A Cuts Scene Investigation Special: Prospects for our borough
In 2009, our borough was in the midst of recovering from the global economic downturn along with numerous others in the United Kingdom. Even so, there was some optimism in the air. Despite voting ‘no’ to the congestion charge, Ashton-under-Lyne – thanks to a different funding package – got her trams. Though internet shopping began to make inroads, the Arcades Shopping Centre was slated for future extension. Public services were well funded. People still had money, and confidence, though energy prices started to climb. The new IKEA Store also helped things.
Ashton was lively, though still less so than ten or twenty years earlier. The bargain shops, pawnbrokers and cheque cashing shops, albeit as a legacy of previous governments and its deindustrialisation. Though they occupied units which would otherwise be vacant, its muchness didn’t quite befit the air of Greater Manchester’s third most popular shopping centre. Ashton’s selling point was its market hall and proximity to Manchester city centre. Its future seemed assured.
Or so we thought…
Fast forward to May 2010. No, forget that, fast forward to February 2013…
In the last three years, Ashton and the rest of Tameside’s towns have been gravely affected by the current government’s spending cuts. Since May 2010, it has seen:
- The closure of five libraries and reduced opening hours throughout its remaining branches;
- Outsourced facilities management of public buildings to Carillion;
- The loss of two important cross-boundary bus routes (the 239 and 397);
- The mothballing of Setantii and Waterworks museums;
- The closure of all public toilets except Ashton-under-Lyne Market Hall;
- Drastic cuts to opening hours at the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery;
- The closure of visitor centres and Ashton’s Tourist Information Centre;
- Over 1,200 public sector jobs lost (Tameside MBC and the NHS included).
And there’s more to come. Thanks to the ConDems’ rigged Local Government Settlement payments (rigged in favour of more affluent boroughs), we may see:
- The sale of 54 council buildings;
- Tameside MBC move to smaller premises;
- The closure of community centres in Audenshaw and Dukinfield;
- Hyde library move from its Union Street premises to the town hall.
And there’s probably much more to come besides the confines of this list above. Again, it is easy to blame our council wholeheartedly for making the cuts, but they have been forced into this by their ultimate paymasters in Westminster. Besides breaking up communities, it has meant the loss of skilled work, it has reduced footfall in our town centres. It has also meant an overall loss of morale in our area.
In the last six months, I have noticed how downbeat our borough is. The open market seems to be less vibrant; the queues in our local shops have fallen; pubs – what’s left of them – are quieter (with the exception of Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar and any of J.D. Wetherspoon’s establishments). Parts of Tameside feel like the post-nuclear Sheffield immortalised in Threads, though with charity shops and more modern buses and trams. Anything with a whiff of optimism is shot down in the letters pages of the local newspapers.
With the Metrolink due to reach Ashton by the end of this year, and continued investment in the Trans-Pennine rail route, there is scope for optimism. With present central government policies, it may be quite a while before a ‘feel good factor’ returns to Tameside. What’s worse is, the most draconian of the ConDems’ policies seem to be unchallenged; all the more unforgivable as our borough was the birthplace of the Chartist and Luddite Movements.
* * *
The Coming Storm
Major tenets of the ConDems’ Welfare Reform Bill are set to take effect in April of this year. Tameside, it seems, has already been hit hard by the first lot of ConDem cuts. It hasn’t really recovered from previous Conservative governments under Thatcher’s and Major’s tutelage. Whereas Britain is set to reach a triple dip recession, it is probably not too churlish to say Tameside has been in recession since 1980.
Unlike 1981, the chances of leaving Dukinfield Central estate or St. Peters Ward with a Doctorate then a secure job is far less possible thanks to tuition fees and cuts in public and private sector employment. Today, the chances of find paid employment are stymied by some employers preferring to ’employ’ Workfare participants. This, besides denying jobless citizens the right to paid work, actually takes money out of local and national economies. Central Government loses out on income tax revenue, from employers paying staff the going rate. Local economies lose out as falling disposable income means more empty shops, closed pubs and reduced bus services. Who would want to invest in the area?
The Welfare Reform Act will see Tameside’s already stagnant economy fall further into the abyss. Along with Wigan and Oldham, it will be one of three pilot areas in Greater Manchester for Iain Duncan-Smith’s Universal Credit scheme. Instead of fortnightly payments, UC will be paid every 28 days, and consolidate all benefits claimed into one payment (for example, Jobseekers’ Allowance or the Working Families’ Tax Credit component will be amalgamated with Child Benefit). At odds with previous practice, UC can only be claimed online, which alienates anyone unable to use a computer and discriminates against anyone without internet access. Therefore, our borough’s reduced library network may be stretched to the limits.
