The hard times are already here in Newcastle-under-Lyme

As they digested the news that the next two years would bring the sharpest drop in living standards since the 1950s, residents of Newcastle-under-Lyme said getting through this winter would be tough enough as it was.

The West Midlands city switched from Labor to Conservative in the last election, but on Thursday there was little sign of continued government support or patience for the troubles ahead.

“The city is dying. Shops are closing and people aren’t coming out to meet for coffee – they’re too scared to treat themselves,” said Lee Knott, manager at Plant and Wilton Butchers.

Butcher Lee Knott
Butcher Lee Knott said his family has already scaled back “everything fun” © Andrew Fox/FT

“It’s tight enough without taxes going up,” he added, noting that his family was already cutting back on anything fun, like his kids going out, to help sustain rising food and energy costs.

While voting Conservative for the first time in 2019, he said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had no mandate to deal with the current economic crisis and should call general elections. If a vote comes up, he said he would vote for the party “that does what’s best for me and my family.”

Bernadette Speers, a caregiver, said an 80-year-old neighbor limited herself to one cup of tea a day because she didn’t want to turn on the kettle. “I blame the government. Who else is to blame?” she said.

Bernadette Spear
Bernadette Speers, a carer, said the cost of living crisis was the government’s fault © Andrew Fox/FT

But Nigel Griffin, who runs Shaw’s fish and chip shop on High Street, had more sympathy for the government’s predicament.

“It is extremely difficult to please everyone and fund sectors that desperately need it, like the NHS and welfare state,” he said, adding that the costs of the Covid pandemic would have to be paid. He said Sunak “has his head screwed on” and may be able to balance the books.

Nigel Griffin, owner of a fish and chip shop
Nigel Griffin, who runs Shaw’s fish and chips shop, expressed sympathy for the government’s predicament © Andrew Fox/FT

Many Newcastle residents, like Knott the butcher, voted Conservative in the last election because they dislike then-Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn and believe Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, can both “pull through Brexit” and move into the Region would invest as part of its “leveling up” agenda.

But having already suffered sharp rises in prices over the past year, residents will not only face higher central government taxes, but also a potential 4.99 per cent increase in council tax if the Conservative-led local authority decides to to benefit from a change introduced by the Chancellor to allow him to fund any budget gaps.

As a result, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, has his sights set on the constituency, which he has visited twice in the last 12 months.

But Aaron Bell, one of dozens of Conservative MPs with slim majorities in the so-called “Red Wall” seats who have swayed from Labor control, felt the autumn declaration had given him a chance to defend his job and posed notes that the government increased both social security benefits and pensions in line with inflation.

“In the context of [a] very difficult budgetary situation I think the Chancellor has delivered for places like Newcastle by looking after the people who have the least and making sure that the pain falls more on the people who can afford it,” said he.

He also hoped £23m ahead of budget investment through the Towns Fund and a further £11m through the future High Street fund would bring the practical benefits of ‘levelling’.

Meanwhile, Andrew Fox-Hewitt, a fireman and deputy leader of the Labor group in Newcastle-under-Lyme council, admitted his party still has plenty of ground to reclaim, even if many of the Conservative voters said it was now to say “never again”.

Pam, who works for real estate agent Stephenson Browne, said the real estate market in the area exploded after Liz Truss'
Pam, who works for real estate agent Stephenson Browne, said the real estate market in the area exploded after Liz Truss’ ‘mini’ budget © Andrew Fox/FT

Pam, who works for Staffordshire estate agents Stephenson Browne, wasn’t convinced. She said the area’s housing market exploded after Liz Truss’ “mini” budget scared markets in October and sent mortgage rates skyrocketing.

“The phone stopped ringing overnight,” she said, adding that despite rising household expenses, their wages have stagnated and there was nothing in the budget to fill the gap.

“I’m pretty much on the brink politically. But if it affects you and your family, you need to look again. Would I vote conservative? No,” she said.

Video: The Brexit Effect: How leaving the EU affected Britain

https://www.ft.com/content/164c074a-edf2-4808-a9ca-c198d9a9ef60 The hard times are already here in Newcastle-under-Lyme

Adam Bradshaw

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