The differences with the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic are stark in Crawley. Plenty of people are milling around Queens Square in the town centre, enjoying the early spring sun, even though most of the shops remain closed; some permanently.
In the West Sussex town close to Gatwick airport, hopes are rising that the worst days of the pandemic have finally passed. But with global air travel still grounded, workers in Crawley fear there will be long-term damage for the local jobs market.
“I’ve applied for everything and it’s just so difficult, as everyone’s in the same position. The amount of people who lost their jobs at Gatwick and wherever else around here, it doesn’t surprise me that these jobs are hard to come by,” said Tamara Butler, a former easyJet cabin crew worker who is considering moving out of the town to find work elsewhere.
“Spirits are definitely a lot lower after all the lockdowns. It’s just been one thing after another.”
A year since the first lockdown, the Guardian has returned to Crawley to follow the town’s progress after it was identified early in the pandemic as the place at highest risk of job losses in Britain.
In the shadow of the UK’s second busiest airport, with almost a fifth of jobs in the aviation sector, the worst forecasts are coming to pass. The number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has risen the most in Britain, soaring by 6.1 percentage points since last March to reach 8.9% of the local workforce, according to the Centre for Cities thinktank.
This time last year Butler’s career was derailed as she tried to move jobs, resigning from easyJet to join Mac cosmetics in the airport duty-free area at just the wrong moment. Lockdown left her without either position. She found work at a local Tesco, as one of an army of temps taken on by supermarkets. Now in another stopgap role with a mobile phone retailer, she is still looking for a permanent job. But with fierce competition, she will give her job hunt in Crawley until June before giving up and looking elsewhere.
“If I don’t find any jobs here from June, then I don’t really have a choice, because I can’t afford rent down here any more. The wage that I’m on isn’t enough,” she said, sitting on the same low, stone benches in Queens Square as when she spoke to the Guardian a year ago.
“It’s weird seeing pilots and captains working in Tesco. While I was working in the shop I served a pilot I used to fly with, who told me he’s now working in Waitrose. I mean, he can fly a plane but now he’s restocking shelves? It’s just bizarre.”
As a leafy new town that enjoyed relative prosperity before the pandemic, Crawley has among the highest rates of workers still on furlough in Britain. A year after the launch of the multibillion-pound scheme, almost 12,000 people, about 20% of the local workforce, are receiving wage support from the state.
Elizabeth Laker received the email telling her she would be made redundant on the day Britain entered the first lockdown, 23 March, and less than six weeks after discovering she was pregnant. Since giving birth to her son Grayson in September, she has rushed back to work to make sure she and her husband, Dean, can keep paying the bills.
“While I was pregnant I tried to seek employment but it was difficult as everyone was looking at that point, and no one would take me on being pregnant either. I knew I had to return to work quickly for financial reasons, so I was applying for every job going I thought I was qualified for,” she said.
Laker started work as a care coordinator a month ago, helping isolated elderly people with everything from shopping to getting their Covid jabs. While the family finances remain tight Laker says she and Dean – an assistant store manager at Topps Tiles – are lucky to have money coming in. Both are looking forward to the easing of lockdown, but worry the process won’t be smooth.
“With the first lockdown it was very unknown. Now you take what Boris Johnson says with pinch of salt,” she said.
As lockdown restrictions are eased, Crawley residents are expecting fewer shops to reopen. Debenhams has gone for good, leaving a three-storey hole in the County Mall shopping centre, while Monsoon, Topshop and Carphone Warehouse have also closed.
Sitting outside a branch of Bonmarché, which was pushed into administration by Covid late last year and has since been sold, Anne McQuade has come to town for a birthday meet-up with her friends from a choir, Chris Ollis and Angela Finn, who is with her grandson Arthur.
“Losing Debenhams is a great big loss for the town,” said Ollis, suggesting the town centre remains relatively quiet, despite its busy appearance today. This time last year, McQuade celebrated her birthday alone with an Italian meal and bottle of wine from Iceland, but will host dinner with friends in her support bubble this evening.
Phoenix, their choir, remains confined to Zoom practise sessions and the prospect of performing live a distant hope. “You can’t plan anything. We’re not sure what will be allowed and what’s not,” she said.
Peter Lamb, the Labour leader of Crawley borough council, is frustrated with central government for the level of support the town has received. “As of yet, we still have no recognition for the scale of the hit that we have taken as a local area. The government has literally done nothing above if we were the least impacted economy, to help us. And you just have to scratch your head and say ‘what?’”.
The area will get £21.1m from the government’s levelling-up towns fund and a further £100,000 to help the high street. But Crawley has suffered budget cuts under the Conservatives’ austerity drive, and faces uncertainty about how quickly the town will recover after Covid.
In a sign of the long-term hit facing the area, Gatwick airport doesn’t expect passenger numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025. As many as 36 million fewer people passed through its terminal buildings last year, a drop of 78%, with a knock-on hit for the town’s economy. Having cut staff numbers almost in half, to 1,800 from 3,000 pre-crisis, the airport is awaiting details from the government about its plans for the return of international travel.
With airport workers living in up to one in four homes, Lamb told the Guardian a year ago that he feared Crawley would turn into a modern, southern version of a northern mining community during the 1980s, bereft of employment by the death of a key industry. Although more optimistic than a year ago, he fears the end of the furlough scheme will drive up job losses, as Gatwick struggles to recover.
“The aviation industry is betting on pent-up demand after lockdown. I think there is. I’m pretty desperate to go on holiday, we’ve been absolutely destroyed over the last year. But the reality is, aviation only works when both points are safe to travel to.”
“We’ve done very well on the vaccination plan, that’s great. But until the destinations people want to go to have also got to that point, it’s not going to make a difference. Aviation is the last sector that will come back.”