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UK Politics

With the squeezed middle in the heart of Britain

Our writer gauges the reaction in Haltwhistle, the country's geographic centre

Haltwhistle has always found itself squeezed in the middle of things. The Northumberland market town stands close to the border between Scotland and England; its name means "by two rivers" and in recent years, after an enterprising local hotelier worked it out, it enjoys the accolade of standing at the very centre of Britain.

In the market square, signposts illustrate Haltwhistle's equidistance between the Solway Firth and the North Sea; Orkney and Portland Bill.

Yesterday as George Osborne took to his feet in Westminster and used storm metaphors to share the latest bad news on the economy, dark clouds swept off the Northern Pennines to give Haltwhistle a very real soaking.

Standing behind the counter of his game and fish shop, doing a brisk trade in warm turkey broth, Billy Bell, 62, admitted times were hard for many.

"There's nobody making a fortune," he explained. "But we are lucky because we are selling food and you can cut down on a lot of things, but you'll always have to eat."

Haltwhistle was once home to a dozen mines, all now closed. Farming was hit hard by foot and mouth disease a decade ago and around that time the local paintworks closed.

Tourism has gone some way towards filling the gap, and in the summer months the town is popular with walkers visiting Hadrian's Wall.

But in winter people have to work hard to earn a living. Just across the high street, the kind of place admired by TV chefs for its variety of independent retailers, teacher Colette O'Connor, 51, was welcoming mature students in for an IT class at the library.

"I like the Conservatives and I like the way they are tackling the problem that Labour left in the first place," she said. "There are always threats to my job and I only work when there are students to teach but I live with it."

Charity manager Nick Woof, 33, commutes from his home in Carlisle – costing him £200 a week in fuel.

A slowdown in duty rises is welcome but he has seen his petrol bill double in recent years. At the leisure centre where he works the cost of heating has also increased by 400 per cent in the past five years.

While admiring efforts to encourage entrepreneurs, he says it is hard to build a new business in the countryside. "You struggle to find a niche and to get a big enough influx early on because there are that many people who have to travel to reach you," he says.

Over at the office of the Haltwhistle Partnership – a local development organisation – they are facing up to particularly difficult times.

Although it was awarded £492,000 in grants last year, from March there will be no new money. This threatens the future of a new youth project and an older person's lunch club among other schemes. Vice-chairman Lawrence Thompson, a former Labour county councillor, believes the project is the "living embodiment of the Big Society" but he adds: "There are too many people competing for a smaller pot of funding." Yet there was little succour for Ed Miliband. He added: "I'm a socialist, so don't ask me what I think of that lot running Labour now."