Hart of the Matter
The ongoing debate about how much Haverhill should grow, how quickly and in what locations, takes it for granted that growth in some form would be beneficial.
The town has always been racing to catch up with larger centres in the hope of attracting equivalent services and at one time there was even a theory that it should grow to 40,000 and overtake Bury.
Needless to say, that was never going to be considered by a council which is based in Bury. But the concept of growth has always been attractive.
Whereas other towns and villages in East Anglia are keen to preserve their environment and heritage, it was felt Haverhill had little and was more receptive to significant growth, having already been swamped once by incomers.
But in the 1950s and 60s we knew where the prospective residents were to come from – London and around. There was a specific purpose, however misguided, in social engineering.
Now it is less clear, especially as the world around us is changing so rapidly because of the financial disasters of the last couple of years.
I may be quite a fan of David Starkey’s historical TV programmes but his politics are a different matter altogether. He likes to stir things up, but I am afraid he really believes many of the extreme right-wing ideas he promulgates when given the chance.
Last night he was advocating a migration of the poor away from the cities where they cannot afford to live and will never find work.
The rest of us, he argues, should not be subsidising people to live in places they cannot afford. By this he means places which used to be slums and have now been turned into desirable leafy inner city areas.
So there will be an exodus of poorer people to... where? The suburbs? That would be an ironical contrast with the 20th century when people moved out into the new suburbia as they became more affluent.
Starkey argues that the poor used to live near the rich because they were employed as their servants. This is no longer the case, and most industry has moved, not just out of city centres, but out of Britain altogether. Therefore people should be forced to move to where there is work for them.
Coming from a historian it is a radical thought. It means a significant percentage of the population would once again become itinerant. Whereas 1,000 years ago being itinerant meant you travelled between a number of neighbouring settlements seeking work, and 200 years ago being itinerant meant you migrated across Europe, now it could mean moving almost anywhere in the world. So much for community.
Will any new houses built in Haverhill in future end up just providing accommodation for migrant workers, whether from home or abroad?
Of course many of the jobs traditionally done by ‘the poor’ are now done by migrants, which is one reason why ‘the poor’ suffer a degree of unemployment. Not all jobs have vanished from city centres – what about shop workers, restaurant workers and the many more questionable areas of employment within the leisure industry?
The problem is that not many of these are real jobs at a full-time, living wage any more. It is difficult to see where any of ‘the poor’ are going to find jobs in the Haverhill area, even if they can get access to the cheap housing.
According to the lively critics of George Osborne, £44,000 a year (or £39,000, depending whose analysis you read) does not make you affluent. I’m not sure who is affluent around here then. Most of us are closer to being ‘the poor’, if perfectly deserving.
The undeserving poor are always going to be with us. Eliza Doolittle’s father in Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady) sums it up very well.
“I’m playing straight with you,” says the estimable Alfie who was not, of course, out of a job at all, being a dustman. “I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it, and that’s the truth.”
What we hear very little about is that many people who are claiming benefits are, like Alfie Doolittle, also perfectly well employed and earning.
They know that people earning four times as much as them can still claim child benefit and see no reason why they also should not get their share out of the state on top of their income.
Poverty and affluence are relative terms. But it does not help the pulling together of society which Mr Cameron is always on about when affluent people start talking about sections of society as ‘the poor’ as if it is their own fault.
There are a lot of decent hard-working families who are a lot poorer than the people living on benefits with whom they are being lumped. The problem is that work is not remunerated on the basis of how demanding it is but on how much it contributes to the bottom line, and as long as that is the case you cannot brand any particular section of society as ‘the poor’.
It looks like a growth in economic fairness is a lot more important than housing growth if Haverhill is to avoid another debilitating influx.