When our house was the last one still occupied, and the rest of the street was 'tinned up' to prevent scavengers.
‘Answering at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together so that with safer streets and better education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure and full-fibre broadband, we level up across Britain with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity’ (Johnson 2019).
Now that Brexit is done, and the British government is free – or rather cannot blame anything on the EU – it’s time to take them at their word on ‘levelling up’. Forgive me if I sound jaded, but having grown up in one of those places – in the one percent most deprived postcodes in England in 2015 – and occasionally going back to the council estate my mum lives in, I know ‘spreading opportunity’ isn’t going to be easy. Indeed, it’s been tried before, again and again and again. When I worked in a DCLG/ Home Office quango, I found paperwork from the late 1960s where the same estates were having the same kinds of projects as were described as ‘interventions’ in the 2000s.
First, there’s lots of housing to be repaired, upgraded, replaced. Homes are cheap in Stoke, but often for a reason. At one point, a quarter of all the council homes with ‘category one hazards’ in England were in the city, and there are plenty of unfit private sector homes too. When I was at secondary school, my mum and her husband, and three children, lived in a two up, two down terrace, opposite a derelict coal mine, whose workers the houses were built for. My room was a converted kitchen, with damp walls (and so many of my childhood belongings didn’t survive). I had nowhere to do homework, my social life was in the street. If Troubled Families had existed, we may well have been on the referral list, although I will not reveal which were the case from the qualifying list (‘out of work benefits’, ‘children who are regularly truanting or not in school’, ‘youth crime or anti-social behaviour’ and ‘high costs to the taxpayer’). The house was demolished in a slum clearance programme as it was beyond repair: my brother was rehoused by the council eventually.
To be fair, the neighbourhood had its ups and downs, and was never considered the worst (see http://www.thepotteries.org/another/003.htm). One of my parents grew up in one of the council estates with the worst reputation, the other on another, more respectable, council estate. The 1980s and 1990s was a downhill period for the neighbourhood I grew up on, however. Those who could, moved away. In the 1990s and 2000s, houses were bought as buy to let, and then these private rentals were where local authorities placed those who could not be placed in the sold-off social housing. As the social fabric decayed, the facilities began to close too: the working men’s club was destroyed in an arson attack, as was the pub. Another nearby pub has closed under the Covid-19 lockdown. The sports fields were closed, as well as the fish and chip shop, newsagents, and more. Knocking down whole streets did mean eventual rebuilding of better housing, albeit more expensive than what was there before. The decline also meant a fair bit of crime and disorder: burglaries mainly, and usually perpetrated by those local, although a friend was glassed as part of a street fight outside the working men’s club.
If a boy from this street went to the local school*, they probably wouldn’t do well. In 2017, 78% of the year 11 boys at this school failed to get 5 or above in maths and English, whereas at the comprehensive near to where I lived in London, this figure was 35%. Unlike schools in other parts of the country, those in Stoke do not have 6th forms attached, so to do A-levels requires a five and half mile journey to the college. Somehow this takes 45 minutes to an hour by public transport, and costs £56 per month, unlike in London where school children and 6th formers get free transport.
While I was doing my A-levels, I did have a job, as a picker in a warehouse about 5 miles away again. By public transport, this journey would now take 90 minutes. At the minimum wage, this would pay my equivalent in 2020 a total of £18.20 for a four-hour shift, although getting there and back adds another three hours. Most of the time, I was able to get a lift there and back. I didn’t need to work when I became an undergraduate student, however: I was lucky to have fees paid by the local authority, and a maintenance grant that covered all my outgoings. To tell the truth, working as an undergraduate wasn’t allowed by the university.
Finally, we get to that regional jobs market and policy. Simply, I had to move to London to get anywhere near the kind of work I wanted: Stoke had and still has low-skilled, low-wage jobs, and enough unemployed people to make it stay that way. When I left university, I had less than £10 to my name. No inheritances or other financial help could come my way, obviously, so I could neither stay at my mum’s house, or afford anywhere else. I sofa surfed, like so many do, until I could afford rent. Indeed, every Christmas I’ve seen 20, 30, 40-something friends talking of ‘going home’, that is, taking themselves, their partner and maybe their kids to stay with the parents/ grandparents: I’ve never done that, as the ex-council house my mum lives in has no spare room. Thus, opportunity is hugely structured by these regional as well as individual inequalities. Parents with money can invest in their children’s futures, lending them some to get a foothold in the big city. Families living in big cities can provide a base for their children to do a first job or an internship. This continues later in life too: the long-term wage inequalities mean those who have earned enough to buy a home in somewhere like Stoke can never sell up and move to London to take up a new job. The houses in the street I grew up in were compulsory purchased for £55k each in the late 2000s, when the UK average was around £175k. Even the new, better built, houses are valued at only £100k now, the equivalent of a third of a one-bed flat in London.**
At least now the low paid jobs are less likely to kill people, however. One of the long-term consequences of industrial economies is a whole load of older people with work-related health problems. For the generation before, my grandparents’, it usually meant paying in for pensions that were never cashed in, as they died before 65, after some time off work for ill health. Pottery workers suffer from silicosis and deafness. While the health budgets are higher (per head) to reflect this, it also means a long-term lower total income for the city, as there are still plenty who are economically inactive before their time.
How, then, can ‘levelling up’ make an impact on inequalities that are decades or centuries in the making? The government seems to suggest that revitalising economies will be enough, with new businesses providing some better paid job opportunities. This isn’t going to move any traditional industries from one city to another, however. It won’t do anything about schools, local communities and infrastructures, wealth and assets, health or cultures. Shifting huge amounts of funding to education systems, re-building public transport, increasing the minimum wage, funding local authorities, providing financial resources to those at the bottom is all needed. Moving government departments will start a process, but this kind of levelling up will require decades of unravelling deep inequalities. It will mean the government’s core support will be worse off in the long run, as there’s no way that everyone can be in the top half of the income scale. I’m willing to wager it doesn’t really happen.
*Luckily, I didn’t. At the time, there was a scheme to send those who did well in entrance exams, but with low incomes, to fee-paying schools. My mum, who left school at 16 but went to the Open University after having children, pushed me educationally, and by the time I was 12 she became a maths teacher at the same place. My class position at that time is best described as ‘uncertain’: by some measures, I’d definitely be working class, and middle class by others, but in a working-class family. As an adult, I’m definitely middle class, while my parents are not.
**It’s also completely bizarre that the band A council tax bill for a £80k house on a council estate in Stoke is the same as the bill for a £350k band B rated flat in Kensington and Chelsea.