Insight: Beautiful Cornwall's struggle shows UK plight

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 27, 2011 6:13 AM
Insight: Beautiful Cornwall's struggle shows UK plight

By Matt Falloon

ST. AUSTELL, England (Reuters) - When Dee Prior lost her job in customer services last year, she was confident something else would come along quickly to keep her afloat. Within weeks she was penniless, evicted from her home in western England and battling a nervous breakdown.

Welcome to post-recession Britain where, for so many at the bottom of the ladder, it still feels like a depression.

"The only difference between me and you," she said, leaning over a table in a community food bank in the old Cornish mining town of St. Austell, "could be just two pay checks."

"I have worked my whole life. I have always supported myself, but at 48 I found myself homeless."

Britain, like so many other powerful but heavily-indebted European nations in the post-financial crisis era, is teetering precariously between economic malaise and a return to recession.

There is little the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government can do to spark demand without abandoning its austerity plans. To do that, ministers say, would put Britain at the mercy of the financial markets currently wreaking havoc on the euro zone.

Scenic Cornwall on England's western tip - remote, underdeveloped and dependent on a handful of vulnerable industries - is at the sharp end of Britain's struggles.

Charity food banks have sprung up across the region to help the needy with a box of neatly-packed food to cover a few weeks.

It could be a family that has had their welfare payments delayed or cut, it could be someone living in a tent in the hills above the town, it could even be someone earning 50,000 pounds($78,000)a year who ran up too much debt and got fired.

Dee was one of those who, at the end of her tether, "swallowed her pride" and asked for help.

Still out of work, but finally on welfare with a roof over her head and volunteering in the food bank that supported her, she hopes the worst is over.

But what lies ahead is just as daunting as what has just happened - finding a job that will pay her more than her benefits check feels like mission impossible.

"There's just nothing out there. I need 30 hours of work. Most jobs here are 16 hours a week," she said, tugging a dark wool cardigan across her shoulders.

"I even applied to work in Afghanistan for six months, that was how desperate I was. I've done bar management but I'm too old for that now. Everyone wants a young model."

RICH AND POOR

With its rolling hills, ragged cliffs and windswept beaches reaching into the Atlantic, Cornwall is breathtakingly rich in panorama but devastatingly poor in opportunity for many.

It's an idyllic, laid back county where holidaymakers escape the bustle of the city to surf its bracing waters, clamber through the trails that weave between dairy farms or pick crabs from rock pools and build castles in the sand.

Behind the picture postcards, the Cornwall few of those tourists see is Britain's second-weakest major region economically and has been ranked among the poorest in Europe.

In 1999, Cornwall - so heavily dependent on seasonal tourism, farming, food processing and the public sector since the decline of the tin mining and fishing industries - was chosen for funding as one of 60 areas with a GDP per person ratio of less than 75 percent of the EU average.

It has taken more than a decade to drag Cornwall up. Chris Ridgers, in charge of Cornwall Council's economic and regeneration policy, is hopeful that when the current batch of funding comes to an end in 2013, the area will have climbed out of that stigmatized group.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but we're heading in the right direction," he said.

Like the national government, Cornwall's politicians are trying to reshape its economy, looking to the private sector to take up the slack from public sector cuts, for export markets to help drive demand, and innovative and green industries to blossom where defunct ones have wilted under the weight of competition from Europe and Asia.

FILLING THE VOID

A handful of working mines remain in the hills above St. Austell but many have been abandoned; stark lunar scars on the landscape, their waste tips now overgrown into sharp hills, overshadowing the neat villages that sprouted among the deep and rich deposits of China clay along the coast.

Despite a new shopping center intended to breathe life into a town dotted with empty lots, little has come to fill the void of a fading industry that once employed thousands. Barely a thousand people work Cornwall's mines full time these days, according to official figures.

"What economy? There is no economy," said 27-year-old Jay Lawrence, out of work and on benefits despite having trained as both an accountant and even a circus performer.

"All the jobs lead out of Cornwall - you have to go off to another county, or in our eyes, another country. The only work I get is voluntary," he said, as others like Jay voiced their agreement in the small St. Austell Community Kitchen which feeds the destitute from its base next to a high street bank.

Even if you are employed, perhaps in a hotel or a bar in one of the pretty villages nestled in the cliffs or in a food processing factory making one of Cornwall's knotted meat and vegetable pasties, wages are low and work may not last.

"You work for six months of the year and you are unemployed six months, it's a real problem for Cornwall," explained Andrew Long, economic spokesperson for the left-of-center, pro-Cornish Mebyon Kernow political party.

