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Universal Credit could add to 'toxic mix' of economic issues in Scarborough and Whitby, historian warns

Scarborough.
Scarborough.

Concern is mounting across Yorkshire’s coast about the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) as traditional seaside towns continue to grapple with a “toxic mix” of low incomes, job insecurity and transport woes, according to a historian.

Gill Cookson, who lives in the Upper Esk Valley, is concerned the Government’s flagship benefit could worsen economic conditions in the Scarborough district and beyond.

Dr Cookson, chairwoman of the Labour Party group for Scarborough and Whitby and an economic historian, thinks self-employed people claiming Working Tax Credit could run into trouble as the benefit moves over to UC up to 2023.

Under the new benefit, there is a Minimum Income Floor – an assumed level of earnings. Imposed on self-employed claimants after 12 months of trading and aimed at calculating their reward, critics say it could negatively impact those whose trade fluctuates, as it is known to do in coastal towns dependant on seasonal custom.

Added to this is Scarborough being dubbed the “low pay capital of Britain” after a Social Mobility Commission report last year.

In 2016, the average salary was just £19,925, compared with a national average of £28,442, according to the annual survey of hours and pay carried out by the Office for National Statistics.

And while there are 40,400 jobs in the Scarborough Borough Council area (including the North York Moors National Park but excluding the self-employed and farming), almost a quarter of those jobs are in tourism and associated sectors, while fishing is in decline, according to Labour locally.

Dr Cookson said: “One of the things in this constituency, small businesses are very, very important to the economy in this area, so I wonder how many people will hit this issue of Universal Credit as it affects the self-employed.”

And on those who are unemployed and looking for a job while claiming UC, she added: “If anybody’s looking for work, they might need to move but those things are very difficult when people have families, responsibilities and caring responsibilities.

“There are parallel universes living in Scarborough. It’s the haves and the have-nots. People have really very, very little.

She added: “Anybody sensible looking at how Universal Credit has been rolled out would say it’s been a disaster, adding: “It’s awful, and I think they really should just halt it.”

Department of Work and Pensions representatives this week said Claimant Commitment contracts under UC are “extremely tailored” to a person’s specific circumstances, but some have criticised their inflexibility.

And there are worries in coastal areas that public transport is not good enough to get claimants to meetings on time, or get to work if it found, which could potentially lead to sanctions.

Using the Esk Valley as an example, Mrs Cookson said: “If you need a bottle of milk or a newspaper, it would be about a 20-mile round trip. We are a long way from any facilities at all.” She also said there is “a toxic mix of relatively expensive housing, low pay, insecure employment, [and] trouble communicating where you can’t get between one place and another.

“It’s not like the image a lot of people have of Scarborough and Whitby.”

UC is driving increased food bank use on the coast, it has also been suggested.

Nearly 800 people in Scarborough and Whitby had been moved onto the new monthly benefit and many were struggling with the online element of the scheme, councillors were told last month.

The claims were made by Scarborough Borough Council cabinet member Coun Sandra Turner (Conservative).

Coun Turner, who has the Communities portfolio on the authority’s cabinet, said in a report that many were also struggling to pay their rent due to how the benefit is paid, which is monthyl and in arrears.

She added that the Rainbow Centre, a charity which helps disadvantaged people in the town, had seen a sharp rise in people attending since UC was introduced earlier this year.

UC is replacing six existing benefits, including Housing Benefit, Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The DWP says it provides an incentive to find a job because benefit pay reduces as a claimant’s hours at work rise.