Another case for a pay rise – Our high streets, as well as the jobs they generate, may disappear.

In the picturesque town of Llangollen in north-east Wales, there’s a pub called The Bull. My Dad and I used to go there occasionally, and each time he’d say something like “this is our family’s pub, Matt.” What he meant by that was that one of our distant ancestors owned it; my great-great-great-grandfather I believe.

If you drive from Llangollen in the direction of Acrefair on the A539, then eventually you’ll come to a turning for the Bryn Howell Hotel on the right-hand side. The Bryn Howell is (or was) a popular venue for functions and the older part of it used to be the home of a local business owner. The lounge bar is in that part of the hotel, and again, my Dad would regularly tell me “your great-great-uncle plastered the ceiling in this room, son.” In truth, I cannot remember which relation was the plasterer, but it is nevertheless an impressive ceiling.

After a short journey, you’re in Wrexham. My Dad didn’t have any anecdotes about my relations that he’d tell in connection to Wrexham pubs. I suppose there may have been a relative who worked for a while in the Kings Head or the Caernarfon, but if there was, both of them were knocked down years ago. The Wrexham hospitality sector has been in trouble for some time, and that’s not the only problem that the town has got.

Too many town centres look like this

In the town centre, the number of empty shops on the high street has been growing for many years. In the late noughties when a new “open air shopping centre” was opened, the jewel in the crown was meant to be Debenhams, which occupied one of the largest units. It is unclear which retailer will be in a position to take their place now that Debenhams, and all the jobs it created, have gone due to Covid-19. Game at one time occupied a medium sized shop in the centre of town over 2 floors. Now it occupies a corner in the upstairs of Sports Direct. For their part, Sports Direct occupies what was BHS, which of course didn’t go due to Covid-19, but due to Sir Philip Green. Speaking of him, Top Shop has of course also closed. Calling Wrexham a shell of what it was 20 years ago would be flattering; it’s more like a wasteland.

It’s fair to say that Llangollen is in a significantly better state than Wrexham, but only marginally. With so much of the town’s income reliant on hospitality, particularly from the annual International Eisteddfod, what happens when no-one is allowed to travel or eat out? More to the point, what happens when family income has been drastically hit due to job losses and income freezes, and therefore few people can afford anything beyond the bare essentials?

High street shops closing down, pubs being converted into housing, restaurants seeing the numbers of people who can afford to eat out dwindling, these are problems which existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a tendency to put the blame solely on the doorstep of poor planning by council town centre managers, the unchecked rise of internet shopping and the willingness of supermarkets to offer a significantly cheaper alternative to going out of an evening. However, what is it that always convinced us to purchase cheap deals from supermarkets rather than go out, or shop from seemingly inexpensive online retailers rather than a brick and mortar shop? In large part, a very small bank balance.

For years, we have been surrounded by good arguments for supporting local businesses, using our hospitality industry and attempting to shop from ethically minded retailers, or at least physical shops. We all have good principles but as a fellow rep said recently, principles don’t put food on the table, and so we find ourselves on the Amazon app. Our economic conditions have brought great swathes of our high street retailers, pubs, hotels and restaurants to their knees. Covid-19 has simply kicked them whilst they’re down.

There are further problems to come, too. When politicians or scientific advisors tell us that it’s safe to go out again, there will be those who don’t believe them. They are likely to live under a self-imposed lockdown for some time to come. There will be those who do the same thing but because they want to save money for a rainy day rather than for safety reasons. With even a cheap house being £100,000 to buy in the UK, who could blame someone for wanting to save back more than they were before the pandemic? Finally, there will be those who have lost their jobs or whose pay has been frozen due to the pandemic. For many, a trip to the cinema won’t be justifiable when a monthly Amazon Prime subscription costs less than the price of 1 ticket, and comes with free delivery for already cheap online purchases. When you add this group of people to those who had little money before the pandemic, that’s a considerable number who will be priced into living in a permanent lockdown. Our high streets, as well as the jobs they generate, may disappear.

There is plenty that can be done about the issues our hospitality and retail sector face, and wiser people than me have written extensively on the subject. What I would like to do in this article is encourage you to get active in the campaign to increase your pay – and in so doing, hopefully give you some disposable income to spend in a local shop or restaurant at some point in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.

We need to all get behind the PCS pay campaign fully and do our bit to ensure a total success this time around. Already the arguments are being made that after borrowing so much due to Covid-19, the country must start tightening its belt (in other words, a pay freeze for the public sector). Global economics doesn’t work like a household budget. That was the lie everyone was sold back in 2010, and after 11 years of austerity the deficit is larger, the high street is emptier and the public sector is even more underfunded. Many politicians clapped for us in 2020. Now it’s time to give us something a little more tangible for keeping the country together. If this doesn’t happen, if we and everyone else receive pay freezes or pay cuts for another 11 years, then a few generations down the line, there won’t be any parents telling their kids about the pubs or shops their great-great-great grandparents owned, because there won’t be any to own. There won’t be any anecdotes about finely decorated ceilings either, because no-one will be able to afford the plasterers.

Sobering thought, eh?

Matt Cunningham

Matt is standing for the DWP Organiser in the coming elections. Click on the image below for more information about the LU slate

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