‘Our town centres were dying long before the virus came’

The pandemic’s devastating impact on Tameside, Greater Manchester, might not be visible from a walk along Ashton-under-Lyne’s high street but, in Lee Walker’s opinion, the effect of decades of underinvestment is starting to show.

When asked about the causes of health and social inequality in Tameside, he gesticulates at the empty shops around him.

“Covid’s had an impact but our town centres were dying long before the virus came along,” says Walker, 42, manager of a bus and coach operator in Greater Manchester.

On the index of multiple deprivation – which ranks local authorities in England by various factors including health outcomes, unemployment levels and educational attainment – Tameside ranks 20th most deprived out of 151.

The borough has been hard hit by the pandemic and in December held the unwanted record of the local authority with the highest proportion of Covid deaths in the UK. It is, therefore, exactly the kind of place the government has in mind while pledging to address inequalities and “build back better”.

Student nurse Grace Kenney in Ashton-under-Lyne.
Student nurse Grace Kenney in Ashton-under-Lyne. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Walker diagnoses a number of issues facing the town, from littering to low police numbers but, fittingly for a bus driver, his main bugbear is with local transport.

“[Greater] Manchester doesn’t have the worst transport system but the government has slashed budgets in recent years, and it is poorer areas like Droylsden and Denton which suffer,” he says. “I know Andy Burnham is trying to make public transport affordable for everyone but the system is underfunded.”

Grace Kenney, a student nurse from Oldham who recently moved to Ashton, says: “Greater Manchester has a lot of poverty stricken areas and you can see it before your eyes.

“Homelessness and drugs are a big problem in the area, as is council clean-up … There’s litter and rubbish everywhere and it makes the area a much less attractive to place to live.”

Noting the government’s proposed 1% pay rise for nurses, as well as her own lack of financial support during her course, Kenney says she is “not surprised” that recruiting healthcare workers has been a problem in the area.

While Kenney has just moved in, married couple Rachel, 43, and Steven Perry, 62, are on their way out – having decided to relocate to Portsmouth – where they believe infrastructure is better and care services more widely available.

“You can’t get a doctor’s appointment so I’m not surprised the death rate round here has been so high,” says Rachel.

Rachel and Stephen Perry in Ashton-under-Lyne
Rachel and Stephen Perry have decided to leave Ashton-under-Lyne for Portsmouth where they believe services are superior. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Both are retired because of ill-health and Steven often needs to use a wheelchair after suffering severe injuries during the Falklands war while serving in the Royal Navy.

“What I want to see is a lot more money into places like this,” he said. “The government lets these big cheese developers come in and they’ve not consulted people. The people who live here haven’t seen the benefit. As far as I’m concerned they’ve ruined Manchester.”

Ali Dumencibasi, owner of Hanson’s cafe, famed locally for its fish, chips and peas, has helped run his family’s business for over 25 years.

“There’s a general consensus that a lot of money is wasted in Ashton on pointless projects like the market,” he said. “Instead of ripping it down it could have been significantly improved for a fraction of the price.

“Places like this undoubtedly need more investment but it’s not just Ashton – I’m always hearing from customers that things have got worse in Hyde and Oldham too.”

Labour MP Andrew Gwynne knows the area: he grew up in Tameside and now represents neighbouring Denton and Reddish, as well as being chair of the Greater Manchester all-party parliamentary group. He said: “What we’ve seen over the last 11 years is the stripping out of social infrastructure and that has really clobbered a community like Tameside.

“Reducing funding to Tameside council has resulted in the stripping back of key public services, including intervention programmes like Sure Start, which were starting to make a real difference in Tameside.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact but there were already endemic problems. As a man, you’ll live 12 years longer in Denton West than in Denton South and that’s in a small geographic community like Denton; that isn’t right in any book and we have to tackle it.

“We urge government, and our local Tory MPs, to work with us to address inequality and truly build back better in Greater Manchester.”


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