'Who knows what's around the corner?' Bolton and Crawley react to Sunak's plans


Bolton: ‘It feels like we’ve been forgotten about’

When Rishi Sunak announced his winter jobs programme on Thursday, he will have had Red Wall constituencies such as Bolton North East in mind.

One of the most marginal seats in the UK, after the Conservatives ousted Labour by just 378 votes in December, Covid has hit this part of Greater Manchester hard, with the town currently subject to stricter lockdown measures than anywhere else in the country.

Unemployment here increased by 70% between March and August, with 10% of the working age population – 6,040 people – now out of work. That number is expected to rocket after Boris Johnson warned it could be six months before life returned to anything resembling normality.

For 20 years, as a small business owner in the Tonge area, Gail Hounslea prided herself on never making staff jobs redundant and never taking on debt. Covid changed all that. During lockdown her company, which sells industrial ladders to everyone from WH Smith to DHL, took on a £50,000 government “bounce back” loan. And last week, with sales still no more than 70% of normal, she made the “heartbreaking” decision to let two of her 14 employees go.

If Sunak had announced the job support scheme sooner, maybe those jobs could have been saved, she mused on Thursday. “But it’s hard to say, isn’t it? Quite a lot of what he announced comes as a relief – it will be good to not have to pay back the loan so soon and being able to suspend VAT payments is helpful, too. But ultimately that relief could be short-lived: who knows what is around the corner?” She also worried where the money was coming from: “I worry for future generations having to pay this off.”

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Down the road, at her German pretzel bakery, Angelika Searle insisted people fretted too much about the short-term cost of such measures. “Why doesn’t anyone say that if you don’t help people to keep their jobs, the state will have to pay their benefits, potentially for a long time?” she asked.

Angelika Searle at Pretzel & Spelt Bavarian bakery in Tonge, Bolton.



‘I wouldn’t trust Boris Johnson to look after my dog’: Angelika Searle at Pretzel & Spelt bakery in Bolton. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Having moved to Bolton 14 years ago from her native Bavaria, she keeps a close eye on her Mutterland, comparing and contrasting the approach of Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson. The latter, she insisted, was “a showman” who could not be trusted to lead: “I wouldn’t trust him to look after my dog.”

Searle herself has had a good crisis. She did a roaring trade selling flour in the early days of lockdown, and takings have tripled. But she worried about others less fortunate and thought Sunak was wise to take inspiration from Germany’s Kurzarbeit system, which subsidies workers’ wages during the hard times: “Self-worth in this country is so linked in with your job and how much you get paid. If that falls away, you have huge problems with mental health.”

Andrew Graham at his kitchen and bedroom fitting shop in Bolton.



‘If Corbyn had got in we would have fallen off the face of the earth’: Andrew Graham at his shop in Bolton. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Andrew Graham has been another Covid winner. As a self-employed kitchen and bathroom fitter, he has just one slot left before Christmas. A former Labour voter, he said Johnson had done a great job: “If Corbyn had got in we would have fallen off the face of the earth. There would have been a big black hole and it would have swallowed us all up if he had been in power.”

At Sew Sure, an alterations and dry cleaning company, Gillian and James Fitness were scraping by. With takings rarely more than £1,000 a week and £350 wages and £140 rent to pay, margins are tight. But they refuse to put up their prices – Gillian never charges more than £9 to shorten a pair of jeans – and insisted they would only take Sunak’s money if they needed to. “We certainly won’t claim anything we don’t need,” said James. “I think the government has already been very generous. The opposition has a duty to complain about it, but we have nothing to compare it to. Well done Boris.”

‘I think the government has already been very generous’: James Fitness at Sew Sure in Bolton.



‘I think the government has already been very generous’: James Fitness at Sew Sure in Bolton. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Others felt altogether more gloomy, such as Paul Roberts, better known locally as DJ Demon, who hasn’t earned a penny since March and is scraping by on universal credit.

For the past two years, his steady gig has been a residency at the Swan pub in Bolton town centre, which, like all pubs in town, is currently not allowed to open at all because of the local lockdown.

With weddings cancelled or guest lists curtailed so severely that there is no hope of filling a dancefloor, Roberts is getting increasingly pessimistic. “I just can’t see my business coming back at all,” he said. “It feels like we have been forgotten about.”

