The impact and response to coronavirus in industrial towns – the experience of Barnsley, South Yorkshire

Amanda Garrard, 19 May 2021

In Barnsley, like many industrial towns throughout the country, coronavirus hit hard, both socially and economically, but what made it so different from other areas is the history and legacy of its industrial past.

Earlier this year, Sheffield Hallam University published its report, The Impact of the Coronavirus Crisis on Older Industrial Britain, jointly commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Industrial Communities Alliance. The report highlights the impact of coronavirus on the economy, labour market and public health of older industrial towns and former coalfield communities like Barnsley.

Despite some major successes in diversifying its economy, Barnsley was behind in terms of prosperity, wellbeing and life chances before coronavirus. As the impact of the pandemic took hold, unemployment rose by 100,000 in former coalfield towns. People aged 16-24 have been hit hardest, with unemployment doubling in 2020. At Berneslai, we have seen an additional 1,500 Universal Credit claimants during the year.

Much like other communities in older industrial Britain, infection rates were between 10-20% higher than the national average, with fewer in the workforce able to work from home. Also, due to the older population, the cumulative death rate was on average 30% higher than the UK average.

However, the response from the people of Barnsley and the organisations with whom we work has been tremendous. The local authority was amongst the first in the country to respond quickly with financial support for businesses, communities pulled together to support each other and organisations joined forces to create opportunities for young people, including joining the Kickstart programme for those under 24.

The success in attracting and growing the economic diversity in South Yorkshire recently led to Barnsley achieving the strongest growth in job opportunities in the UK. Hermes recently announced its £60m investment in their distribution centre in Barnsley with an additional 1,300 jobs. ASOS, also located in Barnsley, has been another success story during the pandemic. These are good news stories and welcomed as part of the solution to develop a diverse jobs market, growth and reduced poverty.

The recently announced levelling up fund of £4.8bn, aimed at levelling up deprived areas, placed Barnsley in the second category. The fund would have provided much needed funding to strengthen infrastructure, upskill the potential workforce and level up the health and economic inequalities affecting the area. Challenges have been made to the Treasury on this and we hope that this and other areas highlighted in the report will receive the support required to recover from the pandemic.

In the meantime, we will continue to work hard with our partners, provide support to tenants and develop training and employment opportunities to ensure a brighter future for the area as we enter the post-coronavirus recovery stage.

About Berneslai Homes

Berneslai Homes is an Arm’s-length Management Organisation (ALMO) working in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, managing 18,600 council homes and is an associate member of the National Housing Federation. It’s chief executive, Amanda Garrard, reflects on the impact of coronavirus in Barnsley.