Friday, April 16

Grim future for Crawley a year after the first Covid lockdown | Job losses

TThe differences with the initial stage of the Covid-19 pandemic are marked in Crawley. Lots of people are hanging out in downtown Queens Square, basking in the early spring sunshine, though most of the shops remain closed; some permanently.

In the town of West Sussex, near Gatwick Airport, hopes are mounting that the worst days of the pandemic are finally over. But with global air travel still on the ground, Crawley workers fear long-term damage to the local job market.

Tamara Butler.  Crawley Town Center
Tamara Butler worked for easyJet before the lockdown. Now you may have to get away from Crawley. Photograph: Andy Hall / The Observer

“I have requested everything and it is very difficult, since everyone is in the same position. The number of people who lost their jobs in Gatwick and everywhere else around here, it doesn’t surprise me that these jobs are hard to come by, ”said Tamara Butler, a former easyJet cabin worker who is considering moving out of town. to find work elsewhere.

“The spirits are definitely much lower after all the blocks. It has been one thing after another. “

A year since the first shutdown, The Guardian has returned to Crawley to follow the city’s progress after it was identified early in the pandemic as the place with the highest risk of job loss in Britain.

In the shadow of the UK’s second-busiest airport, with nearly a fifth of jobs in the aviation sector, the worst forecasts are coming true. The number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has risen the most in Britain, increasing by 6.1 percentage points since last March to reach 8.9% of the local workforce, according to the City Center think tank. .

This time around last year, Butler’s career was derailed when he tried to change jobs, quitting easyJet to join Mac Cosmetics in the duty-free area of ​​the airport at the wrong time. The blockade left her without any position. He found work at a local Tesco as part of an army of temporary workers hired by supermarkets. Now, in another temporary position with a mobile phone retailer, he is still looking for a permanent job. But with fierce competition, she will give her Crawley job search until June before giving up and looking elsewhere.

“If I can’t find any jobs here as of June, then I really don’t have a choice, because I can’t pay the rent here anymore. The salary I have is not enough, ”she said, sitting on the same low stone benches in Queens Square as when she spoke to The Guardian a year ago.

“It is strange to see pilots and captains working at Tesco. While working in the shop, I cared for a pilot I used to fly with, who told me that he now works at Waitrose. I mean, you can fly a plane but now you’re restocking shelves? It’s just weird. “

As a leafy new town enjoying relative prosperity before the pandemic, Crawley has one of the highest rates of workers still on leave in Britain. A year after the launch of the billion-pound plan, nearly 12,000 people, about 20% of the local workforce, are receiving wage support from the state.

Elizabeth Laker with her husband Dean and their baby
Elizabeth Laker with her husband Dean and their baby who was born during the pandemic. Photograph: Andy Hall / The Observer

Elizabeth Laker received the email telling her that she would be fired the day Britain entered the first lockdown, March 23, and less than six weeks after discovering she was pregnant. Since giving birth to her son Grayson in September, she has been rushing back to work to make sure she and her husband, Dean, can continue to pay the bills.

“While I was pregnant I tried to look for a job but it was difficult since everyone was watching at the time, and no one would accept me for being pregnant either. I knew I had to get back to work quickly for financial reasons, so I was applying for all the jobs I thought I was qualified for, ”she said.

Laker started working as a care coordinator a month ago, helping isolated seniors with everything from shopping to Covid hits. While family finances remain tight, Laker says she and Dean, an assistant store manager at Topps Tiles, are lucky to get money. They are both looking forward to the blockage easing, but are concerned that the process will not be straightforward.

“With the first confinement it was very unknown. Now take what Boris Johnson says with a pinch of salt, ”he said.

As closure restrictions are eased, Crawley residents expect fewer stores to reopen. Debenhams is gone for good, leaving a three-story hole in the County Mall, while Monsoon, Topshop and Carphone Warehouse have also closed.

Anne McQuade (center, with friends on left Chris Ollis and Angela Finn
Anne McQuade, center, with Phoenix choir friends Chris Ollis, left, and Angela Finn. Photograph: Andy Hall / The Observer

Sitting outside a Bonmarché branch, which was pushed into administration by Covid late last year and has since been sold, Anne McQuade has come to town for a birthday gathering with her choir friends Chris Ollis and Angela Finn, who is with her grandson Arthur.

“Losing Debenhams is a great loss for the city,” said Ollis, suggesting that the city center remains relatively quiet, despite its busy appearance today. On this occasion last year, McQuade celebrated her birthday alone with an Italian meal and a bottle of Icelandic wine, but tonight she will host a dinner with friends in her bubble of support.

Phoenix, his choir, remains confined to Zoom’s practice sessions and the prospect of playing a distant hope live. “You can’t plan anything. We are not sure what will and will not be allowed, ”he said.

Peter Lamb, Crawley City Council Leader
Peter Lamb, leader of the Crawley city council, says that the central government has not taken into account that Crawley has been so affected by the pandemic. Photograph: Andy Hall / The Observer

Peter Lamb, the Labor leader of the Crawley city council, is frustrated with the central government at the level of support the city has received. “So far, we still do not have recognition for the magnitude of the impact we have received as a local area. The government has literally done nothing upstairs if we were the least impacted economy, to help us. And you just have to scratch your head and say ‘what?’ ”.

The area will receive £ 21.1 million from the government’s city leveling fund and another £ 100,000 to help Main Street. But Crawley has suffered budget cuts under the Conservatives’ austerity campaign and faces uncertainty about how quickly the city will recover after Covid.

In a sign of the long-term impact facing the area, Gatwick Airport does not expect passenger numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025. Up to 36 million fewer people passed through its terminal buildings last year, a 78% drop, with an impact on the city’s economy. Having cut staffing nearly in half, to 1,800 from 3,000 before the crisis, the airport is awaiting details from the government on its plans for the return of international travel.

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With airport workers living in as many as one in four homes, Lamb told The Guardian a year ago that he feared Crawley would become a modern southern version of a northern mining community during the 1980s, unemployed for the death of a key industry. . Although he is more optimistic than a year ago, he fears that the end of the licensing plan will increase job losses as Gatwick struggles to recover.

“The aviation industry is betting on pent-up demand after the shutdown. I think there is. I’m pretty desperate to go on vacation, we’ve been absolutely wrecked for the last year. But the reality is that aviation only works when both points are safe to travel. “

“We have done very well in the vaccination plan, that’s great. But until the destinations people want to go to get to that point too, it’s not going to make a difference. Aviation is the last sector to return. “

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