As the British economy has moved away from manufacturing and toward financial services, growing numbers in the city are unemployed, underemployed or in precarious employment, and the use of food banks is on the rise. Inequality has increased, with life expectancy as much as 14 years lower for residents in areas of Sunderland like Hendon, than it is for people outside the city in rural Northumbria.
And yet Sunderland – where one of the Civil Society Futures community workshops took place last year – maintains a strong sense of identity, closely connected to its industrial history and its football team. Can it grasp its future? And what needs to change for local people?
For many participants in our workshop, greater inclusion in decision making was key to rebuilding their community: “A much more equal and inclusive society where people aren’t isolated and can achieve their potential. That’s just the whole thing. It just makes me so frustrated when I come across people who have got incredible skills but because they’re different, in some respect, they’re disregarded.”
Those we spoke to highlighted the benefits brought by having the city football club in the Premier League, including a boost to the local economy from travelling supporters and greater prominence and pride. A branch of KFC has recently opened in Sunderland, which was considered a good sign for the town’s prestige, development and potential for growth, in spite of increasing problems with obesity – particularly among the young. A larger KFC had opened when Sunderland AFC were promoted to the Premier League, but it had since closed when they were relegated at the end of the 2016/17 season.
Identity and immigration
For many, a staunch identity and social cohesion in long standing communities is seen as a great strength that mitigates impacts of poverty and deprivation. But it can also exclude some incoming residents.
“The one thing they do have in spades is a bit of social cohesion I think, I mean I don’t know, I’m not from here but it’s too long since I lived anywhere else, but I would be surprised if you found places as socially cohesive as Sunderland, I mean in some ways it’s maybe not a good thing because it’s quite exclusive in a way, certainly north of the river it’s very white working class cohesive, not so clever when you get you know, immigrant families say coming into the area, but that’s one reason why the kids don’t, or the people don’t tend to see themselves as in poverty, because they think ‘I’ve got a nice life, got my family, got my nanna’.”
There are concerns about growing polarisation and a lack of good leadership locally and nationally to bring people closer together.
“I live in Roker… We’ve got a lot of asylum seekers, we’ve got a load of international students, we’ve got a load of white working class and a load of white middle class, and I’m seeing attacks up and down Roker Avenue and burnt doors and bleach and paint and all kinds, and union flags being flown in back gardens and it’s like you say, it’s just becoming more disparate, it’s not, it’s not a good climate.”
“Something linked in with that is fear of the other, whatever the other happens to be, whether it’s somebody for a migrant population or whether it’s somebody who comes from a different estate, different area, there’s just that fear or the other.”
This has been expressed particularly in the ‘Justice for Chelsey’ campaign, which could be characterised as ‘uncivil society’ organising. The campaign developed after a local woman was alleged to have been sexually assaulted by an asylum seeker. Arrests were made but no charges were brought by police after a lengthy investigation. Public debate was felt to have been constrained by the police, local council and local press, enabling social media to take control of the narrative, polarising the debate further. The English Defence League became involved and large street demonstrations were met by counter demonstrations, with tensions building between the local white-British and British-Asian communities. As one workshop participant explained:
“This is the biggest issue that I can see amongst the young people in this city at the moment. The kids that I work with in the BME community are just ordinary kids who have lived here and they’re struggling with what they’ve seen and how they’ve grown up. The white kids are over here. They’re on their own journey, moving on in their city. We had an incident in the city, the Justice for Chelsey business. And that has split kids who went to school together. The girl involved in that went to my school. She was known. When the Asian kids tried to support her, they were excluded and they don’t understand why. Because what they’re saying is, they have the same values.
This has had a real impact on how the city attracts outsiders and the likelihood that newcomers will stay and invest in the city. There is instead a talent drain away from the city.
“We’re losing key people. We’re losing people because they don’t want to live in the city. That is to do with racism. We have 20 percent of our students at university are international students. I can’t think of any international students that have stayed. I was speaking to one lovely student from Eritrea. Not a refugee, a student… She’d encountered so much racism in the city, there was no way she’d consider staying here. This is the worry. Unless we change some of the stuff, we will lose people being attracted to our city.”
Trust and power
There seemed to be a general lack of trust in local and national politics, where there is a feeling of inertia and a lack of accountability. Locally there are systemic issues linked to drastic funding cuts and an absence of joined up thinking and long term vision, with “nobody who’s got the gumption or the kind of moral fibre to see it through”. Moreover the Westminster government is seen to act “as if the north ends at Manchester”, with the investment necessary to tackle deprivation unlikely to materialise.
Participants had a strong will for civil society to encourage and empower the local authority to do better. Local government needs to play a key role, and there is some good evidence of creative policy impacting positively in the region, for example in the regeneration of Seaham, in Durham. There was however a general doubt that local government would overcome its stagnation and become more rather than less involved in the near future.
“That’s what scares me as a Labour voter is that we’ve always had a sitting council, and it’s a job for life, and it’s stagnant and it’s corrupt and it’s a joke basically, and the alternative is just unthinkable, which is UKIP or something like that, which is just abhorrent, but… you’d have to put a rocket up their arse to get real action and real change and real local representation.”
Change starts here
There was a strong belief that change had to come from within communities and civil society.
“There are people in those estates and everything that are perfectly capable of doing stuff, there are people, just nobody’s told them that and nobody’s given them the tools for them to do it; the government doing it and the local authority doing it is never going to make any difference, you’ve got to encourage folks to do it themselves.”
In certain parts of town, young people were struggling because many of the programmes/youth groups had closed down. Parents could not afford childcare or youth clubs so many young people would be out on the streets on evenings, weekends and holidays and perhaps getting into trouble.
People highlighted competition and repetition within Sunderland civil society, with improved networking and communication greatly needed. There has been some recent organisational success in Sunderland, with grassroots community power being strengthened in Hendon through a scheme called ‘Back on the Map’, and Sunderland’s bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021 bringing groups together, even though Coventry was ultimately awarded the title.
Similarly, work is underway towards establishing Sunderland as a Transition Town and a more sustainable city, involving initiatives to reduce carbon consumption, improve local ecology and grow more food locally. There’s also a significant amount of creative work involving elderly and disabled groups, not least through The Cultural Spring
What the people we spoke to in Sunderland want is ‘vision and imagination’ from proactive civil society and local government, using creative and joined up thinking to build on Sunderland’s historic strengths as a cohesive city working around the River Wear and the coast.
They want help building trust between long standing residents and newer arrivals including migrants and students. They want better city transport links by river and by bicycle, so they can become more integrated, less divided and more sustainable. They want improved links to Newcastle and other north east cities so that creative civil society can flourish. They want more opportunities for young people, with schools and universities working better with civil society.