CHARLES GRAHAM - Fighting to ride out recession

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THE year 2010 won’t go down as one of the more uplifting passages of history.

Let’s face it: it’s been pretty grim for a lot of us, regardless of what the silly Lord Young said.

Not many of us have a firm grip on economic issues (your’s truly included), but even the lowest IQ Jeremy Kyle guest must know by now that the country is in a deep hole, if only because they fear the benefits to buy their super-strength lager are going to get cut.

I spent an hour in the company of Wigan Council leader Lord Smith the other day to talk about the extent of the savage cuts the local authority is going to have to make.

Presented with four pages of proposals, it was sobering to think that a short paragraph talking, for instance, about a “review of eligibility criteria for social care” saving £2.8m will affect negatively countless Wigan folk’s lives as they battle to look after disabled loved-ones with much less professional support.

The line proposing to review “the provision of subsidised non-statutory services to school” could spell the end of all manner of enriching, extra-curricular services.

Perhaps most notable casualty could be the Drumcroon arts education centre, unless schools (whose budgets are less affected that the council’s) agree to pay extra to prop it up.

And so the list goes on as the authority bids to hack an eye-watering £25m (11 per cent of its budget) from spending in the 12 months starting in April, with a view to shedding millions more, and hundreds of jobs, in the subsequent three or four years.

I certainly don’t envy Lord Smith’s job over the coming months and wish him and his colleagues all the wisdom and fortune possible as they continue to make life-changing decisions.

There are murmurings, however, that the private sector is on the mend, although there are serious doubts as to whether its recovery is potent enough to counteract the public sector carnage over the next couple of years.

We must have wronged somebody important as well, with bad wintry weather at either end of the year further battering business, yet another feeble summer denting those that depend on a good hot spell (especially the supposedly rallying domestic tourism industry, galvanised by a weak pound), and all the mayhem caused by that volcanic ash cloud.

For sure the odds have been against anyone picking themselves up in the face of all that plus the worst recession in decades.

And yet Wigan so far appears to have fared comparatively well. Certainly as far as a few bald statistics are concerned, the borough has bucked quite a few trends.

After a little dip at the beginning of the year, unemployment has steadily fallen in every month since: which hasn’t been the case in many parts of the country.

Whether that downward path can be sustained in the face of the forthcoming local authority redundancies remains to be seen but I still think we are in a much better position than we might have been.

Shop unit vacancies are among the lowest in the North West too and several major projects that were shelved when the recession burst have started to look more hopeful again.

The redevelopment of Eckersley Mill, if realised as the developers hope, would create more jobs itself than the council is losing at a stroke.

A new Premier Inn hotel plans to come to Wigan; the Tower Grand project, or a subsitute for it, at the bottom of Millgate could start to emerge in 2011; and the chief executive of Goldcrest, who owns the former Wigan Police HQ in Harrogate Street, recently confirmed that he was finally in talks with a major developer.

Each would create work and rid the borough of off-putting eyesores.

All hope hasn’t been lost in attracting major new business to Westwood Park either, even if ultimately it proves not to be the Chinese government and its European textile research and development facility which take up residence there.

So for many of us 2010 may have been a year we would rather forget.

But there are some causes to believe that Wigan can continue to ride out the storm one way or another and see 2011 bringing us better times.