About one in three workers are in the public sector, Long said. The local council faces a 30 percent cut in funding as part of the government's austerity drive. Hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs are set to disappear in the next four years in Britain.

"We have got to try and diversify. The Cornwall brand - Cornwall Plc - is world known, but the average wage is still incredibly below the UK average," Long said.

Official data shows that the gap between pay packets in Cornwall and elsewhere in Britain is growing, weekly earnings in the region were about a fifth lower than the national average last year and about 10 percent smaller than pay packets in the south west.

SECOND HOME GHOST TOWNS

Inflation is already outstripping earnings growth across Britain, but in Cornwall - where many rural homes are off the gas network and must be heated with expensive canisters of oil and gas - households are really feeling the pinch.

Cornwall's popularity as an easy getaway, has also driven house prices about 15 percent higher than the national average, putting homes beyond the reach of many young families.

Getting on the housing ladder is tough anywhere across Britain, but Dan Nattle, a young Cornish dairy farmer, sees the situation as "one of the biggest threats" to the local economy.

"Second home owners (from outside Cornwall) are buying up homes which should be starter homes," he said. "That's having a huge impact. In some areas there are very few people that actually live there anymore, especially around some of the coastal towns. They come down for two weeks a year."

Just a few miles north of the 29-year-old's 110-head herd in Lanivet, perched on Cornwall's lush north Atlantic coast, lies Rock - once a humble coastal village and now one of the most exclusive places to live in Britain with holiday homes selling for millions of pounds even in today's weak market.

In summer, the area is a playground for the likes of the Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Harry and Hugh Grant. In winter, it falls silent.

"They have a place, of course they do because they bring money into the Cornish economy," Nattle said. "But there needs to be a balance and it's very easy to tip that balance in the wrong direction."

DREAMS OF ESCAPE

On Rock's outskirts, 18-year-old Vinny Day ducked into Viv's Tea Garden to shelter from the rain and catch his breath.

Without a coat, he had trudged through the thick, cold drizzle and dodged racing traffic along the five miles of winding lanes between the small town of Wadebridge and his rented caravan in Rock. He couldn't afford the bus fare.

Vinny, an affable kid with a thick silver chain around his neck, is one of the one in five young people out of work in Britain. In Cornwall, Vinny is one of the one in four.

His welfare payments are slow and he barely has enough money to keep his caravan warm, perched on the outskirts of Rock.

Like Cornwall, Vinny has not had the easiest of recent histories; in and out of social care, brushes with the law.

But he is keeping positive and looking hard for work. He has just returned from a trip to Bodmin's job center where he was given some hope of employment on a new solar farm - just the type of diversification Cornwall is searching for.

"You can't find a job. Young people and school leavers can't find a job," he shrugged, tugging at a rolled up cigarette and wolfing down a free coffee thrust on him by the proprietor.

"Maybe I'm not looking hard enough but money is money, I would go into a supermarket and stack shelves."

Close to giving up on the slim pickings in Cornwall's stressed labor market, he can only see his future elsewhere.

"I can't stay here for another ten years. I don't think there is anything down here for me," he said.

NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM

Rock exposes the divided economic nature of today's Cornwall, but it also boasts one of its great success stories - and the kind of export-friendly, investment magnet that the government wants to see coming to life across Britain.

Sharp's Brewery, started as a micro brewery in 1994 and producer of the award-winning Doom Bar ale, is expanding after being bought by global brewing giant Molson Coors in February.

Rather than move the operation elsewhere, Sharp's new owners have embraced its Cornish roots and invested in the brewery.

Injecting 5.7 million pounds over three years into the business, Molson Coors is hiring more staff and planning to nearly double its 100,000-barrel-a-year output.

Doom Bar, named after a hazardous sandbank in the nearby Camel Estuary, is the best-selling cask beer in the south west and increasingly a favorite tipple across England, and beyond.

"We have tried to build on what we already have," said Sharp's newly-installed general manager Emma Bebbington.

"What we've been trying to do is assure people we are committed to brewing in Rock. Cornwall has a lot of really positive traits."

At the council, Chris Ridgers wants to see more businesses like Sharp's flourishing.

He talks of "economically life-changing" policies for Cornwall such as improving training, infrastructure and communications but also admits, like Britain, the region's transition to a more balanced, creative and secure economy will take many painful years.

"We've got an economy where lots of people live on a virtual hand to mouth existence. If they lose their jobs, they are immediately into the food banks and soup kitchens," he said.

"If there are a thousand miles to go, we've probably done the first ten."

(editing by Janet McBride; Reporting by Matt Falloon)