate for that; the suicide rate among young males remains one of the highest in the world, and the economy is 70 per cent dependent on the public sector. But the city has never felt so good. If you grew up in the Troubles, you sometimes have to pinch yourself to believe that you’re in Belfast, such is the transformation.

Donovan Wylie was born in Belfast in 1971, left school at 16, and embarked on a three-month journey around Ireland that resulted in the publication of his first book, ‘32 Counties’ (1989), while he was still a teenager. In 1992 he was invited to join Magnum Photos and became a full member in 1998. Much of his work has stemmed from the political and social landscape of Northern Ireland. His book ‘The Maze’ was published in 2004, followed by ‘British Watchtowers’ in 2007. In 2001 he won a BAFTA for his film ‘The Train’, and he has had solo exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, PhotoEspaña, Madrid, and the Media Museum, Bradford. His work has been included in shows at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. He is represented by Magnum Photos.

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