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Industrial Community Loses Its Economic Soul : Depression a Way of Life in British Town

April 07, 1985|MAUREEN JOHNSON | Associated Press

STOCKTON-ON-TEES, England — Growing up in this industrial town in northeast England is a new generation--welfare children who may never see their fathers go to work.

Stockton-on-Tees has lost its economic soul.

Its once bustling shipyards along the River Tees have become parks, its steel plants are shut, its belching chemical complexes are replacing men with machines. In the opinion of local bureaucrats it can never be reborn.

"Until 18 months ago the message was, 'What can we do to create jobs?' " says Raymond Fox, economic research department chief in the county of Cleveland, where Stockton-on-Tees with its 173,000 people is one of four boroughs.

"Now the realization is gradually dawning that there aren't going to be jobs . . . . We are going to raise a new generation of children who've never seen their fathers work."

Industries Gone

With male unemployment running at 28%, and at 66% in some districts, Stockton-on-Tees mirrors the ills of West European industrial regions which have been bypassed by the new technological revolution and whose whose heavy industries have gone.

But the jobless of Stockton-on-Tees survive, although meagerly, through a national welfare system that lets them live rent-free and on financial support that ranges from the equivalent of $25 a week for a single person to $100 or more for large families.

A decade ago, unemployment here was just 4.4%.

In parts of the prosperous south of England, it's not much more now.

But in Stockton-on-Tees, the signs of depression are everywhere: the boarded-up movie theater, the empty stores on the main shopping street, the out-of-work youths hanging out at the 18th century town hall--all symbols of a widening national divide.

But in the past 10 years, Stockton-on-Tees and its surrounding Cleveland county have been hit from all sides.

Rich Middle East nations that once bought giant industrial machinery made here, now make their own.

The oil price rise of 1974; the reduced sales of chemicals, polyethelene and plastics; the increased technology, and drastic slimming of uncompetitive state-owned steel plants have all combined in a deadly blow.

Unskilled Left Behind

Left behind are people who are either unskilled or who have skills no longer needed--people unwilling or unable to move elsewhere.

"It was in about 1976 that the alarm bells really sounded," says Cleveland's County's Fox.

"Since then it's been downhill all the way . . . . If it's depressing now, come back in five years and we'll make you weep."

Carrie Hatton, 4, growing up on a dreary but neatly kept public housing project called Blue Hills, where two-thirds of the breadwinners are out-of-work, is part of the new generation.

Her father, laborer John Hatton, is 33-years-old. Apart from a six-month spell last year in a state-aided auto shop, he hasn't had a job for six years and no longer bothers looking for one.

"Actually our four kids missed him not being around the house then," Ann Hatton, 29, says of her husband's job at the auto shop that now is out of business. "We've got used to him not having a job."

In Blue Hills, living off welfare and just passing the time has become a way of life.

The "go-getter" society that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher extols has a foreign sound here.

Life in Community Center

The Hattons' life revolves round a graffiti-daubed community center, helping run bingo games and darts matches.

The family gets $82 a week in welfare, and Mrs. Hatton makes $22 more working two evenings a week in a shop. Their three-bedroom, two-story house is owned by the borough council and is rent-free because Hatton is out of work.

If Hatton got work--and job-seekers outnumber vacancies 54 to 1--he'd make around about $100 a week and his family would be worse off because of loss of benefits, including not having to pay rent.

"My kids do not go short," says Mrs. Hatton. "We've never had much and we still go on holiday every year, sharing a caravan (trailer) . . . . What worries me is that maybe the kids will never work."

For the Hattons and the rest of Britain's army of unemployed, the welfare state represents survival.

In turn, its remorsely rising costs are the reason why Mrs. Thatcher's pledges to cut state spending and taxes--part of her vision of the route to long-term prosperity--remain unfulfilled. State spending when she and her Conservative Party won power in 1979 absorbed 39.5% of the national income. Now it is 42.5%.

This year's $43.2-billion cost of social security, including pensions for the old, will swallow up nearly a third of the national budget.

This town, from which the world's first passenger train chugged 10 miles down the line to Darlington in 1825 in a landmark of the industrial revolution, has some sense of being an inevitable casualty of economic change.

Thatcher Is Blamed

But politicians of the socialistic Labor Party who dominate here also blame Thatcher. They charge she does not understand or care about the plight of Britain's northern industrial heartland.

They contend the central government should create jobs by spending on capital projects. To Thatcher, that means only temporary jobs bought with borrowed money at the cost of soaring inflation.

"Market forces have played a part in sending our industries to the wall," says Jim Cooke, leader of the Labor-controlled Stockton-on-Tees borough council.

"But I blame the Thatcher brand of conservatism mainly," adds Cooke, a third-generation shipyard worker who with four brothers was laid off in 1974. He has been on welfare ever since.

Thatcher has seen unemployment more than double since she won power on a platform of tight-fisted policies, under which inflation has dropped from a 22% peak shortly after she took office to under 5%.

"We shall come through it," Thatcher said recently about unemployment.

"This is the third industrial revolution . . . (but) we only have jobs if we produce something that someone else will buy or a service they will purchase."

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