Just before my very first adrenaline-rush deadline as a trainee journalist on Hull’s evening newspaper, the news editor introduced me to a formula for writing stories known as The Five Ws. In rapid-fire succession, he said, reporters had to answer the questions Who, What, When, Where and Why.
This formula served me well for years, although “Why” often depended on obtaining a good quote, i.e. from a traffic policeman at a serious road accident. But if I were starting out today, I’d want to add to those questions a sixth W, the blunt social media acronym WTF. That is my gut reaction to so many stories right now.
I find it hard to read newspapers without wanting to kick the furniture, or in some cases throw up. It’s not just the obscenity of Syria’s destruction, or the bewildering appeal of a venal shyster like Donald Trump to vast swathes of the US. It’s not only the insane leap off Beachy Head that is Brexit, or the self-immolation of the Labour Party in the face of a ruthless Tory government. WTF is my response to a daily diet of stories that make no headlines outside where I live in Yorkshire. Although not a fraction as hideous as Syria or Trump, they still defy belief.
Let’s take the example of Bradford City Council, which on the face of it seems to be competing for the title of Green Belt Builder of the Year. In recent months I’ve watched a once-sylvan valley along the River Aire fill with gigantic industrial units, making a semi-rural area – which in estate agent-speak was much sought-after – resonate to the clamour of HGVs, and turning the valley into a grotesque eyesore.
I could go on and on about Bradford Council and the other green belt land it plans to tarmac while building 42,000 new homes despite having plenty of vacant sites in the city. But it’s not just Bradford that is giving me WTF moments on this issue. Green spaces right across England are under attack. Over 2,500 acres of them are currently earmarked for industrial development despite there being 12,000 acres of vacant sites in urban areas.
What’s going on here, I believe, is not merely a desire to create new employment opportunities or build much-needed new homes. The whole concept of how building developments are assessed has been thrown out the window, partly because the government relaxed planning restrictions so that construction companies who have donated millions to the Conservative Party could make more money, and partly because councils desperately need cash. They have suffered a one-third reduction in funding from central government since the Conservatives took office in 2010.
Not only has this forced councils to close care homes, youth centres, libraries and gyms, it has also made them scramble for whatever money they can find. Want to put up some houses that will increase our council tax revenue? That’s fine with us. Want to add an ugly carbuncle to your cottage and place it in a higher tax band? Not a problem.
This emasculation of councils has resulted from the ideologically driven obsession with austerity that is ex-chancellor George Osborne’s legacy. And things look like getting worse. I fully expect many more WTF moments.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe