Dear Mike, Jenny and Edward (and any others who haven’t sent me leaflets yet – I confess I forget who our UKIP candidate is, since I only gave your leaflet space on my doorstep for a few seconds before moving it to the recycling bin.)
I am very interested in what you plan to do about supporting and maintaining jobs in Darlington, and creating new opportunities, given that the North-east remains an economically deprived area, and in my experience, graduate jobs in particular are especially hard to come by.
Jenny Chapman for Labour says she “will work with business to bring high quality jobs to Darlington so the town never again suffers the unemployment of the 1980s.” Very nice. How?
Mike Barker for the Lib Dems says very little other than that he will “fight to ensure future developments are in keeping with our traditional status as a thriving market town.” (Interesting use of the word “thriving” – but more on the market in a minute). Oh and the Lib Dems will “create jobs by making Britain greener.” Same question applies Mike, how?
Edward Legard for the Conservatives points out that he started Darlington Job Club, because “under Labour, high unemployment is back and manufacturing is in decline. The North-east deserves better.” Yes, we do, but even though I barely remember Thatcher’s government, I am pretty sure the Tory record on unemployment and industry decline would not count as “better,” especially in the North.
Let me explain a little about my situation. Whilst I appreciate that I am not exactly an average Darlington resident, I am sure my experiences and frustrations are not entirely unique.
At the moment, I am doing my Phd at Sheffield University. (Disclaimer: these are my thoughts, nothing to do with the views of the university). My husband and I bought a house and moved to Darlington in 2004. I am currently supported by a research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, and I also run my own business part time, my little coffee cart on Darlington market two days a week. I am unable to keep up the coffee cart over the summer, because I am now seven months pregnant. I am now very concerned about the future and particularly my job prospects, because I am due to finish my PhD in April 2011, leaving me unemployed, with no real form of income and with a nine-month-old child to care for. My husband’s salary could not support all of us, and I wouldn’t want it to anyway.
In terms of qualifications, the PhD is in Human Geography. Prior to that, I have achieved a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Social Science Research Methods both from the University of Durham, and hold a University Certificate in Professional Development in Marketing from Teesside University. Although I have the ESRC grant for the PhD and I self-funded my fees for my Masters (with help from my parents), I received a statement from the Student Loans Company this morning gently reminding me that I owe £11,300 from my undergraduate degree. ‘Fortunately’ since I graduated in 2004 I have never earned over the threshold that warrants me having to pay this back (£15000 per annum).
Outside of university, I have eighteen months experience working as a project coordinator for a community development group in the voluntary sector. I also worked as a chef and cafe manager for a year, and did small group tutoring in Anthropology at Durham University. However, my community development job ended in constructive dismissal in 2006. This was a horrible experience anyway, but confounded by the fact that I have never yet managed to find a decent job in the local area since. I have worked for various pubs and coffee shops and on Darlington market, but all on minimum wage. I was also forced to sign on for Job Seekers Allowance briefly in 2007, and when discussing my qualifications with the jobs advisor, was asked “how do you spell Anthropology?” I consider myself extremely lucky to have found the PhD placement not long after that, otherwise I am fairly sure I would still be signing on or working for £5.60 per hour.
Four years of frustrating underemployment in Darlington have led me to believe that there are virtually no graduate opportunities in this area. I have plenty of qualifications and I am not really lacking in actual work experience; more significantly, I actively want to work. However, I really really do NOT want to finish my PhD and have to go back to working for minimum wage in an unskilled job, especially with a child to support as well. I would love to leave Darlington entirely: I do think my coffee business would be more successful in another area as well. Essentially, I need reasons to stay in the town.
My questions to the political candidates are therefore:
Do you agree that this area needs some form of economic development, and if so, how is it going to be developed and in what way?
Specifically, how are you going to create jobs in the town, and what sort of jobs will they be?
How will you support local small businesses and people wanting to start their own business in the area?
What are your thoughts on Darlington market and do you have any plans to promote it, improve it or even just resuscitate it?
I would be very keen to hear your responses, but I am interested specifically in your own party’s policies rather than hearing a list of your rivals’ various failings.