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Levelling Up: Can Barrow Boom Again?

Levelling Up: Can Barrow Boom Again?
6 min read

Once dubbed England’s Chicago because its economy was growing so fast, few today would call Barrow-in-Furness ‘my kind of town’. Adam Payne asks whether the levelling up agenda can revive its fortunes.

Miserable. Neglected. Stranded at the end of England’s longest cul-de-sac. During the first wave of the pandemic: dubbed the country’s “coronavirus capital”. The people of Barrow-in-Furness are all too aware of its wretched reputation. 

The industrial town, tucked away in the north-west of England, made the headlines for different reasons at the last general election, when it elected a Conservative MP for the first time in nearly 30 years – one of several bricks in the so-called “red wall” dismantled by Boris Johnson. At the other end of Cumbria is the town of Workington, whose inhabitants were central to Johnson’s campaign promise to “level up” the UK. 

An inadequate train service and vanishing high street are common complaints of Barrovians – and visitors will say those complaints are justified. Portland Walk in Barrow’s town centre lost Topshop, River Island and Marks & Spencer stores in 2020, to name just a few. The sizable Debenhams store is set to follow in the coming weeks after the retailer went into liquidation. “People point to the empty shops and say ‘this is it, this is levelling up, we want our high street back’,” says Barrow and Furness MP, Simon Fell. 

It wasn’t always this gloomy. Barrow-in-Furness in the late-19th century evolved from a hamlet into the largest iron and steel producer in the world. The birth of the shipyard, now owned by BAE Systems, helped it become a Victorian powerhouse and acquire a nickname which nowadays seems hard to believe: “England’s Chicago”. 

Its transformation was bankrolled by 19th-century nobleman William Cavendish. His son, Lord Frederick Cavendish, was William Gladstone’s right-hand man and has a statue in his honour behind Barrow Town Hall.

A century and a half later, BAE Systems is the town’s biggest employer with around 10,000 people on its books, and where Royal Navy submarines will be built for many years to come. It hired around 1,000 people in 2020 and plans to recruit 1,000 more this year. 

However, outside the imposing walls of the Devonshire Dock Hall, there are big, deep-rooted problems. Barrow’s population is declining and among the most deprived in the UK. “Levelling up cannot just be piecemeal projects here and there. It needs to change the fabric of life,” Fell said.

In recent years the town has haemorrhaged young people, who leave for university in their droves and often don’t come back. Barrow-in-Furness had the biggest population drop of anywhere in the country last year, according to the ONS. Barrow Borough Council believes that trend could be starting to flatten out, pointing to a recent uptick in property developers building houses in the area. 

The council’s chief executive, Sam Plum, accepted that reversing it would be an enormous challenge, however. One of the reasons why so many young Barrovians don’t stick around, Plum said, was that the local economy wasn’t diverse enough to satisfy those who didn’t want to work for BAE Systems or in similar professions. 

Manufacturing accounts for 30% of jobs in the town, according to ONS figures, much higher than the 8% national average. “In areas that have one big employer, like BAE Systems in Barrow, children are often asked ‘where are you going to work?’, not ‘what are you going to be?’,” she said. The ONS in 2019 estimated that the number of Barrovians with a degree or equivalent qualifications was nearly half the national average. 

Fell said that making Barrow a more desirable place to settle was key to levelling it up. “How do we get more businesses here? How do we make it a more attractive place for families to move to? How do we make the town ‘sticky’, so young people want to stay?”

Three months ago Barrow Borough Council became one of just a handful of local authorities to declare a poverty emergency. The life expectancy in its wealthiest ward is 11 years higher than in its poorest ward. “Poverty is robbing people of 11 years of life. It’s really atrocious,” Plum said. Statistics like this are why the Index of Multiple Deprivation in 2019 put Barrow-in-Furness in the top 0.5% most deprived areas of the country. The coronavirus has only exacerbated these problems and in May the town had England’s highest infection rate. 

Local authorities said the “Covid capital” headline was unfair, as the area was carrying out more tests than most others at the time. “Often the national press portrays Barrow in a negative image. We are really trying to address that,” Plum said. However, there is no doubt that the town has been among the most acutely affected areas, with poverty regarded as a key contributing factor. Food bank usage across the Barrow borough increased by 280% during the first national lockdown. 

Barrow’s leaders say the town can be resurgent. Situated on scenic coastline with the Lake District just a 20-minute drive away, it enjoys vast natural beauty which leaders say will be key to reversing its fortunes. The council has received £25m from the government as part of the Towns Fund and hopes to secure more funding through the Levelling Up Fund recently announced by the chancellor, although Plum admitted it would be a “competitive” bidding process. 

Ideas for renewing the town include transforming a stretch of its dockside into a marina village, and bringing the local football and rugby teams together into a shared stadium and conference centre. Fell admitted, though, that as for creating fundamental change – namely reversing years of economic decline and a shrinking population – Westminster was still figuring out exactly how to achieve it. “We are still trying to find the answer to the exam question,” he said. 

“There’s a gap in the market for people to come forward with innovative ideas. I’m a member of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs and it’s something we’re working on.” Whether Johnson and his government deliver on their promise will have profound and long-lasting implications for towns like Barrow-in-Furness. “People were looking for tangible change. They wanted Barrow to be heard again,” Fell said.

Barrow in numbers

Population: 67,000

Employment: 69% in employment

Formal education: 22.3 % NVQ4 and above (degree or equivalent). 

Incapacity benefits: 5% receiving out-of-work benefits

Pay: £591.3 (median weekly wage)

Free school meals: 20.1% (1 in 5) of children (reception to year 11), compared to 16% for the whole of Cumbria.

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