Is Berwick to be Doomed by Local Attitudes?

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My blog of a couple of weeks ago: Could this be the future for Berwick? seems to have stirred some opinions, especially in the Forgotten Berwick Facebook group.  So many thoughts and ideas have been generated that I have decided to publish a double helping this week. Today I will deal with some of the comments that were made tomorrow I will post another piece about possible ways forward.

Generally, by the feedback so far received, the idea of an old town/ new town set up with the big chain-stores going to Tweedmouth and the smaller  businesses to use the current town centre was met with approval, which is good, because it is happening whether we like it or not.

The discussion then turned to the development of tourism – as an important part of the town’s economy and then the old problems began to be reeled out:

  • We need to do something about the roads and toilets first.
  • We’re too remote for people to come here.
  • Nobody south of North Yorkshire has even heard of us.
  • Why would anybody want to come here when they can find everything an hour’s journey to the north?
  • The history isn’t enough. We need more to attract people.
  • There’s no money to do anything.

Northumberland County Council

As I understand it council tax is dealt with according to area. The income from an area has an effect on the amount the county council is prepared to spend on that area. North Northumberland loses out because:

  • Less heads of population, means
  • Less council tax per square mile, also
  • A low-wage economy, means
  • More percentage of people claim council tax rebate, therefore
  • There is less money for the County Council from the area, so
  • Less money is spent on this area.

If we could boost the local economy:

  • More people would earn more, and so
  • Pay full council tax, which would mean
  • More money to the County Council from Berwick, and
  • More money for them to spend on the area.

Apart from this, at the moment the County Council probably don’t see the point of spending money on Berwick. To them, we’re unimportant, at the back of beyond. I’m sure our representatives do their best, but they are easily outnumbered and out-voted in the larger authority.

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If we start shouting about the town, and doing what we can to raise the profile, the County Council will also be forced to take notice of us. They will definitely be interested in any increase in income they can claim. Also, if visitors complain about the lack of facilities/ poor roads, etc., it will damage their reputation, because they are responsible – and they won’t want that – especially if it happens to threaten a potential increase of income!

If we continue to put off doing things while we wait for the County Council to sort out the problems, we will wait for ever – it will never happen. They will let Berwick die slowly. (I’m sure some of them would prefer it if we were in Scotland so that they didn’t have to bother with us.) We need to force their hand.

If we can begin to start things moving and then point out the problems. If we direct any complaints their way and force them to take notice. Then and only then, we might be taken more seriously and be able to get things done.

Also if we start this moving perhaps it will add another strand to the argument for dualling the A1.

Isolation

Berwick is not so isolated as it used to be. Look at all the publicity that Alnwick has had in the last few years – and it is less than 30 miles away. Droves of people now visit Alnwick for:

  • The International Music Festival
  • Alnwick Fair
  • The Castle
  • Alnwick Gardens
  • And now a Food Festival, too.

We need to entice some of them up here!

How many people also visit Bamburgh (20 miles away) and Holy Island (about 10 miles away). How many of them come on to Berwick?

Looking in other directions, how many visit the various stately homes in the Borders? If they are interested in history we should be bringing them here.

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Visitor Origins and Who Knows of Berwick

You may be surprised at how many foreign visitors turn up in Berwick Record Office – from all around the world. They clearly know about us! Over the years I’ve lived in this area I’ve come across visitors from all over Yorkshire – I don’t always have to ask, sometimes I recognise the nuances of their accents to be able to place them. I’ve also spoken to people from Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, etc. A few weeks ago Berwick Writers Workshop had a visitor from Cambridge who was on holiday in Berwick. He and his wife come every year as it’s the only place they both enjoy.

Of the books I’ve published, the Anne Hepple biography has sold all around the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA. I think more have gone to Australia than we’ve sold in Northumberland, despite her being a Northumbrian author! The two books on the history of Berwick’s drink culture have also sold in Australia and the USA. All these people have clearly heard of Berwick!

