Over the weekend, The New York Times published a bleak long read by their European economics correspondent, Peter S. Goodman, titled “In Britain, Austerity Is Changing Everything”. The article has made a good few headlines of its own for the unflattering ways it depicts Prescot, a small working-class town, eight miles east of Liverpool. It talks about “a monumental shift in British life” as “core government relief programs are being cut and public facilities eliminated”. It describes how the poor and sick struggle against a bureaucracy designed to make them fail. It describes Westminster’s policies as “Robin Hood, reversed”.
Well, I’m here in Prescot to tell you that it’s all nonsense and that it’s a misleading representation of a proud and vibrant region I know only too well…
Except, in good conscience, I can’t exactly do that.
As I write this, I’m sitting in the Poco coffee shop on Eccleston Street. I’m here because I live just eight miles away. This corner of England is my home. I was born here and have the accent to prove it. I also know it as a region that’s sometimes easy to misinterpret and for which most descriptions usually begin with a mistake.
The mistake arises because this part of the North West is vaguely described by the descriptor “Merseyside” which, in truth, means very little. The Mersey does flow to the south but not in a way that has much bearing upon life here. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise but most people living in Merseyside are not Liverpudlians. The city makes up something like a third of the entire population of the metropolitan county. The New York Times conflates, like so many do, the region with the city.
The excellent photojournalism by Andrea Bruce, accompanying the piece, depicts Liverpool suburbs such as Allerton, Norris Green, and Everton. Move east to Prescot and the world is already changing. The influence of the city is still obvious. Liverpudlian accents dominate but, as you move away, you begin to see the influence of the country historically known as Lancashire. The accents change and sound more like Johnny Vegas (or perhaps Wallace and Gromit) than The Beatles or Cilla.
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Locating ourselves in geography and accent is important. To American eyes, the distances here might seem short but just a few short miles matter. Just a little to the north, you begin to move into the heavily accented areas around Wigan. Further East, things get very Mancunian. The suburbs around Liverpool share many of the problems found in and around all large cities. Small towns, on the other hand, tend to have a different pace as well as different problems. You don’t have to live in Prescot to understand the town but to know Prescot is to also know Kirby, Ormskirk, St Helens, Huyton, Wigan, Warrington, as well as the many smaller towns across the north which, arguably, have been hit even harder by cuts.
Yet as far as that goes, Prescot is also a little less than typical. From the station which tourist books would probably describe as “quaint”, you walk through an impressive new red brick housing development until you find the ubiquitous retail park. Ignore the signs of prosperity and push on through and you begin to climb the hill that takes you into old Prescot. The town centre is small, immaculate, but signs of difficult times are everywhere. Retail properties stand empty next to attractive boutiques. Prescot is a town that’s getting by but not flourishing. Shops survive because of regulars. The soundscape is constantly characterised by friendly gossip. Everybody knows everybody. The vibe is that of most small towns in the North West.
Yet it’s only a small-town from the vantage point of a city. From the perspective of even-smaller-town England, Prescot is one of the more attractive places to live. Built on the side of a hill, the roads pleasingly draw the eye. The spire of Prescot Parish Church overlooks the centre and you soon begin to understand that this is much more than then “bedroom community of Liverpool” as described by Goodman. It has its own covered shopping centre, a new Fire and Police station, a Tesco Extra, a museum, and is home to Whiston Hospital, one of the major hospitals serving the region. Its status accounts for it being the proposed site of the new Shakespeare North, a centre for Shakespearean studies which will include a playhouse. It also sits on the southern edge of Lord Derby’s estate, which means that local attractions include Knowsley Safari Park. There are not many towns in the region that can boast of even a fraction of that infrastructure.
The tendency of all articles that catalogue austerity is to allow the extremes to define the mean. Those that protest poverty will rarely concede that some seek to scam the system. Those that complain about “cheats” are unwilling to accept the need for social provisions. Both realities exist side by side. Austerity is also problematic because it contrasts with many of the improvements that have made life better than it was twenty years ago. Yet, again, perspective matters.
Last week, The Guardian’s Northern Editor wrote an article that described how Manchester has “got it’s groove back” but it too fell into simplifications, this time by idealising the northern “renaissance”. There are indeed places where the economy has flourished but other towns have deteriorated. Where improvements are obvious they rarely come cheap. Train services (until the current debacle that saw three hundred cancelled last Monday) had improved and we have cleaner and more reliable buses. Yet each comes at a price. Fares are unreasonably high such that many simply cannot afford them. The same is true of social provision. Better for some comes at the price of worse for others.
So, how is it best to describe austerity? It is a thinning of what was barely there in the first place. It is a state of continual compromise until the thing you have compromised is no longer worth saving. Goodman describes it as a “slow bleed” and that feels about correct.
