If you go down to Prudhoe today…

by georgehep

If you go down to Prudhoe today, explore Arthur McGee’s new hardware and household store which has moved across the road into much larger premises. The family run business must now rank second only to Thorpes of Gosforth as the region’s favourite ironmonger.
Then pop into the Emporium whose collections of local arts and crafts will help you find that elusive present. Order a wood burning stove from David at Northumbria Pipes, buy a painting in Paul Stangroom’s gallery, some more wool from Ready Steady Knit and then rest up at Ginevra’s with a cup of their locally roasted coffee. You are bound to find me there mid morning putting the world to rights.
But I am sorry to report that, as from today, you can no longer call into Spetchells Centre if you are waiting for a benefit payment, worried about managing debts, having a problem with your employer or being harassed by your landlord. The twice weekly drop in run by Citizens Advice Northumberland has been shut down.
From now on, residents of Prudhoe will have to take the half hour bus journey into Hexham to get face to face advice. The fare is £6.20 return. Prudhoe (pop 11675) now has to defer to the bright lights of Hexham (pop 11829) which does not go down well with Prudhoe folk.
Citizens Advice says it can no longer afford to support drop ins at sub offices like Prudhoe or Haltwhistle. It is reducing staff and advice sessions all across the county as part of a major reorganisation and cost cutting exercise. The number of telephone advisors will increase following a 40% rise in telephone enquiries.
The number of clients calling at Citizens Advice offices remains as high as ever and I can tell you that whenever I call into Spetchells Centre, there is always a long queue outside the CAB door.
My head suspects Citizens Advice is boldly doing the right thing for the long term. It is funded by grants and must live within its means. It is adapting to a world where we want information at any time of the day or night, on line, by web chat or mobile phone. We do not willingly wait a few days and then sit in a queue to see an advisor.
But my heart says this is a mistake. Citizens Advice is a national treasure. ( B for Bureau has been dropped but everyone still refers to CAB). Its information is impeccable and its advisors well trained – as I know from personal experience. But it needs to keep its place on every high street. I would like to have seen Citizens Advice fighting harder to raise more funds even if this meant a constant anxiety for the trustees to balance the books. Most other voluntary organisations – and most small businesses – are in the same straights.
It is tempting to build a business model that relies on the phone and the computer but not everyone can summon up information with a flick of the fingers and few of us think clearly under pressure when problems are mounting up. Citizens Advice has always provided a shoulder to lean on as well.
It is also a pity for Prudhoe which is an expanding town proudly wanting to meet the needs of all. ( Prudhoe Town Council makes a generous grant for CAB’s overheads).The people turning up this morning expecting to see a CAB advisor will doubtless get some help other staff working in Spetchells Centre – which is also a food bank distribution point – but nothing will replace the expertise from Citizens Advice unless we set up a local advice service of our own.
All this unfortunately takes place at just the time when the much vaunted Universal Credit is, to use their odd phrase, rolled out across Northumberland. Appeals from Laura Pidcock and others to delay implementation until after Christmas have fallen on deaf ears and the ministers concerned defiantly defend the flagship project as a success in driving claimants back into work.
Research by Citizens Advice earlier in the year showed that 39% of claimants did not get their payments within the 6 week waiting period. 57% had to borrow money to get by. Claimants experienced problems with the on line application form and could not get through to the telephone help line, which anyway costs 50p a minute. In Newcastle, according to Our Homes, rent arrears have shot up since Universal Credit was introduced. Bringing welfare benefits together into one payment maybe be a good idea, but it ain’t working. And Citizens Advice is the first port of call for anyone in difficulties.
In his last budget, George Osborne reduced benefit payments by £14bn leaving some families an estimated £2,800 a year worse off. Now Tory back benchers are writing to the Prime Minister telling her to ease off.
For the first time in living memory, Prudhoe elected two conservatives to Northumberland County Council in May. It would be amazing if Theresa May refers to this part of her new heartland when she addresses the party conference tomorrow. It would be pleasantly surprising if she mentions Universal Credit at all. Never mind lauding the virtues of the free market, Prime Minister. This is one small cameo of austerity Britain – benefits reduced, claimants left on the breadline, help withdrawn and communities diminished – that any caring government would address.

published in Newcastle Journal 3rd October