Berwick v Edinburgh

It may seem surprising but some people would prefer Berwick to Edinburgh! Not everyone wants to visit a big city for their holiday. Edinburgh is very crowded in the summer, which can begin to feel claustrophobic – especially when the weather is hot. Edinburgh is also very expensive and cheaper accommodation is almost impossible to find in the festival season because of all the performers needing to stay as well as the tourists. As the festivals there reach capacity perhaps we need a Berwick Fringe to provide an alternative with more breathing space and less cost?

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Historical Attractions and…

Berwick’s hinterland doesn’t just cover the old Borough of Berwick, the town also serves a sizeable portion of Berwickshire, too. In fact some of the shops attract more trade from over the border than from south of the town. Berwick is also the cultural hub for all of these areas. Although history gives us our Unique Selling Points (USP) we do need to look wider – partly to interpret, partly to compliment that history.

The people who are most interested in history are usually also interested in other aspects of culture. Therefore, we do need to look at culture and heritage together and form an attack with several related prongs. These would most likely include:

  • Music
  • Drama
  • Crafts
  • Art / Art History
  • Literature / Writing
  • Film / Media

All with a local bias.  We already have much of what we need, it’s just that sometimes the dots are not joined up from a visitor point of view. (More on this to follow in the next piece.)

The Money Problem

Of course money is tight everywhere at the moment, and even if it’s true that the economy is turning a corner, we can’t expect to have money thrown at projects. However, there are still some ways and means, if people are prepared to put in the effort. It would probably need more work to find funding now, but this is also the time to try and be more innovative in our thinking about how to find the means to do what we want to do. Besides which, it is not the first step we need to consider. It could be ‘putting the cart before the horse!’ (More to follow in the next piece.)

I hope this has addressed at least some of the arguments that were put forward last time and perhaps given more food for thought! Until tomorrow….

What do you think?

Link

Jobcentre - Berwick

Politicians, economists and economic reporters in the media are always talking about the peaks and troughs in our economy and the cycles of boom and bust. Each time the economic plans falter and unemployment rises, there is great worry about youth unemployment and a ‘lost generation’ who are never able to take the first steps on a career path because of the lack of jobs. But then politics move on and when the recovery begins, all the media comments are angled to promote optimism and confidence in the economy at last.

The politicians are keen to take the credit for sorting out the problems and setting the country on its feet again. But what happens to all those young people who couldn’t step onto the career ladder? No one mentions them again.

Many people will generally assume that when more jobs become available, this lost tribe will find something they can do to earn a living, even if it is not what they expected. This is what we’re supposed to think. Successive governments have also come up with their own ‘schemes’ to ‘help’ these people into work, and maybe a few are helped this way. But for many who have had experience of some of these initiatives, they are nothing but a farce, a way of manipulating the employment figures to make them look better than they really are and providing the participating businesses with a few months of free labour.

Every decade seems to bring some sort of recession and employment problems, for whatever reason, and it isn’t just school-leavers who are affected. Those who worked hard at school and gained the qualifications to go to University can also be caught up in a lost generation if they happen to be leaving education at the wrong time. Politicians and those who work in education often speak as though a qualification or degree is a passport to prosperity, but in the real world, even a degree is not enough any more. Vocational qualifications and experience are also needed to land a well-paid job. In many areas you also need your own car.

Unless a graduate has parents wealthy enough to provide them with a car and support them through two or three unpaid internships, they can still have little chance of landing a decent job. A graduate forced to sign on for Jobseekers Allowance at the end of their degree will probably have little chance of progressing. If they take an unpaid internship to gain relevant experience, their benefits are likely to be stopped as they are deemed to have made themselves ‘unavailable for work’ (i.e. unavailable for low-level work).  Then what are they supposed to live on? Jobcentres are not set up to deal with graduates and their staff often don’t know what to do with claimants with higher qualifications.