Take the case of Prescot’s library for which Goodman has been so heavily criticised. He writes that the “old library building has been sold and refashioned into a glass-fronted luxury home”. That might lead some to believe there is no library yet, as The Spectator rightly points out, Prescot does have a library. Yet what The Spectator does not discuss is whether it’s an adequate library and here context does matter. What is “adequate” for one town is hardly adequate for another. In this case, the library is an adjunct to the museum, or, rather, the museum an adjunct to the library. The two share a large hall in the town’s shopping centre. It’s an example of the creative use of available space but, in truth, both the museum and library stretch the definition. Both are small but too small for a town the size of Prescot? This is where the arguments get contested.
How little of a provision should a council provide before it’s no longer considered a provision? My hometown falls under St Helens Council who recently sold our 100-year-old F.E. college in the face of local objections and turned it into flats. In the process, the adjacent library was reduced to half its previous size. As locals here or in Prescot would tell you, the nearest “proper” library is in St Helens, except that has been closed since March 2017 and has no date for reopening. The nearest library worthy of the name is the Central Library in Liverpool, a beautiful building whose architecture is only matched by its popularity and the fact that it’s a pricey thirty-minute train ride away.
So, does it matter that we have no meaningful library service? Does it matter that the opportunity for further education has moved to another town? Austerity is about slow attrition. First, you lose your college and then your library shrinks and then the nearest “community college” becomes a faux university, no longer interested in catering to the local demand for practical skills but grabbing the riches offered by degree courses.
Austerity is also cruel, not because it was designed that way but because the accumulation of bad decisions and cheap alternatives too often amounts to systemic negligence felt most acutely in those places where margins were already at the finest. Goodman interviewed people “investigated for fraud” but it’s hard to convey the brutal reality of the system that can suddenly and without appeal end benefit payments because of a glitch in the system. He spoke to Glendys Perry who was born with cerebral palsy and who recounts her disability assessment which ended with her being declared fit for work. She concludes: “They want you to be off of benefits […] I think they were just ticking boxes.”
That is no glib assessment. It is precisely what it feels like when a system ill-equipped for change is changed with little or no consideration for the consequences. Disability assessments might seem reasonable until you or a relative is called to attend one at 8 am on the outskirts of town, half a mile from the nearest bus stop, and without a pedestrian path into the “compound”. How should you feel when you’ve seen a sick relative asked about fitness for work when they’ve been forced to scramble over muddy grass banks in the cold winter rain? The system demands punctuality (the penalty is steep) but offers no apology when you are left waiting for two hours before they dismiss you because they have nobody qualified to assess you.
There are worse tales than this but I choose to speak only about the situations I’ve witnessed at first-hand.
Again, these might seem like small objections and sometimes trivial matters but that’s the problem with austerity. There is no single mortal blow. It’s a thousand cuts and then a thousand more. In the majority of cases, people absorb the pain. People adapt when refuse collections become more sporadic or when they have to pay to have garden waste taken away. Yet there are others for whom the cuts are live changing and, in some cases, life-threatening.
Those that doubt the New York Times article should perhaps be thankful the author looked at Prescot and not Manchester where he would have found homelessness at levels that shame any government. Prescot does not have the drug problem caused by “spice” that has still not been contained. It doesn’t have people sprawled out on the streets or benches that always seem to have a homeless person sleeping off the effects of the drug. It doesn’t have doorways that are also somebody’s home or bathroom.
It does, admittedly, have the conditions described by Goodman’s article, which is an utterly believable, if occasionally reductive, summation of some very familiar lived experiences. It is certainly not the “hatchet job” as The Spectator’s rebuttal implies. It generally resists clichés and sham sentiment, instead choosing flat understatement to describe a “refashioned British society”. It does, of course, have flaws. Some of the issues are more complex and to do with broader societal problems. Entirely missing from the article is the single word that a local ambulance crewmember said to me when I recently asked why the service was overstretched. “Alcohol,” she said and lamented how no government would ever face the actual cause of so much misery.
Yet austerity is not alcohol. It was offered as the cure and not the cause of our ills. Austerity, as Daniel Finkelstein is quoted as saying, is “the ideology of two plus two equals four”. It is about getting public spending back under control and that makes as much rational sense today as it did in late 2008. Yet questions do remain about those ills it causes when done blindly. Nowhere in austerity’s logic was the intention that it would deliberately hurt the vulnerable. Nowhere in “fiscal responsibility” is the belief that cutting fat would eventually lead to scraping the bone at the risk of damaging the marrow. Nowhere was “balancing the budget” meant to be an ideological overreach that pushes smaller government ever closer to the total collapse of local government in regions that already felt disenfranchised.
Austerity was meant to lay the foundations for a nation’s prosperity. It was never meant to undermine the very things that made it a nation. An added shame is that it took an American to remind us of this.