Micky Day is an electrical cable installer from Hartlepool, one of the poorest, most avidly pro-Brexit regions in the UK. He is not interested in Westminster politics and has little time for talk of the green recovery, but he knows how to unite a community and care for people who are hurting. And it is this that inspires his thoughts about Britain beyond lockdown.
“We can’t have more cuts. There are a lot of people on their knees already,” he says. “There is a lot of industry in this area. If the government puts the money on the table, it could be massive in the north-east. Let’s get people back working and lift the economy off its knees.”
Day is known locally as “the most popular man in Hartlepool” because of the amount of time he devotes to community work. He has raised more than £400,000 for cancer, established the mental health charities Miles for Men and Minds for Men, and works with local supermarkets to arrange food donations. During lockdown, he and his friends have been doing karaoke car park tours to lift the spirits of people in isolation, regaling the inhabitants of elderly care homes with Elvis and Oasis numbers.
He says this already close community of 90,000 has become stronger during the pandemic because people have rallied to help each other out. But Day foresees financial and mental health problems ahead unless there is more support. “A lot of people have been going through tough times. After lockdown, it’s going to get worse.”
How to lift and heal the country is the biggest political challenge facing the government. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is putting together a recovery budget that could be the defining economic policy of a generation. It must head off the UK’s worst recession in 300 years, address an existential climate crisis, and “level up” incomes in an unequal and divided nation. Politicians in the north-east see an opportunity for a historic transition. There are hopes that decarbonisation can give a future to a region that has often struggled to emerge from the past.
Since Margaret Thatcher closed the collieries in the 1980s, the town of Hartlepool has slipped further and further behind other parts of Britain for job prospects, life expectancy, health and economic growth.
One in three households are jobless. A third of children are obese when they finish primary school. Although there are only 40,000 families in the town, such is the level of need that there are nine food kitchens. Life expectancy was declining even before coronavirus. The local council is in dire financial straits. Locals joke darkly that even three pound shops have gone bust.
‘Covid is just another crisis’
Because the town was already so poor, the economic impact of Covid-19 has been muted. The third of the population on benefits may even be slightly better off because the government is giving an extra £20 a week in universal credit and £15 for school meal vouchers. In a ranking of which English towns have suffered the worst financial hit from the crisis, Hartlepool came 154th out of 175. Others have suffered a sharper downturn because they have lost tourist and student income.
“For us, Covid is just another crisis. We already knew who to support. We’ve been doing it for ages,” says charity coordinator Sacha Bedding. He fears that what happened to Hartlepool after deindustrialisation in the 1980s could be a foretaste of what is to come.
When the Conservative government closed the coal mines and ancilliary operations that had provided most of the jobs in the town, call centres were supposed to be the future – but they all moved to India in the 2000s. The public sector was then the biggest employer, but it was slashed under austerity programmes following the financial crisis. There has been public-private investment in redeveloping the marina, but several of the upmarket new restaurants have gone bust because there are not enough wealthy local customers to fill the tables.
“We try to reinvent ourselves, but we always seem to be one step behind because we don’t address deep structural changes,” Bedding says. “If we are not careful, I worry the country will level down rather than level up,” he says over a cup of tea at the end of another day delivering food parcels and medicine to those in need.
For most of the last few decades, Bedding – like several others the Guardian spoke to – feels people in the north-east have been ignored, scorned as “scroungers” or derided as racist throwbacks who failed to adjust to a globalised post-industrial world.
But he feels the voice of the region has grown stronger in the wake of Brexit and the election of a new post-”red wall” wave of MPs, mayors and councillors who can no longer take their support for granted.
One such politician is Ben Houchen, a Conservative elected in 2017 as Tees Valley mayor. The investments he is trying to attract include some of the biggest decarbonisation projects in Europe.
In a phone interview, Houchen comes across as very different from southern Tories like David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. He seems more concerned about jobs, levelling up and the need to decarbonise the economy.
“For Teeside, clean growth could be as transformative to our region as steel and iron were 200 year ago … This would be huge in levelling up.”
He is under no illusions about the scale of the economic challenge. “It’s absolutely unprecedented – as big as it could be,” he says. “But the rebound will be strong. There is a lot of pent-up energy in the economy … that wasn’t there in 2007.”
Many major spending projects have been pre-approved, and Houchen is hopeful for more because interest rates are low, which means the government has less of an incentive to take the path of austerity. Politically, it will also want to capitalise on its recent gains in former Labour territory.
“Everyone I have spoken to, including the PM, says we will invest in our economy, not tighten belts and cut spending. I am hoping that if Rishi [Sunak] has some money in the next few weeks, there will be projects in the north,” he said. “Depending on the direction government choses to take, we could accelerate decarbonisation.”
The old steelworks on Teesside was recently chosen as the site for one of the world’s biggest industrial-scale carbon capture and storage projects. Houchen said Net Zero Teeside will bring in more than £3bn in investment, create 5,700 jobs and capture CO2 equivalent to the emissions of 6m homes every year. It is due to start by 2025 with the backing of BP, Shell and Equinox. “They see it as the future of their business. They realise they can’t just release the emissions into the air any more,” the mayor said.
Other potential job-creating investments by the chancellor include the decarbonisation of heating in the country’s 20m homes by switching boilers from fossil fuel gas to hydrogen. “That will require refitting 2,000 boilers every day until 2050. That’s a huge number of jobs,” the mayor says.
The government could also support the domestic manufacturing of turbines for the large offshore wind farm at Dogger Bank, which is 80 miles off the Teesside coastline. Houchen estimates that would create another 5,000-8,000 jobs.
But all this is not enough to hold back the unemployment tsunami that is gathering force. There will also be pressure to generate more carbon-intensive jobs through roadbuilding and expanding airports.
Locals say they don’t care whether jobs are green or black, as long as they are not minimum wage, or zero-hours contracts, which barely pay more than benefits. That means employees in the care, health and retail sectors should be valued as the “essential workers” they were designated as during lockdown.
A caring economy
The town centre is coming back to life. When non-essential shops reopened, locals say there were so many people wanting to return to old consumer habits that streets were blocked with cars, and marshals had to be called in to manage the long lines of eager customers.
Some want a more caring economy. Independent retailers Angela Arnold and Trevor Sherwood, co-owners of the cosy LilyAnne’s coffee bar, have used their £10,000 Covid-19 support grant to expand the cafe so they can provide a “gentle space” that will help socially isolated residents to reintegrate. “Covid has heightened anxieties among many people,” said Arnold. “There will be a big mental health impact.”
But with the prime minister urging people to shop for Britain, Arnold and her business partner fear the government will suspend the Sunday trading law to ramp up productivity again. “That would be a disaster for independent retailers like us,” she said.
Like many, she would like more focus on togetherness, which helped during Covid-19 and previous crises and is likely to be needed in the tough times that everyone expects to come.
“Before Covid, when did you last see your neighbour? Everyone is normally too tired when they come home. But in lockdown, we are getting to know each other again,” she says. “People are cooking for one another and leaving food on the steps, and reconnecting with friends. There is a realisation that there is more to life than money.”
At the nearby seaside town of Seaton Carew, the beachfront is as close to bustling as it is possible to get in an era of physical distancing. There are long queues for fish and chips and ice-cream. Families picnic on the sand, play football and fly kites. With pubs and amusement arcades still closed, people pay more attention to each other. The scene could come from a more innocent, bygone age. It seems that the lockdown, which started with fears of dystopia and social breakdown, appears to be ending here with people more closely bonded and appreciative of nature than before. The question now is how long that mood can last once capitalism revs up again.