Other groups caught up in these ‘lost generations’ scenarios are women returners and mature students. Taking a career break for any reason may be seen as risky these days, but more commonplace in the past when child care facilities and jobs tailored around working mothers were like gold. Mature students clearly have some initiative to work hard and better themselves, after perhaps being unable or prevented from gaining their qualifications earlier in their life. These groups are equally as much at a career crossroad as the school-leavers and graduates, but much less acknowledged.

All of these groups of people have the potential to be left behind when the economy moves on again and if they still haven’t found their niche by the time the economy dips again, their voices will be swamped by the new wave of unemployed, making it even harder for them to compete for the remaining jobs. Outside the major cities and the south-east this is likely to be even worse.

Both of the most recent governments have brought up, and complained about, the parts of the country where there are families of sometimes three generations where no one works. These seem to be mostly in the old industrial areas where the jobs wiped out by Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s have never been adequately replaced. Even where some new jobs have been created, there are in restricted numbers. There may also be public transport issues in these areas, so that it would be impossible to travel to where the new work has been set up. Predominantly though, it is the same ‘lost generation’ problem, where there are wholesale local redundancies from the area’s main source of employment shutting down. The principle is the same, though the workers may be of widely differing ages, they are still effectively a ‘lost generation’ who may, in this case, never find work again.

Taking all these strands into consideration, and the number of ‘downturns’ we have had in this country since the 1960s, (How many have there been? I’ve lost count.) perhaps it is more amazing that the successive governments are still surprised at the existence of clusters of long-term unemployed. Especially the Conservatives, who seem to have deliberate policies of wiping out the jobs of the less-well-off, whenever they are in power.

These are the people who become the hard-core at the centre of the unemployment figures – not necessarily through their own fault, but because they become trapped by the systems and economic problems caused by those at the top. They are then unable to find a way out of that trap when the economy starts to recover.

Arrogant politicians think they know all about the long-term unemployed when they know nothing, and deal with it by increasing the ‘stick’ and reducing the ‘carrot’ but this may only make things worse. It is possible to be too poor to get a job.

The government needs to stop dictating to the unemployed and blaming them for being unemployed. It needs to START LISTENING – REALLY LISTENING, to what the barriers to work really are, instead of deciding for themselves what they think those barriers are – they are NOT always to do with literacy, numeracy or ignorance. They may be different in different parts of the country, but unless these real problems are addressed, as opposed to the imagined, top-down versions, these poor, people trapped in a cycle of despair are never going to find the help they really need to climb out of the hole into which their lives have been pushed.

What do you think?

See also:

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/could-this-be-the-future-for-berwick/

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/are-modern-customer-service-methods-making-life-easier-for-pick-pockets/

http://wendybellscott.hubpages.com/hub/Where-is-Berwick-upon-Tweed

Could this be the future for Berwick?

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I have watched and read the discussions on the future of Berwick High Street and Town Centre with interest over the last couple of years, partly to see if anyone else would venture to address the bigger picture and the natural future development of Berwick. Apart from a couple of flippant remarks, no one has done this to my knowledge. I’ve also held back from a reluctance to stick my head above the parapet but feel it is time to speak up and throw my insights into the ring of discussion.

A rudimentary knowledge of how settlements (villages, towns, etc.) develop over time, coupled with the geographical facts of Berwick’s location, suggest that the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) is naturally moving towards an old town/ new town split. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, if the natural developmental trend is recognised and handled in the right way, it could even be beneficial to the whole area.

ImageBerwick’s New High Street?

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Consider the facts:

  • Berwick town is hemmed in by the sea, the river and the border. This area is now almost at saturation point – certainly within the by-pass , and there are only a few fields beyond that.
  • The town centre is Grade II listed, which means it is protected against wholesale change.
  • There are many historical/ important buildings within the town area which we cannot afford to lose.
  • The historic buildings and lack of space mean that most of the shops in the town centre are of limited floor space.
  • The majority of the population of the town area (Berwick, Tweedmouth, Spittal) now live on the south side of the river.
  • Any further residential development is most likely to add to this situation – East Ord is already virtually connected, within the next century Scremerston is likely to go the same way.
  • The more the population builds up south of the Tweed, the more pressure there will be for future retail development to also be on the south side.
  • Modern retail chains require larger floor space than the town centre allows – Tweedmouth has more potential in this area.
  • Most of Tweedmouth developed much later than Berwick. Many of the buildings are Victorian and some may arguably be of less historic/architectural importance.
  • This area is highly dependent on tourism for income and this can cause conflicts between the needs of the visitors and the needs of the permanent residents. An old town/ new town split could potentially satisfy the needs of both, with less conflict.
  • Locating the larger stores on the south side would leave the present town centre for smaller businesses, specialist shops, cafes, etc., more tourist and leisure oriented.
  • Lower Tweedmouth could act as a sort of bridging area between the two predominant shopping areas.

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(At this point I can almost hear the small traders screaming at me – but if all the chain stores are in Tweedmouth, who is going to buy from us? How are we to draw our customers over the river? However, please bear with me for the moment.)

Those of us who work with the history of the area have long felt that not enough is made of it to draw in more visitors. Perhaps, in some ways, being located by the sea had blinded everyone to a potentially more lucrative form of tourism – and Berwick’s unique selling point – its history.

If Berwick had developed as an inland town, it would have had to work much harder to draw visitors and use all if its available assets. Can you imagine, for instance, a historic city like York marketing itself to the Blackpool crowd? It sometimes seems to me that this is what Berwick has done – blinded to its real potential by the glitter of the sea.

Berwick Barracks

Berwick Barracks

While I’m not suggesting that the town centre should be turned into some sort of historic theme park, the history of the town, and the area, could and should be used much more than it is in marketing the town and attracting visitors. The museums and archives also have parts to play in this, as could The Maltings, The Granary and other cultural aspects of the area. It doesn’t have to be all tacky historic souvenirs, it can be done tastefully, to attract visitors of a different calibre. With the right leadership, Berwick can also put on events – this has been proved – and events bring in tourists to spend money in the town, perhaps even all year round.

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Meanwhile, local people may buy their regular necessities mainly from chain stores and supermarkets, but there are always times when the shopper is looking for something different – perhaps for a gift – or because they are bored by massed produced goods.

Also, if more money is generated in the local economy, and kept here, to put more money in the pockets of the residents, they may be more likely to seek out specialist shops more often. Other small businesses, such as hairdressers, and boutiques may help draw footfall north – as could dentist and optician appointments, etc. These days, small specialist businesses have the option of additionally trading online too, to try and boost sales and cover slack times of year.

Of course, small businesses could only afford to move into these shops if the rents and rates are set at appropriate levels. If the upper floors were not needed for storage of stock for these smaller businesses, they could be turned into flats which would keep the area more secure in quieter times. It could also encourage an artistic/ café-style community around the current High Street.

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While not claiming that this is the answer to all of Berwick’s current problems, it could at least provide a more positive way of viewing the decline of the High Street as we have known it, and perhaps a workable vision of how the area might develop in the future.

What do you think?

Link

ImageA personal view of the changes in customer service in shops and the possible consequences.

The Old Days

Maybe I’m showing my age, but when I first worked in a shop as a Saturday girl, tills were big old-fashioned things with buttons. Electronic cash registers (tills) were in their infancy and may have been around in the cities and some other chain stores, but the one where I worked was not upgraded until later.

We used mental arithmetic to add up the customer’s bill as we served them and rang the total through the till. If they paid with a note and needed change, we put the not on the ledge of the till (to be able to check what they had given us) and beginning with the total that showed on the display, we counted the change into our own hand up to the value of the note. We may then have put the note away and counted the change back into the customer’s hand so that we both knew it was right. (Sometimes we might leave the note on the ledge until the change was paid. Counters were much wider then where I worked, and angled. It would have been almost impossible for a customer to seize the money from the till.)

Image In my first full-time shop job I graduated onto the early electronic tills with push buttons. It added up the amount for us, but still used the same principle as the last figure shown on the display was still the total.

