Lockdown has left a city centre that bet on retail deserted and unemployment is at nearly 8%
In a scene repeated up and down the country, the lockdown has left the city centre deserted – a particular blow for Birmingham.
Birmingham, with its proud manufacturing heritage, has been hit hard by the Covid jobs crisis and is in the unhappy position of being among one of the areas with the highest unemployment rates in the country at 7.8%.
Five of the 10 constituencies with the highest level of unemployment in the country are in Britain’s second city, and average gross weekly pay currently sits at £548.60 – below the averages for the wider West Midlands region and for Great Britain.
In a scene repeated up and down the country, lockdown has left the city centre deserted – a particular blow for Birmingham. The city had bet big on high street retail in recent years with the redevelopment of the Bullring, known for the undulating silver facade of the Selfridges department store at its heart, and a shopping centre built as part of the overhaul of New Street station, featuring a vast new John Lewis .
The announcement that the shop would not reopen following the first lockdown in 2020 was a blow to both the city and to Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands region, who was previously managing director of the retailer.
The Guardian asked local residents and businesses what they thought of Rishi Sunak’s budget, and whether it would be enough to help Birmingham recover from the damage wrought by coronavirus.
Zafar Hussain, 35, restaurant owner, Sparkbrook
Shababs restaurant in the heart of Birmingham’s Balti triangle has been in the Hussain family for 33 years, but the Covid crisis is its biggest challenge yet. “We’ve been through recessions and we’ve come out the other side, but this has been really, really tough,” said Hussain.
While he welcomed some of the budget announcements, such as the extension of the 5% reduced rate of VAT for six months, he felt other measures didn’t go far enough.
“I’m still a bit disappointed with the business rates because after June we’ve got to pay a third and I thought, as a minimum, small businesses should at least have this next year free,” he said.
The restaurant has been making some income by operating as a takeaway, but Hussain still had to furlough a number of staff. “The furlough extension is welcome because we don’t know how quick or how soon we’re going to get to normal capacity again. The cap on fuel duty is good news for us as well, because the cost of delivering food is expensive as it is.”
He said the budget had made him optimistic about the months ahead but he was also preparing for the worst. “There’s just far too much uncertainty, I’m still very wary about the future.”
Ulfat Begum, 49, Market trader, Hall Green
“We are in debt with the wholesaler,” said Ulfat Begum, as she helped out on her husband’s fruit and vegetable stall at the Bullring open market, where their trade has slumped 60% during the pandemic. “We are not selling out, but if we don’t buy each day we don’t have enough to put on the stall”.
The Begums have four stalls at the market, usually staffed by four workers. However Ulfat has started occasionally helping out at the stall, working alongside three members of staff while they can’t afford to pay a fourth wage. The market’s city centre location had previously guaranteed high footfall and plenty of custom from office workers and shoppers, but multiple lockdowns have kept clients away.
Rising unemployment in the city and consumers’ concerns about job security have also impacted trade, Begum said. “Customers are spending less, they are more careful about what they buy now”.
The mother-of-seven feels that Birmingham can sometimes be overlooked by Westminster, despite its size. She believes the city council, which is the landlord of the market, needs to be given a bigger budget. “Government needs to give more to Birmingham,” she said, “It is forgotten about sometimes”.
Liam Byrne, Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill
Byrne’s Hodge Hill constituency has the highest unemployment rate of any constituency in the UK at 14.1%, roughly one in seven, so he was desperate to hear the government announce some measures designed to create new jobs.
“Some of the short-term help for businesses is welcome, extra help for business rates, the extension of furlough and help for the self-employed,” he said. “But there wasn’t a big picture strategy to basically re-industrialise, create the jobs of the future and deal with the unemployment emergency.”
Byrne felt the chancellor missed a major opportunity to use a green jobs programme to address both the climate emergency and rising unemployment rates. “He needed to set out a strategy that took us from the pandemic to the Paris agreements. For the West Midlands, the big hole was no announcement about a gigafactory which we need to kickstart the green automotive industry for the future and there was nothing about retrofitting, nothing about green homes,” he said.
