Sunday, 30 April 2017

Northern Powerhouse? - Northern Poorhouse! Reality in the North

Remember that great Tory initiative, the Northern Powerhouse, blazed abroad by George Osborne? Want to understand why so many people up here voted for Brexit?  Just come and take a look.  My local town, Penrith, is a prime example.  It's a small market town of about 15,000 inhabitants with a long history. There are Viking graves in the churchyard and a very substantial sandstone castle opposite the railway station which was the Northern residence of the notorious Richard III.  Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in the George Hotel in November 1745 while marching south to face the Duke of Cumberland's army at Clifton (3 miles away) for the battle that would end the Jacobite Rebellion. The small department store at right angles to the hotel, Arnison's, was owned by Wordsworth's mother's family and the Wordsworth children spent a lot of time there after they were orphaned.
Market Square with Arnisons (top facing) and George Hotel on the right.
The main sources of employment are tourism (we're 3 miles from the Lake District National Park), farming and service industries for the population.  There used to be a big bakery, but that closed. Building and transport have also been big employers in the past but house-building has been in the doldrums since house prices rose beyond the reach of local people and the transport industry has been badly hit by cuts. Even so there's almost full employment around here and staff have to be recruited from elsewhere for the hotels and restaurants in the summer (usually eastern Europe). Cumbrian ambulance services were also short of 27 paramedics which had to be recruited from Poland. Our health services are challenged by the geography (big distances and fells and lakes to be navigated). You can wait for at least an hour for an ambulance around here - and that's for an urgent call-out. GPs are also in short supply (my practice has only part time doctors and a long waiting time for appointments) and there's only one hospital with a fully functioning A&E and that has been (until a few weeks ago) in special measures.  Food banks are booming as the cost of accommodation eats up the low salaries of young families.  You get the picture.

Empty arcade - A vision of the future?
Before the financial crash there was a big 'Rural Regeneration' initiative, bolstered with European money.  Their idea of rural regeneration was to create more shops.  If this sounds absolutely bonkers, then it is!  We have a reasonably static population with limited funds - wages are low around here.  If you build shopping malls the same amount of spending money is going to be spread around these new outlets as well as the existing ones.  The plans were put on hold when the financial crash of 2008 happened, but then revived as a sure fire solution to 'Rural Recovery'.  Nothing anyone said in opposition did any good.  So rows of little shops were bulldozed down and their proprietors put out of business. A large car park also vanished.

We've got streets of empty shops
A big shiny new shopping mall was created - Penrith New Squares - as well as two new supermarkets.  We got a Booths (northern Waitrose) and a Sainsburys. Predictably two or our existing supermarkets went out of business as a result. One of them was a Coop department store which was very good value for money and could also cater for any household need you could think of.  You now have to go to a big city to get things like that. Only Aldis is thriving here.

They're all 'To Let'
That was 2011 - now, 6 years later the shopping mall still lies empty.  It has an eerie feel to it as you walk through. Who is going to rent these shops?  Certainly not the businesses that were bulldozed down - they can't afford to.  And there aren't the customers to justify anything else.  A couple of units have been occupied - Sports Direct has moved in, but seems to have a permanent sale.  And we have a Boots opticians that is usually empty. There are empty shops and offices in the old town centre too. I mourn the money that has been spent, the small historic streets that were demolished,  and the political ideology (which makes no economic sense) that shopping is somehow the answer to our contemporary ills. You can only spend your way out of a recession on huge amounts of borrowed money and look where that got us in 2008.
Angel Lane is still standing, but others were demolished to make way for New Squares.
The north is not thriving - it's hanging on by its fingernails with low-paid, seasonal jobs and zero hours contracts. There's an increasing elderly population as people from the south sell their expensive real-estate and retire to cheaper houses in the north.  Some areas are already referred to as 'God's Waiting Room'.  The Brexit vote was intended by many (though not all) as a slap in the face to the government's increasingly south-facing policies (summed up by a recent cartoon 'Weather Warning: Snowfall affecting the unimportant 70% of the country may hit London') .  In an area with a sitting Tory MP who has a huge, unassailable majority, there's little anyone can do to protest at the ballot box and that is democratically dangerous. What's the solution?  I really don't know.  Certainly some form of proportional representation (as in Scotland) and more autonomy for the North.  Anyone got any good ideas that don't involve shopping?

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