19 Mar 2014

Budget brings storm clouds to Port Sunlight

There’s a rather “other world” quality to Port Sunlight on the Wirral. A Victorian model village, its houses and gardens are pristine. The wide tree-lined roads have an unusual stillness to them.

Port Sunlight was created by the soap magnate and philanthropist, William Lever – of Lever Brothers – and his vision was of a place where his workers would be paid fair wages, enjoy job security and enjoy an enviable quality of life.

But in the past few years, people have been hit by some very real world problems. The recession has left its mark on Port Sunlight as every where else.

George Osborne, the chancellor, plays a very different role from Lord Lever, but his vision today wasn’t far off the Lord’s – he wants to offer security to the people of Britain, the promise of a better Britain that lasts.

And he had plenty of good economic news to offer. What’s fascinating is how many people up here are just not hearing it or feeling it.

At a rehearsal of Port Sunlight’s Lyceum Brass band, at a rough guess, there were thirty or so players. There were a handful of students and some retired people but the rest were all in work – doctors, teachers, NHS workers. Unemployment is not the issue here, but making their wages stretch – that’s the key.

For the public sector workers who’ve seen 1 per cent wage rises – or in some cases pay freezes – they feel the cost of living is leaving them running permanently behind.

On a show of hands – not very scientific I know – not one talked about feeling better.

Bob Gray, a semi retired businessman, did acknowledge that all the “big figures”, the macroeconomics, were all moving in the right direction. In fact, he said, they were even better than expected a year or 18 months ago. So does he feel the recovery?

“There’s a north-south divide. It’s crawling slowly up the M1,” he said, but on the ground there’s not much evidence of things getting better.

All of which will be perplexing or perhaps frustrating for the government. With so much good news to deliver – growth forecasts up, unemployment down again – why do people not feel it? And what does that mean for their chances at the next election?

While the coalition grapple with that conundrum, Labour has no room to feel smug.

Wirral South is a key marginal and Labour holds it by just 531 votes but there was a good deal of disappointment with politicians across the board among the band members we spoke to.

No pun intended, but it sounds like there was everything to play for here.

‘Confidence is back’

A short drive away and the old cottage hospital has become the glamorous Leverhulme Hotel and Spa.

Owner Craig Barker says they’ve survived the recession by being clever – keeping up quality but sitting on rates.

He kept staff numbers up and is proud that he’s rejected zero hours contracts. Staff are loyal as a result he says and proudly, the best in the business.

Without question, he believes confidence is back. Bookings for weddings – a key indicator for him – are bouncing right back up. Psychologically people are out and up for spending again, he says.

Upstairs, one of his housekeepers, Janet Miles, clearly feels very differently.

On the minimum wage, life is still a big struggle with little sign of progress. She’ll benefit from the rise in personal tax allowance but to benefit from the savings reforms she’d need to have something to save. At the end of every month, she says, there’s nothing left.

So a recovery for everyone? Not quite yet it seems.

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