Last week I came to the end of 10 days of work focused on the north-eastern town of Middlesbrough. Drawn by the fact that it had one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the country, the team behind the Guardian’s Anywhere but Westminster video series had decided to talk to as many local people as possible – about the illness and what remained of the lockdown, but also how they felt about the future.
Via video-conferencing platforms and phone calls, one of the neighbourhoods we focused on was South Bank, three miles east of the town centre. We had been there five years ago, when we heard about the closed down shops and businesses, long-term unemployment and the cruelties of the benefits system. This time around, along with a strong community spirit, all these things were even more evident, but it was clear that even the opportunities to make ends meet by ducking and diving through precarious work and the informal economy were now shrinking fast.
We spoke at length to Tonia Nixon, the co-founder of a local community charity called Tees (Together, Engage, Encourage, Support), who was stepping up work on a clothing bank, and also busy supplying people with such basics as cookers, fridges and furniture. “The people who are struggling now – it’s the people who’ve been self-employed,” she said. “People who’ve always worked. And it’s humiliating for them. The lads round here have always found a way to make money. But they’ve had their legs chopped off.”