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Is this the worst Christmas display in Britain?

Saddlers, a small shopping centre in Walsall
Saddlers, a small shopping centre in Walsall - Jeff Gilbert

On the first Monday of December, it is pouring with rain in Walsall. The council cannot be blamed for this; the drab grey winter sky is not their fault. The Christmas tree occupying pride of place in the West Midlands town centre very much is.

It’s only fair to start by saying you cannot fault it for size. It is huge. Possibly 30 feet high. Like a giant, green, faceless beast. Like an Ent from Middle Earth. Like the Hulk, minus his purple shorts.

But what it boasts in stature it lacks in decor. It is almost indecently naked, its saving grace a string of fairy lights. That’s it. There is not a bauble nor a scrap of tinsel in sight.

Walsall residents look at this year's town Christmas display
Walsall residents look at this year's town Christmas display - Jeff Gilbert

Most of the fairy lights twinkle faintly in the early afternoon. A section of lights near the bottom of the tree have already given up the ghost, or perhaps never even had the ghost to begin with. As if in embarrassment at its denuded appearance, the tree seems to list a little to one side.

The people of Walsall are, for the most part, unimpressed by this unfestive display. The lack of Christmas cheer is not merely disappointing, say some, but indicative of a deeper civic malaise.

“It’s just the perfect example of Walsall,” says Michael Harper, 69, who used to work for the local authority. And he doesn’t mean it in a good way.

“Years ago, you could be proud to see [the] Christmas tree in Walsall. This one is terrible. It shows you what’s happened to Walsall. They might as well not have put a Christmas tree up at all.”

The market town of Walsall, West Midlands, pictured this month
The market town of Walsall, West Midlands, pictured this month - Jeff Gilbert

Even local Labour councillor Matt Ward chipped in last week to complain that “whilst other towns have light switch-ons which draw hundreds of people into the town, Walsall gets a tree that looks like it’s been dragged around the town and the lights just thrown on.

“There is no festive cheer…Shabby trees isn’t quite the festive spirit Walsall residents deserve. This doesn’t exactly give you a reason to come to Walsall to do your Christmas shopping.”

Tory-run Walsall Council has made savings of around £265 million over the past 14 years, £107 million of which were due to reduced direct government grant funding. To balance its budget in 2024-25, it needs to save about another £32 million. Against this backdrop, a lack of extravagant Christmas lights may seem understandable. But in a post-industrial town belonging to a wider region that last year saw the biggest rate of retail store closures in the UK, there are some who feel that more investment in prettifying the urban landscape is badly needed.

Walsall’s half-bare Christmas tree sits outside The Crossing at St Paul’s, a small shopping centre inside an old church. Michelle Davis, who manages the centre, suggests that if the intention behind the tree’s stripped-back aesthetic was to save public money, it was a false economy.

Walsall's Christmas display this year
Walsall's Christmas display this year - Jeff Gilbert

“Sometimes you need to spend a bit more to attract people into the town,” she says. “This end of town seems to be the land that time forgot. People want to feel there’s something to come to town for.”

So could this be Britain’s worst Christmas display? The competition, it seems, is fierce. In Denton, Greater Manchester, residents have been unsparing in their criticism of the lights rigged up in a few town centre trees, some without working bulbs. “Denton lights, absolute joke, the forgotten town,” fumed one on social media.

“‘Beautiful, no expense spared!’ quipped another, sarcastically.

Tameside Council mysteriously denied having anything to do with the lights, and pointed out that it had provided a real Christmas tree and lights on the town hall.

In nearby Hattersley, where a threadbare pine was deemed insufficiently festive, there was more Yuletide ire to calm. The “living tree” outside a community hub was judged by locals to look “half dead.” “A Christmas twig.” “A joke.” The council duly promised to replace the offending fir.

There’s a serious side to all this. Across the country, local authority spending power has fallen in recent years. According to the Institute for Government, it dropped by 17.5 per cent in the decade between 2009-10 and 2019-20, before partially recovering. In 2021-22, it remained more than 10 per cent below 2009-10 levels. This, says the Institute, is “largely because of reductions in central government grants,” meaning councils have had to do more with less.

Since 2018, seven councils have effectively gone bankrupt, including Birmingham and, most recently, Nottingham. Facing a perfect storm of central government spending cuts and increased demand for, and cost of, services, around one in 10 councils are at risk of effective bankruptcy, according to the Local Government Information Unit.

As they look at how to balance their books, a number of local authorities are cutting back on Christmas decorations and events. In Bolton, Greater Manchester, there has been no Christmas lights switch-on this year. Nor in Beaminster, Dorset, in part due to funding constraints. In Medway, Kent, businesses stepped in to fund Christmas light displays after Medway Council announced it had made the “difficult financial decision” to not fund Christmas lights in its five main town centres.

Back in Walsall, teaching assistant Zac Southall and teacher Nigel Mason are, with pupils from a local primary school, selling reindeer food and Christmas decorations in a pop-up store in The Crossing at St Paul’s. What do they think of Walsall’s attempt at a Christmas tree?

“It’s a bit shabby,” says Southall. “Some of the kids mentioned it too.”

“It does look a bit sad,” agrees Mason.

Waiting at the nearby bus station, which overlooks the tree, Ricky Hyde, 34, compares it wistfully to last year’s version.

“Last year they had coloured lights, tinsel, baubles and all those shenanigans. It was kind of straight last year. This year it’s lopsided.”

Even in these straitened times, there’s a sense that injecting a little more festive spirit into our public spaces is still worth spending public money on.

“My council tax pays for stuff like this,” says Hyde, a school janitor. “A bit more decoration would have been a bit nicer.”

Not everyone is unhappy though. “I like it,” insists Lucinda Goodman, 31, as she hurries through the bus station. “It’s just enough, isn’t it? It’s not too much.”

It is certainly not too much. But Walsall Council denies it has scrimped on its festive display this year compared to previously. “The tree and lights provided in St Pauls are consistent with the offer in previous years,” says a spokesman. “This year we have had the opportunity to add 150m of extra lights and these were installed last week. A review of our festive lighting provision takes place every spring and this will be used as an opportunity to consider the feasibility of additional lighting in future years.”

The spokesman added, however, that the council was looking at a number of savings proposals in advance of final budget decisions early next year. “These proposals include exploring the opportunity to secure corporate sponsorship of the borough’s Christmas lights, something that has worked well this year to mitigate the impact of increasing costs. At this stage, no decision has been made about the future funding of Christmas lights.”