Jayne Dowle: Return of austerity brings new style of pain

I KNOW this sounds incredibly shallow but, until recently, the word "austerity" meant nothing more to me than a certain kind of fashion.

Hand-knitted jumpers, home-made dresses and patchwork, the kind of look our grandmothers went in for after the Second World War. I say "went in for", but to my shame, I hadn't realised just how much this wasn't a consumer choice, but a harsh reality. There was no vast array of goods in the shops to choose from. And no money to buy anything anyway. Our grandmothers made do and mended because there was no alternative. This wasn't a pretty, flower-sprigged Cath Kidston version of the past, but the grim, grinding reality.

I realise that it is a quantum leap from a Fair Isle cardie to an extreme version of the Canadian economic model, but there you go. If you want to know how huge political changes affect ordinary people, just look at the clothes on their backs. When I wander round my own town centre, I don't see the brand new department store we were promised before the recession, tempting me in to run up my credit card bill on designer fashion.

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Instead, it's charity shops and Primark competing for the change in my purse. The proposed redevelopment of Barnsley's retail quarter is on hold. Stallholders in the market, still waiting for it to be transformed into a 21st century shopping complex, say that they haven't been so busy for years, as shoppers do as their grandmothers did, writing a list, searching for bargains and counting every penny.

So that's what austerity feels like, leaving the credit card at home and going shopping with a list. I'll tell you what else it is though. It is the absence of all the things which are "nice to have" but not vital to survival. It's the absence of anything that might add depth and variety and experience to our lives. In essence, it is the absence of choice. Those savage cuts to public services you hear David Cameron talking about? They are happening, they are happening right now, and no-one has a say in them.

Several senior figures across local government have admitted to me that they are terrified of opening their emails. Missive after missive instructs them to slash budgets here, reduce staff there, curtail plans and cancel developments. Forthwith. With no notice. With no comeback, no right of appeal, and no regard for the democratic process.

When headline-writers call the cuts "Doomsday", they aren't exaggerating.

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No-one can remember anything like this happening before. Now, you might have your own views on how our over-inflated public services

have long had it coming to them. But put that aside for a moment, and think about what this means. Job losses and funding cuts on such a colossal scale will impact upon all our lives.

When staff and budgets have been slashed to the core, it means that your local library might only open three days a week, that evening swim you enjoyed at the leisure centre will go out the window, the streetlights will go off at midnight and your dustbins will fester for weeks outside the door, because collections will be scaled right back. There won't be money for exhibitions and theatre. These come under the heading which those who control the purse-strings designate officially as "nice to have", but not necessary.

Only last week, the new performance venue promised for Doncaster was cancelled because of the demise of the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward. There won't be money to protect our historic buildings – the Scarborough Spa has just lost 800,000 promised for redevelopment – or to maintain parks and sporting facilities – 1.3m towards the construction of the new City Park in Bradford has disappeared.

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Nothing we take for granted is safe. And I think that here in Yorkshire, we will feel it more than most. It is not just the big-numbers withdrawal of funds like the 80m loan to develop technology for the nuclear industry at Forgemasters in Sheffield, but all the stuff that was going on behind the scenes, such as the Business

Link network, set up to encourage much-needed entrepreneurship, which will be wound up and run from a centralised call-centre somewhere. Let's hope it's in Grimethorpe, but I'm not holding my breath. Someone said to me sadly last week, "towns like ours will just be forgotten about". Can the Government afford to write off huge swathes of the country, just like that? It seems to think it can, with no thought for the long-term consequences.

We know that desperate measures are called for. But this time around, we're not emerging from a war. We were just in the middle of the battle to make our region strong and economically sound for the future, and now the generals have called a halt.

There is no collective goodwill, no "all-in-this-together" mentality. Just that awful sinking feeling that once again it will be "them-and-us". Talk about turning the clock back. If you really want to know what austerity feels like, then there you have it. Not pretty at all, is it?