At 10am Redruth is a quiet place, its narrow streets bereft of life. The food bank is different.
Dave, a former soldier, waited a week to notify the Department for Work and Pensions about moving in with his partner. His benefits were suspended, and, until they are restored, Dave has had to resort to picking up food parcels here. “I wouldn’t turn to crime but some people have no alternative. I don’t really know how I’d survive without this,” he says. “You know what they say about Redruth? It used to be the richest part of Cornwall and now it’s the poorest.”
Dave’s story is not unusual. In December, 2,095 people used Redruth’s food bank – a record high. “Seventy per cent of the people here are one pay packet away from poverty,” says Mike, who works in the food bank.
Debt and benefit delays or sanctions are particularly common reasons for people to use the food banks at Redruth or Camborne, which is three miles away. A new food bank has also opened in Pool, situated halfway between the two, because “clients found it difficult to fund the bus into Camborne or Redruth”, explains Don Gardner, who runs the food banks. When he opened the food banks six years ago, he envisaged they would only have a life as a crisis service for two years.
Only 40 miles away lies Polzeath, where David Cameron has holidayed every summer since 2010. Yet while the Prime Minister enjoys Cornwall’s alluring beaches, the scene in Redruth provides a better reflection of the county today. Cornwall is England’s poorest county. If it were a country, it would be poorer than Lithuania and Hungary.
The constituency that includes the two small towns of Camborne and Redruth is Cornwall’s largest urban area. It has been “shunned by the professional classes, and has poor educational attainment and low aspirations”, says Oliver Baines, the chief executive of the charity Cornwall Foundation.
“I always hate it when Camborne and Redruth become the butt of jokes, which does happen. I find that very annoying,” George Eustice, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, tells me. “It’s a low wage economy – a lot of people are on the minimum wage.”
Trevor Chalker, the mayor of Camborne, observes: “For many people, 50 per cent of their earnings are going just to put a roof over their head before they buy food.”
Such strains feed into wider problems, including domestic abuse. “The Camborne, Pool and Redruth areas have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country and this may be the cause of the high levels of domestic violence,” says Sally Piper, the chief executive of Skoodhya Limited, a Cornish charity tackling domestic abuse.
Eustice adds: “Some primary schools tell me that up to 40 per cent of children in their schools have some kind of intervention from the social services or local authority.”
When I visit Camborne, one part of the town is heaving with activity: the local Wetherspoons. It is a Tuesday evening, which, as one couple tells their children as they arrive, means only one thing: “steak night”. The pub was only opened in 2011 – “a sort of vote in the confidence in the town”, Eustice says – and over 100 people are crammed in to enjoy the food and selection of ciders.
This branch of Wetherspoons has made an effort to be more homely than most: on the walls hang old photos of the area. These pictures have taken on a rather nostalgic quality, documenting the area’s descent from its position as an international mining hub. Between 1820 and 1840, an area of land near Redruth produced so much copper that it was known as “the richest square mile in the old world”. And in the late nineteenth century, Cornwall produced 80 per cent of the world’s copper. Until the last tin mine closed in 1998, they provided jobs-for-life for those who wanted them. Now all that is left is the area’s status as a mining world heritage site.
Romanticising the hard lives of miners should be avoided. Indeed, when I meet Eustice in the Wetherspoons, he is greeted by an ex-miner pursuing a compensation claim into damage he suffered working in the mines. Yet mining gave this part of west Cornwall an identity and provided work for thousands who did not go down to the mines.
A two-minute walk from Camborne station, past a rather unkempt overpass, lies the barren old home of CompAir Holman, a mining and equipment company that once employed around 3,000 people in the area.
“I remember as a lad 90 per cent of students after college would go into work allied to the mining industry,” reflects Chalker, who went to the college of engineering at Camborne School of Mines. He likens the impact of the collapse of mining to “Canary Wharf disappearing overnight in London”.
The secure jobs lost have never been replaced. Today, as in Cornwall generally, Camborne and Redruth’s problem is less one of unemployment but underemployment – a large proportion of people are engaged in low-skill or part-time work, such as in agriculture or the declining fishing industry, which is often seasonal too. What has happened is “definitely relative decline”, Eustice says. “Confidence was broken when the mining industries went in the Eighties and it’s been difficult to get that back.”
Yet there is a sense that no one has quite noticed: the image of Cornwall as the charming seaside duchy is not eroded easily. It is true that considerable sums have been invested in regenerating Cornwall since the collapse of the mining industry, including by the EU, but basic symptoms of neglect remain: the 95 miles from Exeter to Camborne take over two and a half hours by train.
The modern world has not been Cornwall’s friend: the proliferation of low-cost flying means that families who would once have spent their summers in Cornwall often now travel to France or Spain instead. Meanwhile, many of the county’s most talented and ambitious young people move away. “Lots of people who go to university tend to stay away,” Chalker laments. “What is there to come back for?”
Perhaps the internet will provide one answer. About 95 per cent of properties in Cornwall are now able to access fibre-optic superfast broadband, after funding from BT, the EU and Cornwall Council. The hope is this broadband will make Cornwall into a tech hub.
“It breaks down that barrier of being a peninsula a long way away from the rest of the country,” Eustice says, envisaging that people will “get the Cornish lifestyle without having to downshift and accept a compromise on their income.” Still, the digital sector remains “a tiny part of the economy, in spite of all the hype”, as Baines reflects.
Some also believe that granting Cornwall more autonomy can help to transform the region. The Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow would like a parliament as powerful as the Scottish Parliament. Even many of those who do not agree think Cornwall could be empowered.
This year, George Osborne announced plans to give Cornwall greater control over health, transport, skills and business support, although the deal still fell well short of the powers Cornwall Council had requested. “I see that as a beginning,” Eustice says, though no one pretends devolution is a panacea. Chalker “would have great reservations if powers were all shifted to Cornwall overnight as to the ability of our councillors to handle that power with efficiency”.
Even in the most deprived areas of Cornwall, the St Piran’s flag flies proudly: a mark of the pride people feel in the Cornish life and also, perhaps, a show of quiet defiance against feeling shunned by the rest of the UK.
“We seem to be forgotten down this way,” Dave laments back in the Redruth food bank. “We seem to be pushed out because we’re a long way out the way.”