He added the budget would lead to £66bn in tax rises in the three years from 2022 which the public should brace themselves for. “We got some tactical short term measures, which are important but which are going to cost us a fortune in the medium term.”
Alex Smith, 74, Estate agent and chartered surveyor, Hodge Hill
Alex Smith’s estate agency is currently enjoying record numbers of property sales, exchanges and instructions in the east of the Birmingham. The local property market has been booming since it reopened last spring, much of which Smith attributes to pent-up demand from the first lockdown.
Smith welcomed the extension to the stamp duty holiday until the end of June. “I am not sure how much effect it will have on new business but should clear the backlog,” he said. “There are a large number of properties which are sold subject to contract as the process is taking four to five months.”
“I think confidence is a big thing,” he said, adding that he felt the chancellor had sounded “fairly upbeat”.
Smith was unsure how the government’s new mortgage guarantee scheme will work, which is designed to offer 95% loans to buyers, but believes it will help prospective house owners.
“Raising a deposit has always been the most difficult part of the transaction,”
Edward Harper, 21, history and politics student, Aston University
With five universities, Birmingham has a greater proportion of young people than anywhere else, and almost half its 1.1m population is under 30. But Harper, from Walsall, felt young people were distinctly lacking from the chancellor’s announcement.
“I don’t think students were even mentioned at all. I think there’s a lot of frustration among students and young people about it all, we kind of feel ignored,” he said.
He said the numbers showing national debt will peak at 97% of GDP in 2023/24 and will take decades to tackle is “scary” for young people about to embark on their careers. “It’s quite staggering compared to the financial crash in 2007/08 and that was bad.”
However, he was pleased by the announcement of government-backed 5% deposit mortgages, which should make the prospect of owning a home more achievable. “I think it will give people, especially young people and students coming out of university, optimism and hope that maybe they can actually afford a house and that it’s actually doable,” he said.
Sarah Ventre, 32, newly self-employed, Stirchley
When the catering company she worked for went under after the pandemic hit last year, Sarah Ventre was made redundant and decided to become self-employed – but because she doesn’t have a 2019/20 tax return, she doesn’t qualify for the new self-employed support announced by the chancellor.
“Last year there were 3 million self-employed people who fell through the cracks; the government might be able to bridge that a little but there will still be many people like myself who don’t qualify for support,” she said. Working in mobile catering, she hasn’t been able to earn any money with events and weddings cancelled, and said she has received just £2,000 in support since the crisis began.
She welcomed the £5bn restart grants, with up to £18,000 for hospitality businesses, but said since many people have struggled to access previous financial support packages, she won’t be getting her hopes up. “The devil is always in the detail with these things and we’re still waiting for payouts from the last grants that were announced. It’s quite hard to get excited about anything when you’re still waiting on the last promise.”
Over the past few months she has been putting her skills to use as part of Northfield Food Service, providing meals to local schoolchildren and a growing number of struggling families. She said while the extension of the £20 universal credit uplift is welcome, it won’t go far for many people. “We’ve had a cold winter, so bills have gone up and I think the situation will just get worse to be honest. A lot of our local charities are planning the crisis year to hit next year because that’s when we’ll feel the full effect of what’s happened.”
Jean Ensell, 62, business owner, city centre
With the benefit of hindsight, Jean Ensell wouldn’t have opted to set up a new textile design business at the end of 2019. Her company, Ensell Taylor, which has a studio in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, had only been trading for a matter of months at the start of the first lockdown last spring, leaving her unable to access most government support.
“I couldn’t prove it was a viable business,” Ensell said. “It has been really upsetting. If I hadn’t set up a new business, I would have been on furlough.”
The American, who has lived in the Midlands for four decades, said she had also applied for the government’s kickstart scheme, but had not heard whether she was successful. As a result, Ensell has been forced to rely on her family for some financial support during the past 12 months.
Ensell, who was walking past the closed Bull Ring shopping centre on the way to her Covid vaccination appointment, said she had spent the pandemic creating original patterns for fabrics to sell to customers, and making sure her company website was up-to-date.
The former teacher at Birmingham City University welcomed the chancellor’s announcement of further support for the self-employed, through grants from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), and hoped she would be eligible as she had already filed her 2019/20 tax return.
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