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Welcome to the town that business forgot sector forgot

The cuts will hit Middlesbrough especially hard. Jonathan Brown meets its residents

Job Centres are likely to be one of Middlesbrough's boom industries in the coming months. The town, dubbed an "infant Hercules" by William Gladstone in 1862, and which once furnished the world with its ironworks, is the least equipped place in England to cope with the coming cuts, according to a recent BBC survey.

Four out of 10 people are officially workless. Claimant unemployment is about double the national average at 7.2 per cent, and 43 per cent of those in a job are paid from the public purse.

On Teeside, during the economic boom of 1998-2008, 13,000 public-sector jobs were created on Teesside, according to the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. But during the same period, there was a net loss of 168 private-sector jobs. The nearby Corus steel plant was mothballed earlier this year and 1,700 people were made redundant, although negotiations to find a buyer are still said to be alive.

The spectacular failure of private enterprise to fill the chasm left by the demise of traditional industries in the 1980s has bequeathed Middlesbrough not only a disproprotionately bloated public sector but the third-highest number of people living on benefit in England. Six of its 23 wards rank in the lowest one per cent for social deprivation, and there are only seven wards where residents can expect to live beyond the average national age.

For Christine Scallen, 51, there is nothing new about being poor. The mother of six recalls that even when she and her husband were working there was scarcely enough money to go around. Now divorced and living with her 19-year-old son, who has been stripped of his benefits after leaving his job, she is hoping to get back into work for the first time since the late 1970s and augment the £30 she has each week to feed them both. At that meagre level of income there is little in the way of luxuries, maybe a magazine or some cheap jewellery for her grandchildren, she said.

"With people being poor it makes socialising difficult. If you invite someone in for a cup of tea with the milk and the sugar it is hard after a while. With my son not getting paid if I buy a loaf of bread in he can eat the whole loaf to himself," she said.

"I am used to it. It is not like having a good job and losing it and then having to sell everything. But I'm hoping I'll get something that pays soon."

One of Middlesbrough's success stories is Teesside University. Recently ranked university of the year, the former polytechnic is seen as vital to the future prospects of its young people. But higher education is one of the hardest hit areas and students such as those that go to Teesside the most likely to be put off by soaring fees.

David Temple, 20, a final-year criminology student comes, like many of his classmates, from Middlesbrough. He is all too aware he was graduating in the bleakest of times and that his ambition to be a probation officer could be delayed by the spending cuts.

"My sister and her boyfriend both work in the public sector and they are very worried about their jobs," he said. "I heard on the news that every time I apply for a job here I will be up against 16 other applicants.

"If it was possible I would like to stay but in the end I will have to go where the jobs are."

Over at Middlesbrough Town Hall, the independent, directly elected mayor Ray Mallon predicts hundreds of job losses. The council payroll extends to 8,987 people including teachers, and is the town's number one employer ahead of the NHS and the university.

Mr Mallon concedes that the North is over-reliant on the public sector, but insists he has done everything in his power to attract private developers during his eight years in office.

One glimmer of hope came with the Chancellor's announcement of £200m to promote offshore wind farms and green energy manufacturing. Middlesbrough is the closest port to Dogger Bank in the North Sea, which could by 2020 supply up a quarter of the UK's electricity needs.

But according to Mr Mallon, a controversial former senior police officer who was dubbed Robocop by his admirers for his zero-tolerance policy towards crime, the council will have to make savings of £45m over four years, and Downing Street seems blind to the town's plight.

"I have great respect and admiration for David Cameron," he said, "but these cuts at first and second glance are savage. They are too deep and too quick. I don't identify any empathy with a town such as Middlesbrough."