friday-rant
Business Management

Rant: The UK's most awful tech towns

California is in many good judges’ estimates the most wonderful place in the world. Studded with fine towns and cities and possessing a gorgeous coast, dramatic valleys, delicious wines, national parks, proper British-style beer, more mountains than you can share a stick at, excellent dining and enviable dwellings, it is also rich in culture, sporting venues and pretty well anything else you might want when not enjoying the marvellous climate.

There are caveats of course: the cheek-by-jowl proximity of wealth and poverty in San Francisco is an awful conjunction, the state is prone to earthquakes, San Jose is desperately dull, many of the politicians are thick, Los Angeles appears to be a long road linking Botox clinics and facelift emporia, and there is no decent newspaper to be read – perhaps there is no time given that the tanned and lean population seem to spend most of their time competing in triathlons. But in general this is a very decent place to live and it is home to a large number of technology companies.

Now fly half the span of the globe and for purposes of scientific comparison take a look at the towns where technology companies domicile themselves. You may note a jarring disconnect: the UK bases of some of the world’s most prosperous businesses also happen to be some of the worst places to live.

Most of them are hard by the M4 motorway, itself no beauty spot and embarrassed when compared to California’s highly cinematic Pacific Coast Highway. Optimists refer to Silicon Corridor although the term has not caught on.

Slough, presumably named after Bunyan’s allegorical Slough of Despond, is emblematic of rubbish towns and king among them. It appears to have been assembled by East German brutalist architects of the 1950s and we can only assume that its founding fathers had shares in concrete.

A pathetic fallacy dictates that it is always raining in Slough, and it’s not just any rain but rather a sulky, indifferent but persistent affair with attendant matt grey skies as the monotone backdrop. Slough is a desperate place that is unloved by anybody with any sense. Its posh neighbour Windsor, where Her Majesty the Queen resides, doesn’t even want to share a postcode with Slough, and who can blame it.

The poet John Betjeman famously wrote: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/It is not fit for humans now.” That’s a bit harsh but you do feel that scrapping the existing version of the town in favour of a 2.0 upgrade might be a good start.

Bracknell is very definitely a dump without discernible character or pulse. The immediate instinct on arriving there is to turn back or head for a pub and drink to forget but, as with all these towns, there is not even a good pub to be enjoyed.

Camberley is a place that seems to have started out with decent intentions but then given up on life. Twyford appears to be Camberley’s little brother with a strong family resemblance.

Feltham, handy for the famous youth detention centre, is known locally as “filthy Feltham”. Whey-faced youths congregate at stations but looking for what? Trouble? A way out to Anywhere But Here?

Reading is a place that appears to have set out to be average at everything. Even the football club has relocated outside the town.

Why do tech titans base themselves in these drear places? Proximity to Heathrow Airport is one factor. Access to people from all over the world who have ended up nearby because of their native countries’ corruption and economic ineptitude is another. Half-decent transport links might be a third.

Such is the dire state of these places that some bright sparks elect to base themselves in central London but, alack and alas, the place is filled to the gunwales, increasingly bland and internationalised, and you need sharp elbows and a First Class season ticket make the commute bearable.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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