On Tuesday 19th July the Northwest Evening Mail was dominated by the news that the renewal of Trident guaranteed the future prosperity of Barrow-in-Furness, where BAe Systems will build the Successor programme of Trident submarines.
The project, which is estimated to cost £31 billion, will bring new buildings and roads to Barrow. 5,000 extra jobs are expected on top of the 7,000 people who already work in the shipyard and the knock on effect for property prices and other businesses in the town will make life better for many people.
But the day after the announcement another front page headline in the Northwest Evening Mail suggested that not everybody benefits from the Trident programme. The Borough Council are facing another round of cuts in the service of the government’s austerity programme. These cuts will inevitably fall upon the poor, the sick, the disabled; all those people who depend upon council services. As well as a food bank we also have a soup kitchen for those who cannot always afford the energy to cook a hot meal.
When I first moved to Barrow, thirty-three years ago the shipyard dominated the town even more so than today. 14,000 people worked in the yard, including thousands of white collar workers who drew up the plans and drawings for the vessels the yard built. There was a thriving apprenticeship scheme. It was hard to find a household without at least one family member employed by Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering Ltd, the company that ran the yard in those days. When the whistle sounded for “Vickers Out” thousands of workers would stream out on foot and on bikes filling the entire road.
Since then computer aided design has devastated the prospects for white collar employment. High tech production techniques and new employment practices such as subcontracting rather than direct employment have affected the blue collar workforce. The closure and demolition of the apprentice school may have been more symbolic than real in its consequences but the message to young Barrovians was clear. You could no longer rely upon the shipyard for your future.
House prices tumbled as Boom Town Barrow went into decline. My wife and I were trapped by negative equity for years as skilled workers were selling up and moving on in search of employment. Young people who could get to university did not return to bring their skills and enterprise to the town. The 2011 census revealed a 4 per cent decline in population at a time when the overall population of England and Wales was rising at record rates.
Throughout this time the shipyard has survived and prospered thanks to the government funded Trident programme. It is now a profitable part of aerospace giant, BAe Systems. And those Barrovians who were able to keep their jobs or acquire the skills required for the new jobs have benefited from the Trident programme. But I am left with the feeling that, where once the shipyard was a unifying influence that brought prosperity to the whole town, now it seems to divide the town. The shipyard is booming again thanks to massive government expenditure. Meanwhile government cuts are devastating the lives of those least able to benefit from this boom. The high street is dominated by charity shops, Poundsavers and Poundstretchers, and other discount stores. And it could be argued that the people who use them are in effect subsidizing the jobs of their more fortunate neighbours via cuts to social care budget.
This divide was succinctly illustrated by the front page of the Evening Mail on Wednesday 7th September. This issue celebrates 30 years of submarine production at the Devonshire Dock Hall, the largest structure in Barrow and soon to be dwarfed by the buildings that will house the Successor programme. But the main headline tells a more shocking story.
Crimes of violence against the person are as bad as Manchester and worse than Liverpool at 20.5 per thousand people. Self-harm is also way above the national average at 358 hospital admissions per 100,000 people. Problems with alcohol and smoking related deaths are also above the national average. There is a well-established link between figures like this and poverty. Barrow, despite thirty years of prosperity based on the Trident Programme and looking forward to a similar period of prosperity during the Successor Programme is one of the poorest, most deprived boroughs in England.
Personally I am opposed to Trident. Weapons of Mass Destruction are immoral whoever wields them. And there are plenty of other infrastructure projects around transport, renewable energy and carbon capture that would benefit from similar levels of investment and guarantee jobs for years to come. There is also an argument that being obsessed with great power status and possessing a so-called independent deterrent detracts from a proper debate about the role of Britain in the world and the sort of armed forces we need to carry out that role. For now that debate is over. Parliament has approved the Successor Programme. Even if we get a Labour government committed to abolishing our deterrent, it will be well nigh impossible for them to extract us from all the contracts, deals and agreements, never mind the horrendous penalty charges that would entail.
We can still learn from the past thirty years. How could such massive expenditure in Barrow lead to increasing poverty and a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots? We may not be in as position to stop the renewal of our nuclear deterrent. But we should strive to ensure that this new tranche of government investment serves to narrow that divide rather than exacerbate it. That is a discussion that ought to find favour with all wings of the Labour movement.