’You can feel that things are really bad in Crawley’

As a part-time librarian, Zoe Hopkins had been one of the lowest paid among her tight-knit group of seven friends, but now she is among the better-off, as five of them have had their roles made redundant or furloughed since the pandemic struck in March.

Although she is still working, Hopkins, 45, faces the cold reality of unemployment and furlough more than most. “It is the library that people turn to when they have nowhere else to go and don’t know what to do,” Hopkins said on her lunch break from work at the library in Crawley, West Sussex, which according to the latest government statistics is the local authority area with the third-highest proportion (37%) of people on the coronavirus job retention scheme – widely referred to as furlough.

“You can feel that things are really bad here [in Crawley],” she said. “People come in to apply for universal credit because they don’t have computers at home, or just to ask for advice, because everything the government says is so complicated and it keeps changing.”

Crawley is suffering more than other places due to its reliance on Gatwick airport, three miles to the north. “Some of my friends are cabin crew and pilots, and they have all been made redundant or placed on furlough,” she said. “And it’s not just the people that directly work in travel. Loads of jobs here are dependent on the airport. There’s all the hotels, and cleaners and service industries. You can just feel that the fallout is only just starting and it’s going to get so much worse.”

Hopkins said she was unimpressed with the government’s new “viable” job support scheme, which will replace the furlough scheme at the end of October. The government will pay 22% of workers’ wages if they work at least one-third of their regular hours. Their employers should pay 55% of their wages.

“I absolutely think the government should be doing more to help,” she said.

‘You can’t have people sitting at home not knowing forever’: James Taylor, an air conditioning engineer.



‘You can’t have people sitting at home not knowing forever’: James Taylor, an air conditioning engineer. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

However, James Taylor, an air conditioning engineer, said Sunak’s new scheme was “sensible” as it would end “zombie jobs”. “Everyone knows a lot of people on furlough are probably never going back to their jobs, and companies are just keeping them on because the government are paying a lot of the wages,” he said. “Under this [new scheme], it sounds like it will only be the jobs that have a real chance of continuing that will be paid for.”

Taylor, who was furloughed at the beginning of the first lockdown, said: “You can’t have people sitting at home not knowing forever.”

Pavel Sztachelski, a tattooist at Studio 13 in the town centre, said his parlour had only just been able to reopen and that there was far less work than before lockdown, as his clients had lost their jobs or returned to their home countries. “So many jobs here were reliant on Gatwick, and the airport is basically dead now,” he said. “People in Crawley work as cabin crew, or cleaning and engineering, and now there are no jobs in Crawley. Many people came here from abroad to work, but now they have gone home for good.”

Pawel Sztachelski , theowner of Studio 13 tattoo parlour.



‘So many jobs here were reliant on Gatwick’: Pawel Sztachelski, the owner of Studio 13 tattoo parlour. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Tachelski, 39, said that if there was a second full lockdown, his tattoo parlour would go bust and “join the high street of boarded-up shops”. “We just can’t afford it, we will go bankrupt.”

It was a similar story at Naz Barber’s on The Broadway. “It’s dead, the shop is dead, Crawley is dead,” Nazime Bendjabar, the owner and head barber said while giving a customer an extreme fade. “We’ve gone from four or five barbers to just two.”

Glynis Moss, a bra fitter at Debenhams, is back at work after three months on furlough but said she was lucky, as many of her colleagues were still on furlough or had had their jobs made redundant. “I’m only back because I’m one of the people who work on Sundays,” she said.

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Moss said she wished Sunak had begun the new job support scheme earlier, as she thinks it would have prevented some redundancies if companies knew it were coming. “Companies knew that the furlough scheme was going to end, so they made people redundant, but actually we need people on part-time hours for weekends and Christmas,” she said.

Moss said her household didn’t rely on her salary before the crisis, but she was now one of two in work compared with four beforehand. “My husband’s work has dried up, and my son-in-law has been made redundant [from a job at Gatwick],” she said. “Now it’s just me and my daughter, who is working from home.”

She worried that the department store would close down before she reached retirement. “This used to be one of the most profitable stores; we did well from people from the airport, especially in luggage,” Moss said. “We did have one of those clickers counting people in and out of the store [so numbers would remain within social distancing guidelines], but we gave up as there were never anywhere near enough people.”



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