Wath! Huh! What is it good for?

Wath on Dearne used to be home to Cortonwood Colliery.   

In the 1970s it was a mining town, part of the mighty Yorkshire Coalfield.   A similar place to where I grew up in the villages to the East of Durham City.  In fact I am picking on Wath as a subject because it is similar enough to where I grew up to draw analogies, without being so close that people can recognise themselves

We are accustomed to viewing pit villages or mining towns as bleak places, but when the Durham and Yorks coalfields were in full operation wages were good, typically much higher than other manual trades, and the work carried respect.  During the 1970s the wage share of GDP rose and the capital share of GDP fell sharply in the UK, and miners were, often for the first time, buying cars and taking foreign holidays.    The cars were all British made; Vauxhall Viva, Ford Cortina, Morris Marina.   My maternal grandfather, who worked in the Durham coalfield, took his first and only foreign holiday in this era – a trip to Sorrento.

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As you can tell by the street sign from near where I grew up in Durham many mining communities were very left wing.  It was however a form of left wing politics very different to current Labour Party policy.  People relied on themselves first, then the local community, who would rally round in case of hardship. The Union was next and the State last when it came for help. Support for the NHS and the Welfare State was absolute, but it was communities which mattered most.   

These tight knit communities did however have a downside – they were fiercesomely conformist, which penalised individualism and often ambition. Not much fun for a pretentious smartarse like me.

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At times this conformity could be repressive – a man’s place was in heavy industry, a woman’s place was in the kitchen, a gay person’s place was in the closet and an Asian person’s place was working in a takeaway, if they had a place at all.   Because work places were all male, and underground, you could say what you liked without fear of censure, no matter how provocative or offensive.  You could meet people in any pub who were to the left of Tony Benn on economic policy, and to the right of Bernard Manning on social policy.

And then Thatcher came and destroyed the entire industry and wrecked these communities.  And Billy Bragg wrote songs about it for people who had largely never visited the places he was writing about.   The closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Wath was where the Miners Strike started, and that was all I knew about the town.

I started visiting Wath on Dearne nearly 10 years ago on business.  Given what I knew about former mining towns in the North East I had pretty bleak expectations.

What I found was a remarkably buoyant local economy, thanks largely to retail and the internet.  The most visible company is Next, who have a large campus there. 

Next started as Hepworths Tailors in Huddersfield.  In the 1960s they spotted an opportunity to grow the business selling suits to Mods. The brought in Hardy Amies to oversee the collection, and started offering consumer credit to young white collar workers.   

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They ended up providing credit and account management services for lots of other companies, and government departments. The bit of government I was working for outsourced some call centre work to them, which they were very good at.  I tried to find a picture of the original Hepworths /Hardy Amies 1963 collection, but all I could find was this photo of the launch of the 1966 Hepworths menswear range, which is pretty fantastic. If anyone has one of the cloaks I would happily pay good money for it.

Most of the work that Next does in Wath is warehousing, distribution, call centre and back office, but there are some higher level business functions like trend prediction and campaign planning.   On the back of Next moving to the area other similar business set up too, including ASOS, taking advantage of good transport links and a talented local workforce.

While the buildings were modern the actual workplaces I visited were still surprisingly segregated.  The call centres are almost exclusively female, the warehouses exclusively male.   There were plenty of Asians, as you would expect in Yorkshire, however they were concentrated in technical graduate roles – programming the dialers, working in IT.   It was hard to assess the extent to which gay people were represented in the workforce, other than they were much more visible than in the mining industry.

The whole area looked like a New Labour success story.   Astute investment in infrastructure and education, combined with relocation grants, had brought jobs to a former mining area.  Some of the funding came from the EU.  It was one of the most successful examples of regeneration I have ever seen.  Employment opportunities for woman had increased, as had employment for ethnic minorities. 

The only group in the work force whose prospects had diminished were men.   Manual labouring jobs for men with high status, good money and respect were gone, and replaced by lower status, insecure employment.  There was also a more subtle difference to the world of mining – people were more closely managed, and managers were keen to enforce corporate values.  The freedom to say what you wanted no matter how offensive which came from working underground was gone, and replaced by a business culture where you had to watch what you said, particularly with regard to race and gender.

In fact the economic order of the town had been turned upside down, with male manual workers at the bottom of it, where they had been at the top a generation earlier.

These economic changes had little to do with the EU, other than as a source of funding for infrastructure. They had nothing to do with immigration. These changes did co-incide with an increase of immigration into the UK, so it is easy to see why people would make the link, particularly with a number of newspapers encouraging that view.

Wath still returns Labour Councillors and a Labour MP, but the Local Authority has 13 UKIP Councillors and voted to leave the EU.   

It is hard to see how the changes that leaving the EU will bring will do anything to make the lot of male manual workers in Wath better.    It is easier to see how automation and technological change will make manual jobs like warehousing and distribution less well paid and less secure. 

The economic changes unleashed by Margaret Thatcher were easy to spot – you could see them in closed factories, dole queues and in the pop charts.  The economic changes of the years since have been just as profound and dislocating, but because they happened more slowly, and without such a clear set of policy announcements they didn’t register with people who weren’t directly impacted by them.  The decisions weren’t exclusively taken by national politicians, but by an assortment of local councillors, remote business bosses, EU structural fund allocation committees, corporate investors, transport planners, and above all customers who switched to e-commerce rather than make do with the choices in the local shops.

No-one wrote a pop song to alert us to these changes, or to condemn the people who unleashed them.  I don’t think they ever will.

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