Plant closure's 'huge' impact on local communities

A major employer in an area with already-high levels of unemployment closed at the end of 2012, leaving local people wondering where new jobs will come from. Mary O'Hara reports from Lynemouth, Northumberland.

If there's one word that comes up more than any other when speaking to people in the village of Lynemouth in rural Northumberland it has to be unemployment.

Set in stunning countryside in the south-east of the county and sandwiched between what was once thriving mining country and the sea, the village and surrounding districts had been bracing themselves all year for the closure of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium smelting plant, which up until the end of 2012 employed hundreds of people.

Despite Lynemouth recently being named one of 50 areas that will receive a Big Lottery grant for training and employment initiatives, locals worry about where replacement jobs on the scale of Alcan will come from.

With unemployment already high across the region, a shortage of skilled or well-paid work, large numbers of low-income households and high rates of child poverty, there is anxiety about what lies ahead.

Forty-year-old Craig Thompson, who was employed at the giant smelting plant for 15 years until May 2012, when he was made redundant, says the loss of jobs on such a large scale is having a profound impact on a community where full-time, skilled work was scarce to begin with.

It's not just the employees [at Alcan], it's all the businesses that feed off it. It affects thousands and thousands of people in this area. The impact is huge."

Craig, who put himself on training courses through the summer so he could start his own business as a caravan engineer, says he has witnessed former colleagues "getting really down" about not being able to find alternative work.

The prospects up here – there's just nothing. [I'm] speaking to lads [who are] applying for dozens of jobs every week and getting nothing. They're good lads and they are wanting to work. There's just nothing for them."

The only route Thompson could see open was self-employment and having experienced the 'humiliation' of the job centre decided he would do whatever he could to earn a living.

There's a stigma with being unemployed… I'd never been unemployed before so I didn't know anything about the job centre. It's absolutely soul destroying when you go there. There is the odd job [that's] good, well paid but there's literally thousands of applicants for every job."

If unemployment and low pay are at the forefront of people's minds there are a cluster of acute issues that are increasingly coming to the fore. According to local resident and part-time Credit Union worker Alec Crumplin, problems – especially around debt and housing – are escalating rapidly and are expected to get worse as benefits changes take hold.

I am seeing people on a day-to-day basis in dire financial trouble. More and more people who can no longer make ends meet. Not just people on benefits, working people as well. One little bill is enough to topple them over the edge. It has drastically increased over the last two to three months."

The rising costs of essentials like heating are hitting people hard, he says, and, being a rural area with limited public transport options, it is almost impossible for people who can't afford a car to travel long distances to find work.

A lot of people's circumstances are changing. They are struggling to find another job. The jobs that are available are only part time."

There is little respite even for those in work, Alec points out.

I'm seeing families with two people working who are still struggling to pay the weekly bills. A lot of people are struggling just to feed themselves."

Food banks are multiplying, he says, while more people are falling into arrears with rent.

In addition, predatory lenders "are rife" and are preying upon people in need.

At present some of the pay-day loan companies' [interest rates] are over 4,000 per cent. Unless there’s some employment brought into the area where people can actually get full-time jobs, where they are earning a decent living, things are going to get drastically worse."

As changes to the benefits system roll out during 2013, he says existing problems will be exacerbated.

By this point next year we will have a lot more homeless people and a lot more people in need of just food to get through the week."

It seems like a bleak picture, but Adam Gooding, trust manager at Lynemouth Community Trust, a local social enterprise, says that while lack of jobs is a serious issue there are also examples in the area of people working to overcome challenges in inspiring ways.

At the community centre where the trust is based, a one-time hotel for mining company executives – where there is a café, library, meeting rooms and other facilities for residents – local people come and go as Adam talks about one small, innovative project.

One of the things we've got in our building is a chocolate factory called Kenspeckle, he explains.

The café was quiet at certain points of the week and it was we either make people redundant or we find other things for them to do."

Following some market research and securing seed capital, the trust found a gap in the local tourist market for fudge and artisan chocolates and now employs four permanent staff.

For as much as anything else it's about creating optimism… as much as the jobs themselves."

Adam expects life to get tougher for many local people on low incomes and those who receive benefits. For a relatively isolated community that over generations had relied on large industrial employers such as mining companies and Alcan, adjusting to either no job or low-paid work is onerous, he says.

"I think everything does stem from employment. It feeds into health, it feeds into housing and it feeds into the life chances of young people as well. We can look back to the 80s and how there was a generation that was just largely abandoned and… it doesn't take too much imagination to suppose that the same thing is going to happen again."

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