Black Country Day: Big in spirit, short on jobs

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On the first ever Black Country day to celebrate Britain’s beating heart at the epicentre of the industrial revolution, it is easy to get lost in the fanfare of nostalgia and to believe all is well.

 

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The Black Country has much to be proud of.

Originally the term“Black Country” was in reference to the dark skies from the plumes of smoke coming from factories and mines, stretching all the way back to 1840 through to the late 1980’s.

People argue over what the real borders of the Black Country are but the government recognises the area today as the Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

I grew up in Wolverhampton and have family in Brierley Hill and Dudley.

From a young age I identified with being a “Black Country mon”, the accent, the dialect and being able to play jokes on friends from Birmingham who had no idea what I meant by “bostin fittle.”

It is also the sense of community pride and belonging that the term Black Country evokes now.

I have fond childhood memories of seeing my dad before his shift at a local factory or just coming back from a night shift at work as I got ready for school.

The area is known for its diversity and acceptance of different cultures – to the point where over the years cultures came together and combined under the umbrella of being part of the Black Country.

Our local pub with its traditional Banks’s bitter and Polish kitchen and the local Indian curry house are a testament to that.

However in a period economic crisis, unemployment and low pay, the Black Country is suffering like every other former industrial heartland in Britain.

The area had already been de-industrialised by the beginning of the 1990’s.

One only has to take a train from Birmingham to Wolverhampton to witness the miles of empty factories and storage depots which have now replaced vibrant productive industry.

The short spell of service sector jobs that took the place of heavy industry up untill the 2008 economic crash, are now too on the wane.

Wolverhampton – once the jewel in the crown of the modern Black Country – now has a town centre littered with empty shops and pound stores.

Unemployment in the Black Country reached 11.2 percent at the end of last year with statistics out today showing that the wider West Midlands have 46,646 more people unemployed than in 2008.

The new Jaguar Land Rover plant with 1,400 jobs is a welcome addition to Wolverhampton but won’t even dent the unemployment levels in the city.

When there is a lack of prospects social strife and community breakdown follow.

Areas like Whitmore Reans where I live have always had a hard edge and a bad reputation.

But the levels of poverty, prostitution and alcoholism are now out in the open, creating a nasty atmosphere on a daily basis.

Every day dozens of different people can be seen drinking the strongest cider out of bottles and cans from 10am till well into the evening.

It is not that everyone who suffers strife turns to the bottle but the visual increase is noticeable and shocking.

None of these facts or observations diminishes the Black Country and the enduring spirit of its people.

Great events like the recent Compton Hospice sponsored walk and the Race for Life at West Park are a small example of the public spirited nature of the local community.

But the Black Country needs investment – investment in hi-tech manufacturing jobs, investment in its workers with a living wage of at least eight pounds an hour and investment in social infrastructure such as housing.

All this is only possible under a government prepared to collect the £120bn lost to the treasury each year from tax evasion and avoidance by the wealthy and big business, in order to secure the funds to launch a mass investment programme to get Britain up and running again.

The Black Country could be the engine room of a second revolution – one of 21st century manufacturing and long term economic security for generations to come.

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