Austerity policies and Liverpool citizens

On a wall in Kirkby Unemployed Centre  are contrasting photos of the estate at its most prosperous and most decayed. Community Artists Steve Higginson and Ian Morris mounted the exhibition in 2011 and made the point that places such as Kirkby in Liverpool were built to supply labour to nearby industries. In the case of Kirkby the adjacent industrial estate provided employment for 80% of the local population in the 1970s and has now shrunk to barely 19%. Higginson and Morris comment,

History hangs heavy in Kirkby. City planners never gave any thought to what could happen to areas like Kirkby when an industrial meltdown occurred

Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Alderman Albert Morrow, officially opens the first houses to be completed in Southdene, Kirkby, in 1952
Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Alderman Albert Morrow, officially opens the first houses to be completed in Southdene, Kirkby, in 1952

And, of course, on top of industrial meltdown these areas are now being hit with austerity policies triggered by financial meltdown caused by speculators not welfare claimants. In June 2013 I had the privilege of following the TUC Austerity Bus around areas of Liverpool, listening to and talking with residents, volunteers and workers and the stories I heard were grim.

The adverse impact of austerity policies on mental health was of great concern.  In Norris Green community workers told me that emotional support for families is now far more intense.

There are many mental health issues as everyone thinks they are on their own [but] knowing they are not the only ones gives them confidence to say ‘no’ and not just accept that that’s it.

The director of a Mental Health Support Charity in Kirkby told me that although the Disability Team in the Job Centre will refer people to them their expectation of what is needed to get people into work is unrealistic. Despite the promotion by government agencies of unpaid work as a route into employment,

Volunteers, some of whom are ex-users, can’t be consistent in their attendance because of Job Centre requirements.

In West Everton residents told me that ‘Stress alone kills people’ as not surprisingly the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ on health and well-being cannot be under-estimated. A housing association in Norris Green is losing 20k a week because of ‘bedroom tax’ as it’s the worst affected area in the city with one third of residents affected.  In West Everton I was told

We’re not talking about houses –these are our homes, even the kids are worrying – ‘where are we moving to?’ Austerity is killing us all.

Horrifically some residents I spoke with believe the government knows the damaging impact of these policies on individuals and communities and expects the resulting social disintegration as the intention of government is to ‘let them kill one another’ – in effect a form of social genocide.

Physical health too is fast being undermined. In Norris Green 45% of children are living in poverty. In West Everton a mother told me,

People are having to ask themselves, ‘Do we buy nappies or food or clothes?’  If you’ve got bills and no food on the table you’re going to put food on the table aren’t you? You can sort the bills out later can’t you? But you need to feed the kids. To get help from the discretionary fund you have to take your shopping bill to show you are only buying basic stuff – how degrading is that?

In fact Knowsley Council is now paying the foodbank to feed people. Volunteers told me that,

When someone gets sanctioned by the Job centre they are told to go to the food bank – we ask ourselves, are we just doing the government’s dirty work for them?

Most worryingly no one I spoke with or heard had any confidence in any political party or politician. I was told,

We living in these communities not represented by government. Liverpool has to cut services by £830 per person; in the South it’s a lot less than that

The Labour Party have a lot to answer – it’s become the party of the abstainer.

So who will represent the citizens in these communities? It is clear to any casual observer (let alone the UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik) that the current and future social costs of these policies outweigh any supposed gains from austerity economics.

Dr Stephanie Petrie

University of Liverpool School of Law and Social Justice