The North is on the austerity front line. Susan Press, Calder Valley CLP, examines the numbers.
The archive film footage of unemployed workers marching from Jarrow to London in October 1936 is one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression. In the 1930s, radical writers like George Orwell and J B Priestley embarked on journeys around the country to observe first-hand the twin scourges of poverty and as they particularly affected the North.
Almost 80 years later, both might recognise the widening gap between the relative affluence of London and most of the South East and towns and cities north of Watford. The North has never quite recovered from Margaret Thatcher’s wilful destruction of its industrial and manufacturing base and decimation of mining communities in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and the North East. According to figures from the IPPR, between 1979 and 1987, at the height of Thatcherism, total employment fell by 1,357,000 in the North, whereas in the South it actually increased by 3,500.
Since 2010, David Cameron’s brand of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ has of course increased economic hardship and suffering right across the UK as the Government’s austerity measures and cuts take their toll. The Trussell Trust, one of the organisations which has pioneered food banks, estimates that some 13 million people in the UK are currently living below the poverty line. But, as in previous decades, it is apparently the North which is being hardest hit.
Across the country, more than 350,000 people received aid from food banks in a six month period this year – three times the number in the same period of 2012. But in the North East an eight-fold explosion in the use of food banks has been revealed by the Trussell Trust. More than 20,000 people received a three day aid package in just six months in the North East and North Yorkshire
There are currently seven food distribution centres up and running in the North East and Cumbria, in Sunderland, Durham, Billingham, Darlington, Peterlee, Whitehaven and Cockermouth. Demand is such that another seven are expected to open in the coming months in Middlesborough, Redcar, Hartlepool, Morpeth, Gateshead and two locations in Newcastle.
In my immediate vicinity, two food banks in Todmorden and Halifax are struggling to cope with the growing demand and volunteers are now supplying soup and cooked food as well as emergency aid packages to hundreds of people every week. The North and Midlands are also bearing the brunt of unemployment.
Latest figures from the DWP show the five areas with the worst statistics are Middlesborough, Liverpool, Hull, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In the UK as a whole, 18% of households do not have anyone in work; in these unemployment hotspots it ranges from 27% to 30%. The areas with the fewest workless households are all in the South. Hampshire has the lowest percentage at 10.6% followed by North Northamptonshire (11.2) Buckinghamshire (11.3), West Sussex (11.3) and Surrey (11.4).
And, despite the talk of economic recovery, there is little sign of that in northern high streets. New retail data shows that 22 of the 25 strongest performing high streets are south of the Watford Gap – and 21 of the 25 worst performing are in the North, Midlands, or Wales. This includes a 37.1% vacancy rate in Morecambe, 30.8% in Runcorn and 29.9% in Blackpool.
Take a trip to typically depressed towns like Rochdale and Burnley in Lancashire and Halifax and Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, and it‘s a sad tale of Poundlands, pawn shops and payday loan companies profiteering from crippling debts. For those who can afford food – outlets like Farmfoods and Heron Foods are packed with people buying cheap tinned and frozen produce. Other empty retail outlets are occupied by charity shops or simply lie desolate. And while London’s house prices are rising at an 8.1% annual rate, in the North as a whole the average house price rise is 1%. The number of repossessions in the North was also 33% more than the South over the past year and 72% of towns in the North had repossession rates which were above the national average.
Even life itself is seemingly a victim of the North-South divide. According to Public Health England, around 153,000 people die prematurely each year in England, with three quarters of those deaths down to cancer, heart attacks or strokes, lung disease and liver disease. And which locations have the highest mortality rates of early deaths? Manchester, Liverpool and Salford.