‘We've been hammered': on the breadline in Burnley

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Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

On a wet Monday morning in the middle of Burnley, the Church on the Street is handing out bread: sliced white loaves donated to the organisation’s food bank and gratefully received by the 20 or so people who gathered here soon after the doors opened.

They have come here for a variety of reasons: for food, advice on benefits or help with homelessness and addiction. Some need a shower or a haircut, others a hot meal and an hour or two of conversation and company.

But when I talk to people, a couple of subjects come up constantly: the dire effects of the pandemic on wellbeing, and the brutal results of the recent end to the £20-a-week “uplift” to universal credit.

Burnley has one of the largest proportions of adults on universal credit in the country, a stark fact that may yet have local political consequences. Two years ago, as Labour’s so-called “red wall” fell to the Tories, the town elected its first Conservative MP in more than 100 years, who has pledged to somehow help to “level up” Burnley and its surrounding areas. But in response, other local politicians make an obvious point: that without serious attention being paid to public health, benefits, housing, schools and all the other staples of social policy, these efforts will end up being merely cosmetic.

At the Church on the Street, people talk about lives that to any outsider would sound impossible. Questions about politics tend to draw either shrugs or mocking smirks. But in the run-up to this week’s combined budget and spending review, a lot of what people say implicitly asks huge questions about the immediate political future – and, in the midst of all the rhetoric about transforming the country, about the path Sunak, Boris Johnson and their colleagues are set on taking.

In December 2020, the church received a huge boost when the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News ran an 11-minute film about the kind of grinding poverty that the Covid crisis had made even worse. Three months before, Burnley had registered the highest rate of infection in England, something partly traced to its high levels of poverty and overcrowded housing; now, those problems were shown in stark and intimate detail.

The report centred on Pastor Mick Fleming, a former drug dealer who now devotes himself to helping some of his home town’s most vulnerable people. Along with a subsequent film made by the Guardian, it triggered a surge in donations that eventually reached £250,000. As a result, Fleming managed to rent town-centre premises that were formerly a gym and expand what his church does.

Pastor Mick Fleming: ‘I’ve seen an increase in fear. People are like: “How am I going to manage without this money?”’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Since then, Fleming says, one issue in Burnley has grown massively. “There’s still the need for food, but the big issue is people’s mental health,” he says. “That’s spiralled out of control. The lack of resource, and the lack of hope because of that – you get more suicides.”

He has also seen a striking increase in alcoholism. “That’s due to the pandemic. Many, many people have lost money and relationships and businesses because of Covid. And the timeframe between when help’s needed and when people might get it – in that gap, people die. That’s something we see more of.”

And the cut in universal credit? “I’ve seen an increase in fear. People are like: ‘How am I going to manage without this money?’ Again, it’s to do with mental health. Anxiety. It’s real, real stuff. It’s not just taking 20 quid off somebody. And 40% of the people getting the money taken away are working. So it’s people who work as carers asking me for food parcels. Paid workers who are looking after people, needing access to food.”

What, I wonder, does Fleming make of all the talk about levelling up? “Don’t get me going,” he says. “I don’t understand it. Levelling up to what? What does it mean? What are they after?”

Fleming then suggests I talk to one of his regulars, a single mother who says she wants to remain anonymous. She comes here most mornings with her three-year-old son. Just over a year ago, she says, her partner killed himself, and the church was a dependable source of support. “Mick’s helped me through it,” she says. “I’ve struggled. I’m still not coping now.”

She speaks in brisk, staccato sentences. “I get paid my universal credit once a month. I got paid on Friday and it’s gone already. It’s only Monday. I’ve got 15 quid left. I’ll get a loan but that’s two weeks away.”

How would she say the cut in benefits has affected her and her son? “Before, I could afford most things for him, but now I can’t afford buying him shoes and buying him clothes. I have to come up here to get him stuff. I got some shoes for him today. I’m just finding it hard.”

Does she follow the news? “I follow the news. I don’t follow the politics.”

Does she know who got rid of the uplift, and why they did it? “Boris Johnson, wasn’t it?” she says. “No one really likes him, do they? I don’t really pay attention to him. He gets confused sometimes, doesn’t he?”

On a nearby table, Ben Raw, 40, is having a breakfast of toast and tea. He lives with the anxiety and depression he partly traces to the death of his girlfriend in a house fire, and is on employment and support allowance, one of the so-called legacy benefits that received no uplift at all, despite the pandemic’s effects (a discrepancy that is now the subject of a case brought to the high court).

Ben Raw, 40, has been without hot water for nearly a year. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He says lockdowns had one particularly cruel effect: because he was forced to spend more time indoors, his energy bills went up, he fell into arrears, and his gas was cut off. He says he has lived without hot water for nearly a year and he can cook food only in a microwave.

“I’m still paying bills from Covid,” he tells me. “I was doing very badly – not showering for two weeks sometimes.” In the course of 2020 he lost a lot of weight. “Just because of not being able to eat. And you look at food now: everything’s going up, but your money doesn’t. I don’t see how they can justify it.”

* * *

About one in five adults of working age in Burnley depend on universal credit, so for all their extremity, these are the kind of experiences that blur into other parts of the town’s population. The same applies to people living with cuts in services that now go back more than a decade.

