East Midlands town, which lost 115 more jobs when Aquascutum closed its factory, is trying to fight back in a tough climate
“Sometimes it does feel that a lot of bad news comes this way,” says Barry Taylor, glancing at his three stalls in Corby indoor market, stacked high with model cars and lorries and, for the moment at least, conspicuously short of customers.
It is a grey and drizzly afternoon in the town centre, and business would seem as disappointing as the Northamptonshire spring. Taylor, a sixty-something man with a neatly trimmed beard and a palpable pride in his business, has made “a couple of small sales” so far today, but footfall in the town is pretty underwhelming, and, in the market, almost non-existent.
More broadly, it’s been a grim week in a town that historically has known a few of them. Last week the venerable clothing brand Aquascutum slumped into liquidation, bringing an abrupt closure of its Corby factory, an institution here for a century. It means the loss of 115 jobs.
Matters are unlikely to improve much in the next few days either: on Wednesday the government will publish the growth figures. After a 0.3% shrinkage at the end of last year, many fear a second quarter of negative growth, returning Britain into a state of official recession, and leaving chancellor George Osborne presiding over the double-dip he has been so desperate to avoid.
Even those market analysts who predict a return to growth can foresee only a scrape into the black by the narrowest of margins. With rising unemployment, rising fuel costs and wages lagging behind inflation, many predict a short- to medium-term future that is sluggish at best, stagnant at worst.
As if to underline the point a US firm, Computer Sciences Corporation, started a formal 90-day consultation to cut 640 jobs, while British Gas said it planned to close a Southampton call centre at the end of the year with the loss of 550 jobs.
For anyone seeking out an archetype for Doldrums Britain, Corby has much to offer, at first glance at least.
A regeneration scheme has tidied up one shopping thoroughfare, but the remainder of the bricked lanes and alleyways of the town’s retail heart are a warren of pound stores, phone shops and clothing outlets in a crumbling concrete arcade, dotted with charity shops and shuttered lots.
It is not difficult, either, to encounter people for whom life already seems to be struggle enough.
“How does it feel in Corby? It feels pretty rubbish,” says one man, a serving police officer who declines to give his name after expressing, in no uncertain terms, his anger at the government over police pensions. His partner is a nurse.
“We both feel very badly let down by the government. And I am a Tory voter, though never again. To be honest, I’m just very worried about the future.”
They fret about fuel costs, shop carefully for food, and will think nothing of filling the car with just enough fuel to take them to a marginally cheaper petrol station, where they can fill up. “Are you sure we’re not in a recession already?” he asks.
David Blair lost his job as a traffic manager when Stobart Group hauliers closed their Corby hub this year, axing 140 jobs. “That was another place that used to be a job for life,” he says wryly. “Corby used to be pretty good for that. There always used to be jobs you could get and expect to stay in. That’s all gone.”
Tata Steel, formerly Corus and the lingering remnant of what was once Corby’s all-dominant industry, laid off 119 people in January.
“Jobs are hard to come by in Corby, and that’s why Corby can’t afford to lose the 115 jobs at Aquascutum,” says Rachelle Wilkins, the local GMB organiser working with the firm’s ousted staff. “I know there’s going to be a new Tesco, and that’s 400 jobs, but I think there’s going to be a fight to the death for those, if I’m honest.”
Karen Blair is partially disabled, and she and her now jobless husband worry about their 14-year-old son, who has looked unsuccessfully for a paper round or delivery job. “When we were aged 16 or 17 you could buy the paper on a Thursday and there were always 40, 50 pages of jobs. Now there’s two or three. It’s hard.”
And yet, for all their concerns, today has been a good day, she says. “I’ve just been to Costa Coffee, how bad can it be? Seriously, we’re doing OK. Could be a lot better, but definitely we’re doing OK.”
In the indoor market Taylor feels the same. “I’m just about ticking over, I’d say, so I can’t really complain. The thing is, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?”
That resilient spirit may be a Corby attribute, according to Tom Beattie, leader of the borough council. “No question, events have dealt us a serious blow. But we’re not really people to get downhearted. Corby has proved itself as a community able to rally round.”
Certainly there are plentiful efforts to revive the town. A huge, architecturally impressive library and theatre complex, the “Corby Cube”, has sprung up in the town’s heart, next to an equally striking swimming pool complex and a large plot “considered suitable for a multiplex cinema, restaurant, bars, hotel and residential uses”.
A new train station with a 70-minute connection to St Pancras, new housing developments and infrastructural investment has permitted a cheeky marketing strategy badging the area “North Londonshire”.
Sajeeda Rose, director of economic development at Northamptonshire enterprise partnership, points to the county’s location (close to the south-east, but well connected to the eastern ports as well as, for lorry drivers, the rest of the country) as a key asset. The local chamber of commerce’s own economic analysis consistently shows Northants outperforming the country as a whole, she says.
And yet shiny new buildings mean little when essentials cost more, wages are worth less, and jobs are on the line, as Carol Williams, leaning over the bunches in a town centre flower stall, notes. “It’s all right building a lovely new theatre, but there’s not much point if nobody can afford to go.”
Does it matter much if, technically, Britain is deemed in recession or not?
“I think it’d make a difference,” she says. “The word is worrying. It’s frightening to hear.” Happily, Flowers of Corby is keeping its head above water, she says. “That’s because we do a lot of bridal orders, and a lot of funeral work.
“That’s the last to go, isn’t it?”