‘Austerity has ripped through our lives and strangled our hopes’

Neil Dunne is a resident of Kirkby and will be voting in this year's General Election
-Credit: (Image: LDRS)


"If there's ever a sign of austerity not working it's in Kirkby", says Neil Dunne who has lived in Kirkby all of his life.

With the General Election looming large on the horizon, political parties are trying to prioritise their policy positions and shape out solutions to complex problems. However, for many people in Kirkby, there's one issue which is not being talked about enough: austerity.

Austerity was defined in 2014 by the Office for Budget Responsibility as: “one of the biggest deficit reduction programmes seen in any advanced economy since World War II”. It led to £30 billion in cuts to welfare payments, housing and social services as well as a 49% cut from central government in real-terms funding to local authorities across England.

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For Neil, it's a complex problem which not always grabs the headlines. Nevertheless, he believes it to be the one defining characteristic of the nation's decline. He said: "It's the elephant in the room.

"With cuts to public services the fallout is very easy to diagnose. What's happened is vital services are withdrawn from people who need them the most.

"What people are seeing is the lack of local school places due to closures, bus routes cancelled, train routes cancelled, shops that have been here for years closing down and wage stagnation.

"This Labour are passing on cuts and not offering alternatives to austerity"

"In Kirkby, austerity has ripped through our lives and strangled our hopes but it's difficult when you can't point at one thing going badly, because it's everything. Life becomes a struggle and that can build resentment."

The post-war boom era was largely responsible for the creation of Kirkby as we recognise it today. After the 'slum clearances' of the 1950s people were supplanted into the 'new town' from areas like Scotland Road in North Liverpool. The transition was not easy.

However, planners did account for the importance of community bonds and housing developments tended to include local amenities such as local shops and pubs. According to Neil, these were places where people could come together and socialise, but he sees the closure of pubs around Kirkby as part of a deeper economic malaise which is destroying people's sense of community.

From here, he expands out into the concept of loyalty and believes many people in Kirkby vote Labour due to habit and tradition. Although he is quick to celebrate the achievements of the Labour movement - with particular emphasis on the NHS - Neil is unsure whether his parents or grandparents generation would vote for the present Labour Party. He said: "This Labour are passing on cuts and not offering alternatives to austerity and that has an impact on working class voters because we don't think they represent us as they should."

A general view of Kirkby town centre
A general view of Kirkby town centre -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Knowsley has always been a Labour stronghold and polling suggests they will win the parliamentary seat with a huge majority. However, Reform are currently polling in second place ahead of the Greens, Conservatives, Lib Dems and Workers Party. Asked to give his opinion on why some people are turning towards Reform, Neil said: "I think it's the populist language which cuts through.

"When something is offered up to point at and blame, it will be presented as an alternative to mainstream politics which many people feel let down by.

"But you don't hear Reform talking about a fully-funded NHS or a massive council house building programme. It's based on dividing people.

"A solution to that division is to end austerity, stop tax avoidance, invest in public services and our young people and restore the social contract.

"With any incoming Labour government they will be inheriting a huge mess and we'll need them to be competent but also present a vision for radical change because the people of Kirkby are tired of voting while holding their noses, they want someone on their side.

Natalie and her daughter, Willow are walking through Kirkby on their way to visit Natalie's elderly mother. Willow has just turned 20-years-old and said she loves walking through the town centre as it evokes happy memories from her childhood and remembers it as always being busy and friendly.

The town centre is still busy and friendly but with less independents and more chains and charity shops than was perhaps evident two decades ago. However, there are local stores such as Kirkby Coffee and the stalls at Kirkby Market.

Kirkby Market at the top of Kirby Town Centre filled with local stores
Kirkby Market at the top of Kirby Town Centre filled with local stores -Credit:LDRS

When asked what the important issues are at the forthcoming general election, Natalie does not hesitate and lasers in on the struggling NHS and believes it has been 'completely gutted' by years of under-investment, poor management and neglect.

Natalie is a mum to five children and has recently completed a master's degree as a mature student. This came after she left formal education as a young woman after falling pregnant. It is no surprise then that education is also central to Natalie's concerns. She said: "After the family life settled down I went to university and got a degree and a Masters, but now I have £70,000 worth of student debt. A very different situation to what it was when I was 18 when university was free to access.

"I was able to get my first three into good schools but with my youngest two, you can't help but notice the increased strain on schools and the difference is huge.

"When you have a deteriorating education system, a failing health care system and constant economic slumps, it's difficult to tell my kids to be hopeful. Then young people are being told they will have to do National Service. That scares me."

Natalie is particularly concerned about the NHS and the future more generally. She points to the cuts to public services and the impact on her friends, one of whom is working but still struggling to get by financially. She said: "The damage done in the last 14 years is almost beyond understanding. This country is in a mess and its going to take a long time to get things working again."

"For the hours of work we do and the commitment we show, our rate of pay for health care is absolutely shocking."

The cost-of-living crisis - paired with the legacy of austerity measures - are issues which come up time and time again by people working in Kirkby. People like Gemma Stevens and Stephen Naylor who are both health care workers and now live together as friends.

Although Gemma has two jobs, she couldn't afford to keep up with the rent payments in her previous accommodation and has been forced to move in with Stephen. They pool their resources, but don't think it's fair to work so hard and get so little out of it.

According to a report published by the Local Government Association, the cost of living crisis has seen real terms pay fall at its fastest rate since records began in 2001. As mortgage rates increase and rents rise, millions of people will be faced with an increased risk of falling into in-work poverty.

Gemma Stevens and Stephen Naylor are both health care workers
Gemma Stevens and Stephen Naylor are both health care workers -Credit:LDRS

To illustrate this point, data shows 61% of working-age adults in poverty lived in a household where at least one adult was in work, and 11% of all workers lived in a household in poverty.

Gemma said: "For the hours of work we do and the commitment we show, our rate of pay for health care is absolutely shocking.

"When you work in care you don't do it for the money. If you do it for money you're in the wrong job for a number of reasons because the focus is on helping people.

"However, it would be nice to be paid enough to live and get on in life."

This sense of unfairness is picked up by Stephen who said: "I can't believe how much we're taxed. It really p*sses me off when I see how much tax I pay and then you read stories of rich people and big companies avoiding it.

"We save the NHS an absolute fortune and I can't even access the NHS. I've been trying to get a doctor's appointment for months and months and months. I'm still waiting."

This is a point echoed by Gemma who expands it out to the people they offer support to. She says it's virtually impossible to arrange medical appointments for their clients and believes it is doubly hard to access mental health provision.

Asked whether they will be voting, Stephen seems to sum up both their perspectives. He said: "There's not one manifesto I've read that inspires me. I will vote but I really don't want to vote for any of them."

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