Basildon, a town about 25 miles east of London, was supposed to be a utopia. In 1948, Lewis Silkin, then Minister for Town and Country Planning, announced that “Basildon will become a city that people from all over the world will want to visit”. 75 years later, the hoped-for visitors from all over the world have failed to materialize – and standing in the city center on a windy and wet October day, it’s hard to imagine why anyone decided to visit.

This is partly because it is difficult to see what sets Basildon apart from many other places. The architecture, a jumble of gray concrete and glass that blends into the autumn sky, is the same as that found in dozens of post-war projects across Britain. The shops are also familiar. Watching the lunchtime trade in the sprawling branch of Primark, a discount clothing store that dominates the town square, you could be anywhere; Only the locals’ characteristic Essex twang gives the game away. But the normality also makes Basildon something special, because it is the most typical place in Great Britain.

Image: The Economist

Basildon is one of 28 new towns created by government planners after the Second World War (see map). In 1947, just as the first plans were being drawn up, the film “Magic Town” was released in cinemas. James Stewart plays a hapless pollster who stumbles upon a community whose demographics exactly match those of all of America. Instead of conducting time-consuming national surveys, he undercuts his competitors by gathering opinions from them. Basildon is Britain’s magical city, more by accident than design.

Image: The Economist

The Economist examined data from 329 local authorities in England and Wales (the data from Northern Ireland and Scotland were not comparable) across seven metrics: home ownership, house prices, average age, employment levels, average earnings, educational background and ethnic composition. Each variable for each location was then compared with the median value of all municipalities (see graphic).

When it came to the average percentage distance of each local authority from the middle place in all seven categories, Basildon was right in the middle, with an overall distance of just 0.1% from the typical place. Conducting the same exercise for 2011 revealed that Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire, comprising the new towns of Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, was the most typical location in Britain at the time.

An alternative method, ranking each location on each variable and then averaging the combined scores, would move Britain’s most typical location 14 miles west and to the eastern outskirts of Havering of London. Regardless of the exact methodology, the “Magic City” is now somewhere near Essex. (We gave Basildon the same weight as urban areas with many more residents; this makes the typical British place older, whiter and less educated than the general population.)

Basildon is no stranger to being seen as a national barometer. Between 1983 and 2010, when the parliamentary constituency was merged with its neighbors, the city always voted for the party that won the parliamentary election. Political strategists believed that “Basildon Man” was a key demographic cohort who encapsulated the Conservatives’ capture of the emerging middle class in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and their return to Labor under Tony Blair in the 1990s.

Disappointingly for political sociologists, but typical of most Britons, today’s men and women in Basildon do not seem to follow the twists and turns of Westminster politics as closely. If you ask locals in the city about politics, their most common response is to berate the council’s decision to have bi-weekly trash collections. Another concern is fears of the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), a levy on older and more polluting vehicles recently introduced in the capital by the Labor mayor.

The city is also economically representative of the bigger picture. The center of Basildon has seen better days. Since 2021, the Eastgate shopping center, where Primark is located, has lost big-name stores including Debenhams, H&M, Top Shop and Next. “For Rent” signs are common around the center. A 2022 report found that more than a quarter of the city’s retail locations were vacant and that 16.2% of those had been vacant for more than three years.

But high streets are no longer the best indicator of wealth. The rise of internet shopping and the impact of the pandemic have changed the way people spend their time and money. A few kilometers north, on the outskirts of town, the Festival Leisure Park experienced a booming half-term business this week. The expansive car park was almost full as families visited the multiplex cinema, bowling alley, soft play area and indoor mini golf course. The highlight for some was the new branch of Five Guys, an American burger chain – “only the second in Essex,” as one mother put it.

Even the prospect of American burgers or a planned £3 million branch of cheap pub chain Wetherspoons doesn’t seem to be enough to attract new residents to Basildon. Despite the relative proximity to London and the post-pandemic trend of office workers moving further afield for more space, local estate agents say they are seeing little interest in relocating Londoners. “Wealthy people want Victorian houses, not the 1950s furniture we have here,” says one. When told that Basildon is Britain’s magical city, he pauses for a moment before replying: “Yeah, I don’t think that’s a selling point.” ■

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