Strikes abound, inflation is in double digits, people are self-rationing fuel to save on heating bills and there is a feeling of a country broken and fading from past glories. Abba are playing to sell out audiences and a Prime Minister is floundering.
No, I’m not talking about 1979 during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ – I’m talking about now, the winter of 2023, although the parallels are uncannily similar.
The latest figures show that Britain’s export performance since 2016 has been woefully depressed (I wonder what happened in that year?). They show that we have dropped from 5th to 15th place in the world in the last seven years. A self-inflicted wound which has made most of us poorer.
So what has been the Government’s answer? Their ‘Levelling Up’ agenda recently reached a crescendo with the announcement of which areas had been successful in getting extra funding. This had been eagerly anticipated by local authorities up and down the country who are cash-strapped and having to raid reserves to balance the books in the face of increased charges and reduced government funding.
In the event, most areas were sorely disappointed by the outcome. Many received less than they wanted and some like Gloucestershire ended up with absolutely nothing. A bit like Eurovision – ‘nul points’.
The announcement attracted rather less publicity than it should have, as it was overshadowed by Rishi Sunak not wearing a seatbelt when he was enthusiastically doing a video in his car. That faux pas was careless but is nothing compared to the faux pas of whole areas receiving no cash at all to ‘level up’.
Places like Gloucestershire are stereotyped as ‘posh’ or ‘doing well’. Whilst that may be true for those parts of the area where celebrities hang out at weekends, it is certainly not for deprived areas of Gloucester or Cheltenham or the pockets of real rural poverty which exist in the Forest of Dean and even in the Cotswolds. In fact, there is a major life expectancy gap of 7.5 years for men and 5.5 years for women between the most and least deprived parts of the county.
The West of England’s public services are ‘letting us down’ not ‘levelling us up’. Take a look at the latest ambulance response times for the South West region. Targets are all being missed but the most worrying is the one for Category 2 cases (including heart attacks and strokes). Latest figures show that these ambulances were on average taking 2 hr 39 minutes to get to the patient, way above the 18 minute target.
Look also at bus services which were cut yet again in the West last autumn by a major operator – a lifeline for those isolated and without a car. The rural ‘premium’ for petrol (where prices are often as much as five pence per litre more expensive) is another example of ‘letting down’. And for those able to run a car they are faced with lanes so full of craters that you would think you were on the surface of the Moon.
These broken services we face are exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor. Most of us in Gloucestershire feel less well-off and many are really struggling. Yet areas like ours have been totally ignored by the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.
With six Tory MPs currently in situ in Gloucestershire’s ‘Blue Wall’, maybe the Government feels it can forget such places and concentrate instead on the ‘Red Wall’, where there are stacks of marginal seats. However it does so at its peril if the polls stay as they are.