THERE aren’t many places as grim as Barnsley town centre on a wet weekday afternoon in January. I’d agree with Patrick Butler, the social affairs correspondent of the Guardian newspaper, on that.
He has been speaking to market traders, civic leaders and voluntary groups and has delivered a damning report of the English town most badly affected by the Government’s austerity cuts.
It’s my home town he’s talking about, the place I returned to in 2003 after almost two decades living down South. I’ve never regretted coming back.
And I never apologise. If I hear anyone from Barnsley saying they live in ‘north Sheffield’, I become very cross indeed. As a place, we have a distinctive identity, but all too often we hit the headlines for negative reasons.
According to the Centre for Cities think-tank, spending by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council has fallen by 40 per cent in the last eight years thanks to austerity. This is around four times the average reduction faced by councils in the South-East, and has led to hugely damaging cuts to public services.
Every person in Barnsley has experienced the knock-on effects; infants and the elderly alike have seen support cut, anti-social behaviour blights our streets and fly-tipping scars the beautiful countryside which surrounds us. In this, we are very much like countless other Northern towns.
My town also spends the highest proportion of all towns and cities – 62 per cent – of its entire council budget looking after vulnerable adults and children.
It’s not looking great. In fact, it’s looking grimmer than the town centre on a wet weekday afternoon. No one can argue with the facts. There is misery in Barnsley. But the causes are complex and many of these factors affect everywhere else too – zero hours contracts, predatory loan companies and extortionate public transport costs for starters.
I’m certainly not in denial. I see sad things every day. However, there is another story to tell here and it’s bigger than the one the journalist had in his head before he turned up.
That’s why I take issue with a 1,000-word snapshot that paints us as entirely on our knees. George Orwell did this very well back in the 1930s when he spent time here researching The Road to Wigan Pier. We’ve been struggling to convince people otherwise ever since.
While no one can deny that austerity has bit hard, there are other measures by which to judge. Private enterprise, for instance. I wish Mr Butler had taken a few steps away from the market hall and popped up the Victorian Arcade where he would have found an array of interesting businesses, many run by women, incidentally.
Here he would have found thriving independent traders including a fashion store, jewellers, beauticians, hairdressers, cafes and an ice cream parlour, all of whom have devised innovative ways to deliver what their customers want.
And what about house prices? A safe indication of growing confidence, the Land Registry has reported that house prices in Barnsley were the fastest rising in Yorkshire, streaking ahead of nearby Doncaster and Rotherham. Values went up by 7.4 per cent in the year to August 2018, bringing the average to £125,659.
This might not sound a lot if you live in London, or even Leeds. However, it offers a very good clue to how Barnsley is changing. We’re a distinctive town, for sure, but the entire borough stretches from the Greater Manchester border in the west to Doncaster in the east, taking in almost a quarter of a million people. And we’re not all the same.
Here, in all kinds of villages and housing estates (both private and social), countless individuals, couples and families are working hard to get on. Their jobs could be managerial, manual, or in a nearby town or city, but they wouldn’t recognise themselves as living in need.
Home ownership is a goal, and still relatively attainable. However it’s not the only ambition. I know first-hand just how much the majority of parents care about their children’s education. They believe fervently in the importance of school and the power of qualifications.
Despite the difficulties in recruiting teachers – again, that ‘Barnsley’ reputation doesn’t help – our schools are doing well. GCSE results continue to climb upwards. And in the Department for Education’s recent list of 382 under-performing schools, only one was in Barnsley. Much has changed since Barry Hines’ iconic 1969 film, Kes, showed comprehensive education at its brutal worst.
And much has also changed since George Orwell diligently noted down tin baths and outside toilets, hence why it’s time for the debate about the town I’m proud to call home to be advanced.