People across the town seem to share a view of the pandemic as a huge upturning of everything, whose often unexpected, contradictory consequences are still playing out. In the course of two days’ reporting, I meet young people who say they dropped out of A-level courses because they couldn’t cope with long months of online teaching, and they cannot find local apprenticeships.

At Veka, a big local employer that manufactures the surrounds for double-glazed windows, the managing director, Neil Evans, tells me the pandemic caused two of his firm’s biggest corporate customers to go bust. Although business is now booming, he says he is now lacking more than 10% of the workers he needs (“a massive, huge issue”), and he is concerned about a worldwide shortage of the resin required to make the firm’s products.

Neil Evans, the managing director of Veka. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Meanwhile, much smaller businesses are suffering. At the Royal Tailors and Boutique in the Duke Bar area, I hear about a profoundly difficult 18 months for people in the clothing trade. When the business closed because of Covid restrictions, its owner, Naseer Ahmed, says he was left with a mountain of stock that quickly aged. His only hope of shifting these old clothes is to sell them at knockdown prices, but he is also being hit by supply chain issues pushing up the wholesale cost of new clothes.

What would he like from the budget? Ahmed answers in Urdu, and his friend Imran Mehmood relays what he says: “More grants. A bit more money.” There is also mention of a cut in VAT.

And then Mehmood, a taxi driver who is also being squeezed by a mixture of rising costs and depressed business, offers his own view. “At the moment, Boris Johnson is not doing anything good. Brexit, the pandemic – we have real problems. Like with this shortage of lorry drivers: if they knew it was coming, why did it happen?”

Over the last 20 years, Burnley’s politics have been subject to two big convulsions. In 2001 there were riots that highlighted questions about racial segregation, and were blamed on the organised activities of white racists and turf wars between local drug gangs as well as poverty, unemployment and poor housing.

In 2002 the fascist British National party won its first seats on the borough council, and by the following year it had secured eight seats. A huge amount of community work pushed the far right back to the political margins, and a different kind of political disruption eventually materialised. In 2016, 66.6% of voters in the borough of Burnley backed Brexit.

Three years later, Antony Higginbotham, a 29-year-old Conservative, became the town’s MP. In partnership with local Labour leaders, he is now bidding for about £25m, mostly from the so-called levelling up fund, to pay for three big capital projects.

Higginbotham says this work follows his efforts “banging the drum for our area in parliament, making sure that we are no longer forgotten”. The banging, though, seems to have its limits: when I try to contact him via phone and email, he does not respond.

Senior voices in the town’s Labour party, by contrast, are only too happy to talk. Sobia Malik is a Labour county councillor for a large chunk of central Burnley. She is also the chief executive of the Northern Community Network, whose base in Burnley is a former church hall that has recently served as a vaccination centre, as well as offering counselling and advice services.

Sobia Malik says of the levelling up funding: ‘It’s a drop in the ocean.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Having already lost well over £500m in government funding since 2010, Conservative-run Lancashire county council is in the midst of having to make another £42m in “savings”. The budget will reportedly usher in new early-years “hubs” and help for families, but Malik talks about deep damage caused by austerity that it will take much greater efforts to repair. Her local area lost its Sure Start children’s services more than five years ago, and she also highlights the loss of youth services, school transport, help for the families of children with special educational needs, and the closure of a nursery.

What does she make of the bid for “levelling up” money? “I think it’s a drop in the ocean. It doesn’t come near dealing with what we’re dealing with. And that’s to do with decades of unequal distribution of funding to the north. When you come to a town like Burnley, you see how that looks. We get hammered.”

Just under two years ago, she explains, Lancashire council got rid of its wellbeing service as part of a programme of reductions in its public health budget. To quote a local news outlet, it had “provided assistance to anybody whose problems risked escalating into a crisis”. It was shut down three months before the start of the pandemic.

“I remember us all saying: ‘People desperately want this service. Don’t cut it,’” says Malik. “There was somebody I knew of who said ‘I wouldn’t be here today if that service wasn’t there’. It helped 11,000 people. Tell me: where have those 11,000 people now gone?”

Burnley’s other layer of local government is its borough council, which sees to services such as housing, parks, leisure centres and planning. Its Labour leader is 42-year-old Afrasiab Anwar, who speaks to me while glancing at an iPad full of numbers and statistics. In 2014, the council received £7.7m from central government, he says; this year the figure will be £2.7m. “That’s a 65% decrease in terms of the funding that we receive.”

Anwar is involved in the bids for levelling up money, and talks passionately about the council’s regeneration masterplan, and renewal founded partly on the town’s Premier League football club. But he is also keenly aware of one key reason Burnley is often ignored. It is not part of one of England’s new city regions, and has therefore missed out on devolution and money – illustrated by the government’s pre-budget announcement of new transport funding for areas led by “metro mayors”, such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the Tees Valley.

What would he like from Sunak’s budget?

“Well, we need investment in our education,” Anwar says. “We need investment in housing and transport links. What that would ultimately lead to is up-skilling and providing people with jobs.”

In a lot of what he says, there seems to be a quiet exasperation with one of this country’s most remarkable political facts. The same party that has taken so much money out of Burnley now says it might put some back in: every little helps, and Anwar is happy to do whatever is required. But like a lot of people I meet in Burnley, he clearly thinks this is a surreal development.

“Because of the way things are sometimes portrayed and the way people think about the current prime minister, we think that they’ve been in power for two years,” he says. “But when they talk about levelling up … well, what we actually want are things that they took away.”

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