One country, two nations

17 Mar 06
PETER HETHERINGTON | In the corner of England where I live, the fragile economy rests on a knife-edge.

In the corner of England where I live, the fragile economy rests on a knife-edge.

I’ve lost count of the number of businesses going to the wall over the past few months but they include the confectionery company, employing mainly women, many of whose parents and husbands doubtless lost their jobs when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s; the big, brand-name furniture factory; and the

long-established carpet works. Such job losses, several hundred here and there, rarely make headlines. But totted up, they amount to the equivalent of, say, the collapse of MG Rover last year.

New Labour might be boasting the highest employment levels in the European Union, but in the English Northeast and other traditional manufacturing areas there is precious little sign of an upturn — retailing and entertainment apart. While official unemployment is relatively low, the number of people regarded as ‘inactive’ is high because they have been diverted on to invalidity benefit as industries collapse.

In the Northeast, they probably represent around 6% of the working population — more than 90,000 — according to estimates by Sheffield Hallam University based on Department for Work and Pensions figures. The Southeast, by contrast, has only 45,000 (0.9%).

It gets worse. Easington, an old pit community on the County Durham coast, tops the chart with around 8,000 people, over 14%, hidden on IB. Below it a ‘top 20’ of IB ‘hot spots’, prepared by the university, is a roll call of old industrial England: Knowsley on Merseyside; Liverpool; the once-thriving Cumbrian shipbuilding town of Barrow; Barnsley; Middlesbrough; Stoke; Hartlepool and so on.

Truly, England embraces two nations: the relatively prosperous greater Southeast, with its housing and labour shortages, creaking infrastructure and emerging growth areas — and the rest of the country, prospering in parts, struggling elsewhere.

Of course, we can over-simplify this national divide by failing to recognise deep pockets of poverty in London boroughs and in parts of the south. But take two districts, 200 miles apart, at the extremes of the health divide. Easington (population 94,000) — on the doorstep of Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency — probably has around 48% of its workforce employed; Wokingham, Berkshire (population 150,000) has 70%. In Easington, more than 30% of people have said they’re suffering from a long-term illness, compared with 11% in Wokingham. Life chances in too many parts of England are poor.

A surprise, after almost nine years of New Labour and an avowedly redistributive chancellor? Possibly. But at one level — the eradication of child poverty — considerable progress was expected. We have certainly moved on from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in 2004. This noted that poverty was now concentrated in households with children and ‘a child has more chance of living in a household with below a 60% median income threshold [the government’s current definition of a family in poverty] than… in almost any other European country’.

Two years on, Britain is moving closer to the European average although it is well short of its target of cutting the number of children living below the threshold by a quarter from 1998/99 levels. While there has been a drop of 700,000 children living below the median, 300,000 remain. This might be why Blair, frustrated by the latest figures, is gearing up to give poverty a higher priority.

But no amount of payments in Working Families Tax Credit and other redistributive measures - welcome as they are - can compensate for collapsing economies and continuing job losses.

Bluntly, to rescue the old industrial areas on the PM’s doorstep and beyond, where poverty remains high and health depressingly poor, the government must embrace a more active, hands-on regional policy —rather than ruling out any South-North redistribution and (to quote a 2001 Treasury paper, which appears the ultimate cop-out) ‘building on the indigenous strengths in each locality and region’.

Even some Conservatives are now questioning that hands-off policy, a recipe for the other nation of England to drift further into poverty and hopelessness. This nation faces further threats in the form of NHS budget cuts — although many of its local trusts are, ironically, in surplus.

Former miner Kevin Barron, MP for Rother Valley in South Yorkshire and chair of the Commons health select committee, fears that health budgets in his area will be ‘top sliced’ to bail out struggling trusts in more prosperous areas.

That will heap more injustice on forgotten England, and make the task of combating child poverty, and other ills, even harder.

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