Problems

The problems began when the shops started installing tills that calculated the change for the assistant – which seemed to grow alongside the use of calculators in schools. It makes me feel really ancient to say this, but there were no such things as electronic calculators when I was at school. I can imagine here some younger readers wondering how on earth we managed in such dark ages. The fact is that we were taught to work things out in our heads and made to practice these skills over and over until it was second nature – for homework and in class. There may be mutterings here about how hard life must have been back then, but those of us who learned this way still have those skills. We could – and did – work through power cuts when electronic tills were out of action. Now shops have to close if the power fails.

I gave up working in shops some years ago because I began to struggle with these new-fangled tills and found myself giving the wrong change because my brain still interpreted the displayed final figure as the total rather than the change due. This system also makes the double checks much harder – or impossible if the shop is busy. It’s the wrong way round to count the change to the customer.

ImageFor a time I worked alone, in a small shop, and ignored the display, by taking the total from the receipt, I was able to count the change in the old way and found the customers appreciated it because they could see it was right.

The Modern Way

The modern way of customer service seems to mean taking the change figure from the display and thrusting it at the customer – sometimes without a word and as though it’s a hot potato – then expecting them to move on straight away and make way for the next person. Change is usually wrapped up inside a five or ten-pound note and/or the receipt. It is impossible to check whether it is right and some assistants give hostile looks it you don’t immediately move on – even completing the packing up of your goods bought has to be done at a scramble sometimes.

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Most women prefer to keep their money and cards inside a purse, and the purse inside a handbag, or sometimes hidden at the bottom of a shopping bag, to keep it safe. Now, it has become almost impossible to do this, as you end up juggling. Even if you’ve managed to pack the shopping as it passed through the checkout, you take a note from your purse to pay and stand with purse in hand to put the change away. Then the assistant plonks the receipt and five/ten-pound note on your hand and puts the change on top… and suddenly you are stuck. The logical way to put the change away safely would be to put the note in its compartment and the put the coins away in theirs, but you don’t have a free hand to sort it – it can be difficult to even open your purse and then the coins are in the way of sliding the note(s) into place. (With the old counting back method, the notes ended up on top – easier to deal with.) Also, you don’t have a free hand to pick up the shopping and move. Even if you manage to put the change away, somehow there is no time to also put your purse away safely.

(From the looks on the faces of some young assistants I’ve dealt with, they don’t understand the situation they’ve created, they just expect you to disappear.)

So what usually happens these days, is that I put my purse away while the assistant finds the change and shove the change hurriedly in a pocket and as I grab my shopping and go. Then I have to either find a quiet and relatively safe place to sort it out, or more likely sort it out at the checkout of the next shop. Meanwhile, that change is in a vulnerable place.

Berwick High Street

Berwick High Street

Berwick is a place where you usually feel relatively safe from the threat of pickpockets, but thefts from pockets and handbags in busy places, in broad daylight, seem to be rising. A few days ago, a five-pound note disappeared from my cardigan pocket between Gregg’s the Bakers at the bottom of the High Street and the checkout of the Co-op, just off the top of that street. In theory, it could have potentially fallen out, but this is unlikely as it was wrapped around coins and they were all that remained when I looked for it.

To some people five pounds is chicken-feed, but to anyone on a low-income or on benefits, it could be a very big chunk of their week’s budget to lose. In fact, in the current economic climate it could mean a person having to go without food for several days.

Deterioration

My point is that if customer service in shops hadn’t deteriorated, as it has since the introduction of more sophisticated tills. If shop assistants allowed customers enough time to put their change/cards/purses away safely before expecting them to leave, there would be less notes/ cards in pockets for the opportunist thieves to take.

It is, of course, possible that the thieves are starving and desperate themselves. But if the poor are now stealing from each other, it’s a very sad reflection on the current state of our society.

What do you think?

 

See also:

https://wendybscott.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/could-this-be-the-future-for-berwick/

http://wendybellscott.hubpages.com/hub/Where-is-Berwick-upon-Tweed

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wendy-Bell-Scott/294979647247820