Battleground Yorkshire: Ill health is the legacy of the closure of Barnsley’s pits

“When I go down south, when I go to the leafy suburbs of Surrey, I am astonished by how well people look,” says Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley who still lives in the area.

“It's like the difference between walking through Worzel Gummidge and Baywatch, there’s all these people that look really fit and healthy.

“We need to realise that we need a lot of help around here.”

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Barnsley South, the collection of suburbs and villages around the coal mining town, is not well, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

Barnsley Main CollieryBarnsley Main Colliery
Barnsley Main Colliery

Compared to the rest of Yorkshire’s seats, it has the highest proportion of people in bad health and very bad health, topping the table for being off work due to sickness, having a disability, and estimated levels of obesity.

This is a legacy of ill health that has stuck in Barnsley, entrenched in the aftermath of pit closures.

Several years ago, says Mr McMillan, he would see people like his father-in-law taking a minute to catch their breath after only a few steps.

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“You could hear the breath coming in and out like shingles on a beach.

“A lot of these people they’ve gone, they’ve died and disappeared.”

That ill health hasn’t gone away but it has changed.

“I’m 83, I’ve just had a stroke and I’ve had a triple heart bypass, I’m hanging on by a thread,” says one man in Hoyland, a town in the seat.

It’s not hard to see why, with the Hoyland’s pharmacy one of the busiest places in town on Tuesday, and the rest of the high street set up to entrench ill health, not to improve it.

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Vape shop, takeaway, bargain booze, funeral home, so the high street goes.

Nearby Wombwell adds some more diversity.

Takeaway, mobility scooter shop, loan shop, vape shop, goes to the high street.

This economic and health decline of the area has gone unaddressed partly because it started a long time ago.

“Barnsley has never really recovered from the closure of the pits,” says Steph Peacock the local MP

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“Barnsley was built on coal. If you were speaking to my predecessor 30 or 40 years ago they would have been a miner. 30,000 of their constituents would have worked in or dependent on the pit.

“It’s still very much part of the culture of the town, but it’s not economically dependent on it anymore and it’s not really recovered from that closure.

“There’s still thousands of men who went down that pit whose issues are still affecting them today, whether that be miner’s health or pensions.”

The promise of Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign and first speech as Prime Minister was, for many in the North, all about Levelling Up.

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On the steps of Downing Street he said that his government would be “answering the last plea of the forgotten people and the left behind towns”.

This is a myth for Barnsley South.

“We’ve had no Levelling Up funding in Barnsley East (the current name of the seat before the boundaries change at this election),” says Ms Peacock.

“We can kind of all agree with the concept of Levelling Up, but that’s not what we’re seeing through their policy because by every measure this seat is deserving of funding and we’ve missed out time and time again.”

While Barnsley South struggles, the comparative metropolis of Barnsley town centre has seen around £200 million of investment in regeneration in its market and shopping centre.

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In Hoyland market there are three stalls, one selling fruit and vegetables undercut by the local supermarket, another selling decorations for gravesites and toad ornaments for the garden.

“Barnsley’s just interested in Barnsley and doing up the town centre,” says one stall holder.

For many in Westminster, they will think of seats as the big city or town, with the areas around it falling under one neat umbrella, but there is real animosity and envy between areas only 10 minutes apart.

An issue of local politics, with more and more powers set to be devolved to combined authority mayors, may see local leaders given credit for the good work, but if they fail to deliver for the region’s neglected under the Conservatives there will be some kickback.

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The politics of “they’ve got it better” is alive and well for areas around Barnsley, not only because it is true, but because it is a real trademark of the Yorkshire mindset, says Mr McMillan.

“There’s not just one Yorkshire. It is a very nuanced place. Richmond is different to Rotherham and Harrogate is different to Halifax.

“What unites them is that wonderful Yorkshire word “brusseness” which means a sort of oppositional quality, a kind of taking people at face value but weighing what they say.

“To appeal to us, politicians have to be honest. They have to tell us about the problems, they have to not promise us too much, but in the long term they have our interests at heart.

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“The trouble with Yorkshire is people are quite tribal, not only about Yorkshire because it’s Britain’s Texas where everything is bigger and better, but also it has these tribes within tribes where if my team plays one from Lancashire, we all shout Yorkshire, but if we play Huddersfield we all shout South Yorkshire.”

But just as the ties to the pit still exist decades after closure, the allegiance to the Labour Party continues, and likely will do at the next election.

“I’m working class,” one woman begins, when asked how she is going to vote, with the link between class and Labour still intact for voters like her in Barnsley while it was frayed and broken elsewhere in the region.

Another elderly woman said she will “always be Labour” but that she is “too old for any of it to affect me”.

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This seat is very unlikely to change hands, but the electorate is unpredictable enough to give Labour a real problem in its first team if it wins the election.

Levelling Up takes time, and though it wants to continue the project started under Boris Johnson, places like Barnsley South need to see results.

People here have been voting Labour all their lives, and although the economic and health legacy of the pits still remains, generations to come will not have the same pull to the party which once joined them on the picket lines.

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