01/Sep/2014 - Last News Update: 21:00

Why are towns un-twinning?

Category: England

Published: 5th Jan 2012 12:01:27

British towns are starting to scrap their twinning arrangements with continental counterparts. Why are they doing so, and do such links have any purpose in the 21st Century?

At first glance, there's very little that Glasgow, Scotland, and Havana, Cuba, have in common.

Likewise, it's not easy to spot similarities between the genteel Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames and the Somali city of Borama, or indeed Sunderland and Washington DC.

And yet all three pairs of settlements are formally pledged to the closest bond of civic siblingdom. All are twinned.

The notion of twinning - known elsewhere as sister cities or friendship towns - is a tradition stretching back almost a century in the UK.

And yet while such arrangements once symbolised an idealistic postwar sprit of reconciliation, a string of newspaper stories combining local dignitaries and alleged overseas junkets have reflected a shift in public attitudes.

It's a mood on which politicians have begun to capitalise.

In December 2011, councillors in Bishop's Stortford, Herts, voted to end local authority support for the town's 46-year twinning arrangements with Friedberg in Germany and Villiers-sur Marne in France. Rejecting charges of insularity, council leader John Wyllie insisted the practice "didn't have as much relevance in today's society".

The council also denied reports it was anything to do with the fallout from Prime Minister David Cameron's European veto.

Civic leaders in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, contacted the European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), which co-ordinates twin town arrangements, in 2009, asking to break their ties with Luxeuil-les-Bains in eastern France amid complaints that the latter had not put any effort into the relationship.

Doncaster Mayor Peter Davies announced in the same year he was scrapping twinning links with five cities to save cash.

At the time, Davies faced criticism from councillors who argued he was sending out a signal that the town was insular and wilfully ignorant about the world outside. But now he insists the move has proved popular with voters.

"I don't think I've had one complaint from a Doncaster resident," he says. "There's no evidence that it made a blind bit of difference to Doncaster's economy.

"The idea that cultural links have been lost is nonsensical. Only about a dozen people ever benefited from these trips. I can see that it arose out of altruistic motives after the war, but it just became about junkets."

The scheme was not always regarded thus. Keighley in West Yorkshire was the first British town to forge a "sister cities" link with Suresnes and Puteaux, France, in 1905, and subsequently "adopted" the French commune of Poix-du-Nord in 1920.

But the practice took off in earnest after World War II, with community leaders keen both to heal the divisions of the conflict and seek support in rebuilding.

Coventry, which suffered heavy bombing, twinned with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and then Dresden, which had suffered similar fates.

The turning point in public attitudes appears to have come in the 1980s, when battles flared between Margaret Thatcher's government and several left-wing councils.

In particular, the 1980 decision by Dundee's leader George Galloway - a future Labour and Respect MP - to twin with the West Bank city of Nablus, flying the flag of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from the city chambers for good measure, became the focus of opposition to such arrangements.

But the notion has not entirely died out, even if its contemporary manifestation often differs radically from traditional formats. In October 2011, a Conservative councillor proposed twinning Royston, a sleepy town of 14,570 souls in the Hertfordshire Chalk Downs, with Benghazi, fulcrum of the Libyan rebellion.

In 2009, Swindon - the Wiltshire industrial town often used as a synonym for prosaic suburbia - agreed to twin with Walt Disney World in Florida. Seven years previously, Wincanton in Somerset went one stage further by twinning with Ankh-Morpork, an entirely fictional city that appears in the fantasy novels of Terry Pratchett.

For supporters of the practice, such gimmicks might be going too far. But even advocates acknowledge that the scheme has to adapt if it is to survive.

Max Hill, a retired languages teacher from Sandy, Bedfordshire, is responsible within his town's twinning association for its link with Skarszewy in northern Poland.

Contrary to the stereotype, Hill says, Sandy's councillors have very little involvement in the link, which - like most twinning arrangements in the UK - is largely managed by community volunteers.

The focus of the connection comes each summer, when pupils from Sandy's schools travel to Skarszewy to teach English. The visit comes at no cost to the British taxpayer, Hill says - students fund their own flights and their accommodation and food is paid for by the Polish local authority.

"The kids get a huge amount out of it," he says. "They're in a totally different environment, they learn a lot and they make friends.

With Skype and the internet, you don't have to have coachloads of people travelling around to civic receptions”

"They broaden their perspectives - cultural, linguistic, social. As a country we remain very insular - we're probably not as bad as the Americans, but more so than most countries in Europe."

Crucially, Hill believes that the Skarszewy link has thrived because the UK and Poland remain distinct enough culturally for both sides to learn enough from each other. By contrast, he believes, many tie-ups with closer European counterparts have dwindled in relevance since the post-war era as cheap travel has become more widely available and communications links have improved.

Indeed, of the UK's approximately 2,000 formal twinning arrangements, 50% are with France and 23% are with Germany, according to the Local Government Association.

For this reason, communities may need to look further afield - particularly to emerging markets in China and India - if the system is to remain relevant, according to local government expert Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.

Likewise, he believes, such schemes will have to make better use of communications technology in place of physical "fact-finding" visits if they are to avoid tough questions about the use of public funds.

"People travel so much more that the idea of fixing on one place is slightly inconsistent with the free movement that many, if not all of us, expect.

"Public sector austerity means that some marginal activities are harder to justify even if they don't cost very much.

"With Skype and the internet, you don't have to have coachloads of people travelling around to civic receptions."

It's a paradox that as the world gets smaller, friendship links become more difficult to maintain. As is so often the way, however, the web may help distant siblings stay in touch.

Source:
BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2012. Why are towns un-twinning? [Online] (Updated 5th Jan 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/215377/Why-are-towns-un-twinning [Accessed 1st Sep 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • China accuses MPs of Hong Kong 'interference'

    The Chinese authorities have accused British MPs of interfering in Hong Kong's affairs, Newsnight has learned.
  • Boris Island airport plan 'to be rejected'

    A plan for an island airport in the Thames estuary will be rejected, the BBC understands.
  • 'Cloud' concerns after celebrity picture leaks

    Experts have raised concerns over the security of "cloud" storage sites following the leak of intimate pictures of celebrities.
  • British Ebola patient 'pretty well'

    The parents of the first British person to contract Ebola during the outbreak in West Africa say he is recovering well.
  • Thames Water fined £250,000 for Chase Brook pollution

    A water company has been fined £250,000 for polluting a brook in Newbury.
  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com