Never mind a “national scandal” as former Mayor of South Yorkshire Dan Jarvis calls successive governmental failure to tackle the state of coalfield communities, it’s nothing short of a national tragedy.
Speaking after the All-Party Group on Coalfield Communities announced that a major report into these left-behind towns and villages will be published next spring, the Barnsley Central MP says government after government is to blame for not getting to grips with reducing “regional inequality”.
He’s right. When I came back up to live in Barnsley, right at the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield, in 2003, my community was fortunate to be benefitting under both the understanding of a Labour Government and generous regeneration funding from the European Union.
It felt good. It felt positive. I experienced it at first-hand, editing a number of community books with local people. Financed by public grants, these chronicled and celebrated the proud history and heritage of our mining communities. They were certainly never a waste of taxpayers’ money, but an enabling tool that gave ordinary individuals confidence and pride.
In wider terms, EU investment helped to pay for major infrastructure projects such as the Dearne Valley Parkway.
The favourable political climate back then also supported the redevelopment of the famous Grimethorpe Colliery into light industrial space and new community facilities including Park Springs, a 56-hectare public space brimming with wetlands and wildlife.
Whilst the town is undoubtedly suffering under the cost of living crisis, with many residents literally living on the breadline, we are fortunate in some respects.
Local government leadership will always have its critics, but under Labour council leader Sir Stephen Houghton, the town centre has been transformed by the £210m Glassworks development, which has brought about a new family-friendly buzz, with restaurants, a bowling alley, multi-screen cinema and rejuvenated market.
Other coalfield towns have been less fortunate. One recent weekend, I drove from South to West Yorkshire to collect a friend up from London.
When we returned to Barnsley and enjoyed tapas and cocktails in one of our shiny new restaurants, packed to the brim with people clearly bent on spending their way out of any recession, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
She’d spent the last two days wandering around a town (which I won’t name) that, in her own words, felt “totally left-behind and overlooked, as if it had fallen off the end of the world”.
The next time I hear someone complaining that life is grim in Barnsley, I’ll remind them they are lucky. With faith and courage and dogged determination to keep jumping through hoops, coalfield communities can be transformed.
And yet, just a few miles from the town centre, there are pit villages where the pit long since disappeared and 30 years later, nothing has come to replace it except drugs and boarded-up businesses.
It really is an absolute tragedy that in such a small country as the UK, certain politicians apparently can stand back and forget about so many places suffering catastrophically from terrible levels of unemployment, economic inactivity, poor educational attainment and disastrous ill-health. And live with their own consciences.
I know, because I still have a foot in both the north and the south of England, thanks to family connections, that there is a serious failure of national understanding.
It is difficult for a politician born in the leafy Home Counties, for example, to thoroughly comprehend the frustration and resigned anger that people feel in places such as South Elmsall, for example, or Rotherham. And I’m not singling these out, just picking two out of many.
To regard the plight of pit communities as simply a north/south thing is to take a too simplistic view too.
Which brings me onto my final point. I am also sad to say this. Within our own county of Yorkshire, we’re now witnessing a corrosive north/south divide.
I’d agree that North Yorkshire farming communities have their own problems, in particular the high cost of housing, inadequate public transport and limited job opportunities for young people.
However, North Yorkshire is now home, not just to some of the most affluent individuals and communities in the country, but our super-wealthy new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. I suggest he starts looking very carefully out of the train window the next time he’s approaching Doncaster. He has much to learn.