Budget Aftermath: Wigan won't be doffing caps for Brown

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The Independent Online
THE FRONT page of yesterday's Wigan Evening Post had two stories. One headline said "Chiefs hail Budget boost to area" while the one next to it ran: "Bombshell as 40 more jobs axed at factory".

That, in a way, sums up the mood in this town which has, to a large extent thanks to George Orwell, become synonymous with northern deprivation and grim poverty. Speaking on Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show yesterday, Gordon Brown repeatedly chanted the populist mantra that his was a "Budget to encourage enterprise and initiative". In Wigan, they will say that they're doing precisely what the Chancellor wants, but has this latest Budget been good for Wigan?

At the bright and airy building of the Enterprise Centre, where local government and private business have been attempting, with some degree of success, to bring in more jobs, the view is that the steps are in the right direction.

Adrian Hardy, the head of economic development at the centre and Peter Morton, the business services director for Business Link between Wigan borough and commerce, reel off figures for jobs created and local businesses making good.

The unemployment rate, more than 10 per cent 15 years ago, is now just over 5 per cent and the population has grown by 10,000 in the past three decades to just under 310,000. "The devil is in the detail," said Mr Hardy, "but overall we like the breaks being given for investment." Mr Morton agrees: "Of course, one can always say we would have liked more, but I agree with the basic approach."

A few minutes' walk from the glass and steel of the Enterprise Centre stands The Indestructible Ventilating Fan, built by Walker Brothers for Sutton Manor Colliery and state of the art at the time - 1910.

"That was a real piece of engineering," said Joe Wilson, a retired colliery man now in his eighties, out walking with his 74-year-old wife, Jean. "It still looks good, doesn't it? But that's all finished now."

What did they think of the Budget? Mrs Wilson said resolutely: "There's nowt in it for us. I've been a Labour supporter all my life but this new lot don't know much about the working classes, do they? I mean, what does your Tony Blair know about the working classes?"

John Winnard, who employs 30 people at William Santus, famous for their Uncle Joe's Mint Balls, said he was sceptical about whether the Budget would have a significant impact on his company. "They are giving with one hand and taking away with the other," he said.

David Page is the managing director of Patak's, an Indian food manufacturer with a turnover of pounds 45m. Mr Page said: "Things are progressing in Wigan, there is a desire among both the borough and business to make this place a success. The Budget, like New Labour, is very well packaged but frankly I don't see any real action to help small or medium-sized businesses.''

Susan Dean, 41, has two children and a husband who is unemployed. "Gordon Brown could have done a lot more," she said. "He keeps going on about how well the economy is doing, but ordinary people aren't really seeing much of that. The north has been badly neglected. I'm not blaming this Government for that, it wasThatcher who did the worst damage, but we expect them to try and make up for that.

"But there is still this stereotyping of the north and Wigan in particular, with all that Road to Wigan Pier nonsense."

George Orwell appears to be a uniting factor among many in Wigan. Peter Morton feels Orwell's portrait of the town "is simply unfair" and unnecessary baggage to have to carry.

The tourist information centre's Discover Wigan Borough leaflet stresses: "The new and revitalised Wigan is a far cry from the cloth cap image portrayed by Orwell on his infamous Road to Wigan Pier."

Mrs Dean's analysis is even simpler: "George Orwell wasn't a northerner at all, he was from the south."

Points of


WITH A population of 310,000, Wigan is England's 12th-largest metropolitan borough. About 90,000 people live in the town itself.

The borough has an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent. The rate for males of 6.2 per cent is slightly above the national average.

Since the demise of the coal and cotton industries the main employers are manufacturing, light engineering and food production companies. Heinz, one of the biggest employers, has 1,700 staff. Tourism is also an important industry, largely because of Wigan Pier.

Businesses are attracted by road communications. Wigan is surrounded by motorways.

Wigan is a Conservative-free zone. All four MPs with constituencies in the borough are Labour.

There are 83,000 owner-occupiers and 28,000 council tenants in Wigan.