Further conditions include the obligation to find work, either by manual means (a Job Search Diary) or via the Job Centre Plus’ Universal Jobmatch network. Though this has been a condition of claiming JSA since the 07 October 1996, this will be extended to part time workers claiming UC – with sanctions to boot. For the last decade and a half, DSS/DWP sanctions have been imposed on jobseekers breaching their Jobseekers’ Agreement. The last six months have seen the severity of them increased, with lower level sanctions incurring a month’s loss of benefit, rising to three years for higher level sanctions (up from one year). This would mean greater dependence on legalised loan sharks, Foodbanks or a Crisis Loan.
Forget that last point: Crisis Loans from the Department of Work and Pensions will be abolished, and replaced by local support. Therefore, Your Already Squeezed By A Poor Local Government Grant Settlement Tameside MBC may be administering Crisis Loans. Details at present are sketchy, so it seems as if that safety net has been cut as national coverage will have ceased. Cue administrative chaos and a 21st century answer to the Poor Law.
Tipping benefit claimants over the edge will be forthcoming changes to the Housing Benefit system. As detailed elsewhere in this blog, capping has been introduced. From a sample of houses in the Tameside area, East of the M60 noticed a sizeable number of dwellings which were slightly under the cap, though vulnerable to rising above that point. Most pernicious of all is the ‘Bedroom Tax’. Occupants of a bog standard two bedroom terrace in our borough, would see a 14% cut in Housing Benefit, if only one bedroom is used. This rises to a 25% cut for a three bedroom house, if one bedroom is occupied.
The Bedroom Tax will have a profound affect on Tameside claimants, owing to the area’s housing stock. A great many of the borough’s dwelling are two bedroom terraced houses or flats. It also makes no allowances for the fact disabled persons may need the extra room for storage (or ‘time out’ from sensory overload). It dissuades potential entrepreneurs from setting up a business in their bedroom and denies schoolchildren a quiet study area.
Furthermore, the borough’s disabled citizens will be penalised by inferior support, with the Disability Living Allowance replaced by Personal Independence Payments. The criteria has changed with a potential 3.2 million disabled persons likely to miss out. The outsourcing of assessments to ATOS Origin and Capita, plus complete lack of regard for medical evidence has seen increased suicide rates.
From April of this year, the National Health Service will no longer be a truly nationwide health service. At present, decisions regarding Tameside’s health centres and Tameside Hospital are taken by the Tameside and Glossop Clinical Commissioning Group and regulated by Monitor. In England, Clinical Commissioning Groups will be able to commission health services from ‘any willing provider’. Therefore, as well as the CCG themselves, the likes of Virgin or Circle Health could take over your local clinic if they successfully win the tender. As was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s, doctors will also be fundholders. Unlike the late 1980s, there is legislature to allow patient charges and the incorporation of EU competition law. As well as ending a truly universal service, the forthcoming muck storm could be akin to bus deregulation on ward trolleys. Cue rapacious health insurance sharks circling Darnton Road and Fountain Street…
Besides the coming muck storm detailed above, the average Tameside resident will be squeezed by rising energy bills and food prices. The start of April is also a favoured time for bus fare rises, so expect a Dukinfield to Ashton journey on the 346 to reach £2.20 by then.
Shops will continue to close: Ashton’s HMV is set to close in a month or two. A few other chains may follow suit with speculation over a further 140 retailers being on shaky ground. Stalybridge is set to lose its branch of Barclays Bank. Dukinfield is set to lose its only bank, as will Mossley (both of these are partly state-owned – NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland). With the latter, a planning application has been stated in the Tameside Advertiser, with conversion of the Old Brow bank building into three apartments.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The already stagnant and fragile economy of Tameside will be further undermined. No amount of Metrolink line would get the borough back to a pre-2008 state of economic bliss, let alone 1980. With 1% benefit rises to follow and a more stretched NHS, Tameside is likely to be – hopefully only till May 2015 – an unhappier place than the one in April 2010. It will be a less equal borough, one unable to afford to leave the house nor bring themselves to look at Ashton’s newly paved open market, Stalybridge’s sold school building on Waterloo Road or Dukinfield’s boarded up community centre. It’ll be one where the borough’s six non league sides struggle to survive even more, in the shadow of the Manchester clubs and lost disposable income. It’ll be a bleak one, where many people would be ‘gainfully employed’ for free at their local tax dodging owners’ store. It’ll be one where Pound Bakery would be forced to lower their prices!
This is not the future we want! This is not the future the average Tameside resident deserves. This is not what we voted for in May 2010. Why are we sat at home and allowing all this to happen on our doorstep? Where’s the fight (put that copy of The Sun or Daily Mail in your blue bin)? Take a tip from your fellows in Haughton Green who fought against their library closure, or the Mancunians who marched against the cuts on Saturday.
The Metrolink’s due to reach Ashton by Christmas, the 25kV overhead line equipment’s due to reach Stalybridge in 2017. What use is light rail or electrification if there’s nothing to visit our borough for, or if there’s no jobs, nor money to pay for the GM Oyster Card or return fare? For freaks sake, wake up!
S.V., 24 February 2013.