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They destroyed our jobs… Now they’re going to bulldoze our homes

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Issue 1680

They destroyed our jobs…

Now they’re going to bulldoze our homes

By Paul McGarr

NEWSPEAK WAS a term coined by writer George Orwell in his bleak vision of the future, 1984. Big Brother and his regime used words to mean the opposite of their real meaning. New Labour seems set on perfecting the technique.

Newcastle council recently unveiled its strategy for dealing with the problems of the city’s poorest areas under the label “Going for Growth”. “Growth”, in New Labour speak, means demolishing up to 6,000 council homes and no guarantee of a single new job. The plan is hailed as a model for what a government-sponsored report wants to see happen in similar areas in Britain’s northern cities.

The report argues that the run down inner city areas in Newcastle, Salford, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Leeds are beyond redemption. Successive government “regeneration” schemes have, says the report, done little to improve these areas. The best that can be done is to “manage the decline” or demolish them. Newcastle City Council leader Tony Flynn argues, “Good money has been thrown after bad in some of these areas,” and that the Newcastle scheme “is a trailblazer for other cities”. There is no doubt that areas like Newcastle’s run down West End are in dire need. I myself lived in the area 15 years ago. Then, while poor, the area was not a bad place to live.

Returning now, the street I once lived in is half demolished. The rest is a mix of boarded up windows, burnt out buildings, and barbed wire or glass shard topped walls around those still inhabited houses. The media talk of vandalised estates overrun with “problem families”. But talk to local people and you quickly find the reasons for the degeneration of the area.

Tom is a porter at the nearby Newcastle General Hospital, the West End’s biggest employer. He has lived in the area most of his life: “When I was young you could get jobs in building, down at the Vickers Armstrong factory, the shipyards. That’s all gone. People, especially the young, have nothing to look forward to. Nobody’s got any money.” At one time the Vickers Armstrong factory in the west of the city employed tens of thousands of people. Barely 500 now work there.

Today there are very few well paid jobs. Newcastle City College lies in the west of the city. Many local young people go there hoping to gain qualifications that will give them a future. But a sign of that future hangs over an archway through the centre of the campus: “Call Centre Training Suite”. Low paid jobs in call centres are hailed as one of the few growth areas in the north east.

A visit to the local job centre, though, finds just one vacancy on display for a call centre. It is for the important sounding post of “deputy manager”. The salary is just 8,000 a year – that’s 3.84 an hour before tax. The few other jobs advertised in the area are no better. “Catering assistant” (working in a cafe) at 3.60 an hour for a 48 hour, six day week on shifts is one. There’s a bar person wanted at 3.70 an hour on shifts, and a bingo caller at 4.10 an hour.

Many in the area believed the promise that new high tech “sunrise” industries would bring work to replace the lost manufacturing jobs. Siemens is a name most people quickly mention when talking of that hope now. Its vast semiconductor plant on Tyneside was opened in a blaze of publicity by the queen in 1997, and the company pledged to create 1,200 new jobs by the end of 1999. The plant shut just over a year ago. It is a gleaming 1 billion hulk, mocking people in the area who are desperate for jobs and hope.

“IT’S DISGRACEFUL the way the papers and politicians talk about people living here. People want to do things, but they need jobs and hope.”

  • GAIL CALLAGHAN, hospital domestic and West End resident

Who’s to blame?

NEW LABOUR and the media argue that areas like Newcastle’s West End have had money spent on them and yet this has done little to reverse the decline. It is true that a succession of government-backed schemes have failed to halt the spiral down. The area has had a five year “City Challenge” programme, and others such as the Scotswood Area Strategy. Most people who have been through such schemes are clear about why they failed. Rizwan Sheikh has lived in the area for 12 years and has been involved in community schemes:

“We’ve had City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget, but they’ve been cosmetic exercises. It needs to go beyond that. The area’s real problems are lack of investment in jobs, education and services. You get crime, yes. But when people have been out of work for years, when you get generations of children growing up with parents out of work, you get frustration and alienation.”

Viv Schwartzenberg worked in community work in the West End for many years: “In the City Challenge you didn’t really get genuine investment in the area. Very few people ended up with permanent jobs. It was all a con. People had hopes dashed. They promised a community school, but halfway through they said the money wasn’t there. Services have been cut – swimming pools, youth facilities.”

Viv strongly rejects the demonisation of the area’s young people: “The idea these kids are lost to crime and drugs is rubbish. They need support, but it’s not there.”

Class Divide

MANY COMMENTATORS talk of a north-south divide in Britain – of run down northern cities, and a booming capital and south east. The reality is different. Poverty every bit as bad as Newcastle’s West End can be found in areas like Tower Hamlets or Lambeth in London. And, just as in the south and London, poverty sits cheek by jowl with fabulous wealth in northern cities. In Newcastle, for example, millions have been poured into redeveloping the Quayside area.

There are brasseries, wine bars, “business centres” and yuppie flats. It is modelled on London’s Docklands. Little of the development benefits people in areas like the city’s nearby West End. The contrast between rich and poor is stark. The council produces “ward profiles” every few years. The most recent are from 1996, but little has changed since.

In the South Gosforth area of Newcastle there is “a very high proportion of people in professional and managerial” jobs. Unemployment runs at just 5 percent, way below the city average. Over 83 percent of homes are owner occupied, 40 percent have a computer and over a third a dishwasher. Just 7 percent of people, half the citywide average, have a long term illness or disability.

The West City ward in the West End has a different “profile”. Male unemployment ran at 42 percent and 74 percent of all children lived in households with no one earning. Almost one in four had no phone, and a staggering 20 percent of people had a long term illness or disability. The real divide, everywhere, is class. Newcastle council’s plan will do nothing to change that.

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