In 1993, the Green Man pub in Loughborough, Leicestershire was buried. Over its grave, developers built the Carillon Court shopping centre, housing a Vodafone, New Look, Vision Express and many other British high street stalwarts. Below the new shopping complex, the Green Man remains, almost entirely intact. Though the intervening years have taken their toll – bar stools are cloaked in dust and the beer taps have long run dry – the pub is still there. Pint glasses are stacked on the shelves and a mural on the wall shows knights galloping across grasslands. A sign reads, ‘Kenco Coffee Served Here’. Disappear down the trap door as a Loughborough Echo reporter did a few years ago, and you can walk straight back into the 1990s.
I get the sense that some people in Loughborough would like to slip down this trapdoor. While 1993 saw mass unemployment and cuts to public services, the city held its position as a thriving centre of British industry, with engineering and pharmaceutical companies providing skilled jobs for local people. Over recent years, however, the factories have closed and outlook has become bleaker. Loughborough voted to leave the European Union by 50.09 percent. Three years on from the referendum, and the result doesn’t appear to have mobilised any real change. Last year, a cross-party group of Brexiteers marched on local Conservative MP Nicky Morgan’s office, demanding that she resign over her criticism of pursuing a hard Brexit.
It’s unsurprising then, that when I ask people in Loughborough about their hopes for the December’s election result, or the changes they would like to see implemented in the town, most responses veer between general malaise and outright resentment. Several young people aren’t even aware an election is taking place. A woman selling roses on a street stall says she won’t be voting because “politicians are useless.” A man blowing out thick clouds of blueberry pie-flavoured smoke outside of VapeHQ asks, “Why would I care? I’ll still be here, working, no politician is going to change that."
I walk down Loughborough’s Old Hospital Court, where teenagers in Puffa jackets gather outside Cineworld for a showing of
. I speak to Jordan, 22, who is about to start his shift at the cinema. “Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a massive increase in the number of homeless people around here,” he says. “Rather than addressing the issues people face by providing housing or funding addiction support, the council just build more attractive buildings to force the homeless people further and further out of town.”
Jordan is referring to the Baxter Gate development that houses the Cineworld, along with a number of restaurants and bars. Built in 2015, the development promised to create
250 jobs for the town
and now provides important leisure facilities, but its construction resulted in the bulldozing of an abandoned hospital where many homeless people found shelter. “Other homeless hangouts are having student blocks built over them,” Jordan says. “Which would be fine if these people had somewhere else to live, but they don’t.”
In Loughborough’s town centre, food vans serve hot baked potatoes and beef burgers. I head to the Say Souvlaki Greek food van where Costa, 32, and his mum watch over a spit of rotating chicken doner meat. “I used to live in London,” Costa tells me. “It was too busy for me, there aren’t many people around here, you can have a more laid back life.”
Costa is concerned about the effect austerity is having on the NHS. “A friend of mine had an abdominal operation and the next day, she was made to leave the hospital," he says. "In Greece, where I’m from, you would be made to stay for a week after the procedure to make sure you are OK.”
Sally, 77, is on her way home after meeting a friend for coffee. Like Costa, she is unhappy with how the NHS is being stripped of resources. “My husband spent a lot of time in hospital before he died,” she says. “On Saturdays and Sundays, the nurses came from agencies and often they were tired from overwork. There was one occasion when he had a catheter in and he was just left overnight without the catheter being replaced. When I came in the next day, I had to kick up a fuss before someone would sort it out.”
Sally first moved to Loughborough in the 1970s. “The Brush factory used to hire thousands, but over the years it has declined in numbers to the point where I don’t know if anyone is still working there,” she says, referring to the Brush Group, an electrical generators manufacturer that opened a factory in Loughborough in 1889. “My husband didn’t work at Brush, but the coach-building factory he worked in has shut down.”
Last year, the Brush Group sent home 270 of its Loughborough shop floor workers, responding to the fall in demand for gas- and steam- powered generators. It’s not the only Loughborough employer to have made redundancies. In 1998, the plant that had printed Ladybird books since the 19th century closed. Hosiery manufacturers Towles Hosiery and HJ Hall have both ceased production in recent years. In 2010, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca closed its research centre, taking 1,200 jobs with it. While Loughborough University provides employment for many in the town, and proposals for a new science park promise to create thousands of jobs, many of those who would have worked in Loughborough’s engineering sector now find employment at the East Midlands airport or the service sector, sometimes on zero-hours contracts.
Back in Loughborough town centre, it’s starting to get dark. People have finished work and the square is beginning to empty. Outside a Chinese restaurant, I speak to Sam, 28, who has been living on the streets on-and-off for ten years until last week, when he was given a flat by the council. Sam blames Loughborough’s homeless population on the lack of jobs available for people in the area. “Students get the first pick,” Sam says. “I don’t want to be rude or anything, but that’s just how it is. Sometimes, people like me can get work packing for Pertemps [a local recruitment agency] just around this corner, but the population is growing and they are turning more and more people away.”
Clearly, employment opportunities are a key issue for voters here. A leaflet for Loughborough Labour candidate Stuart Brady, who stands against Hunt at the polls in December, features the empty Brush factory, along with the words: “Loughborough used to be a town of good jobs.” If they come to power, Labour have pledged to start climate apprenticeship programme that could provide 320,000 positions in sustainable construction, renewable energy, forestry and agriculture. It’s hoped that such a scheme would fill the gap left by the erasure of skilled manual labour jobs. Loughborough is well placed for a role in the green industrial revolution, with its university a world leader in research on hydrogen fuel cells.
Twenty-five years after Carillon Court's construction, many of the shops built on top of the Green Man are boarded up, while those still open are at risk. Claire’s Accessories filed for bankruptcy last year and Topshop narrowly avoided going into administration this summer. The shopping centre is beginning to look like a shell on top of a shell.
Towards the end of our conversation, Sam points out the iron bars over the nearby shop fronts. “It’s to stop homeless people squatting in the doorways,” he says.
Going back to the 1990s isn’t a good idea but Loughborough does need something new. Something that looks like a future.
Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.