Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
“Cash is King”. In the City of London that means liquidity, numbers on paper – but what it boils down to is freedom of action when things get tight.
For many of my constituents, it means something slightly different: it means hard currency and it means control. When I’m away in Westminster, I rarely use notes and coins. Transactions happen at the touch of a card or, more likely, at the push of a few buttons on my phone.
In the ‘real world’ of my constituency, though, cash is still very important. Recently, while I was queueing outside the Golden Fish Inn on Delves Lane to pick up fish and chip, mushy peas and some cans of pop for the team who’d been out leafleting, I remembered that the chip shop is still cash only. A quick dash across the road to get some money from the cash machine and all was well.
But for many in my community – particularly those on tight budgets, pensioners, and people trying to manage their way out of debt – cash is what they live by. It’s easy to manage because once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can take £20 to get some shopping for the next few days, or take £10 out with you to get a few pints (yes, London readers: you really can get ‘a few pints’ for £10 in Consett) and go home not having spent more than you intended to. Access to physical cash remains crucial.
There has been a big shift under Covid-19, and the Golden Fish Inn is now unusual. Shops and businesses which were ‘cash only’ are fewer and further between.
Even my Wolsingham local, the Black Lion (where during the election campaign the regulars didn’t bat an eye as the Education Secretary and I grabbed a couple of pints, picked eggs and played pool poorly one evening) a staunchly cash-only wet pub until lockdown has now got a card machine. But in North West Durham generally it’s cash-and-card, not just card. Card only is exclusive of those in the most need, as the recent transformation away from cash in Sweden has shown.
The issue of access to cash was highlighted a few weeks ago, when I got a call from a small local shop in Billy Row, a small village near Crook in the south part of my constituency. The shop is basically open from first thing until late evening, seven days a week, provides essentials and has a cash machine inside.
It also has a post office counter, open dor much more restricted hours. Post Office Ltd had got in touch with them to say that the contract with the cash machine operator had expired, and the machine would be coming out for good in a matter of months. The result, the shop keeper told me, was that it would probably end the business and the shop in the village.
Why? Because a lot of local people budget use cash, and they don’t want to only be able to withdraw it at certain times on certain days from the Post Office counter, when to check the balance means it being printed off and passed over before they know if and how much they can take out.
It also means the workers who swing by on their way by in the morning to pick up a can, paper, packet of fags and grab some cash for lunchtime wouldn’t carry on doing so. And for the pub across the green, it means a lifeline for the business (being able to deposit and do basic banking) and access to cash for customers would go too.
A short, local campaign, a bit of local media, touching base with LINK (who were superb) and a few letters to senior management all helped – and the Billy Row cash machine will stay.
But it got me talking to people about how important cash is more broadly. I discovered that in one of the least affluent parts of my constituency, the only nearby cash machine charges £2 a go. That’s a lot to get access to your own money when you’re on a tight budget, and just want to grab so cash to pay to top up your electric meter, pay your hairdresser or grab some bits and pieces from the local shop or sandwich shop. So I’m now campaigning to get a free-to-use machine there to replace it and reduce what has been called in some quarters the ‘poverty premium.’
In the months since I was elected, it’s often these day-to-day issues: cash machines, speeding, unadopted roads, street-lighting, potholes, low-level crime and anti-social behaviour that I’ve noticed my Labour predecessors didn’t try (or at least not very hard) to do anything about.
Either they felt it was beneath them (and too many Labour councillors think these issues are beneath them still), or they were too busy concentrating on planning the revolution to deal with the issues that mean so much in people’s everyday lives.
Throughout the global pandemic, the Government has stood up in an unprecedented way to support jobs and businesses across the country. My constituents know that nothing comes for free, and that the colossal short-term support that has been provided to save jobs and businesses cannot be provided in the long-term.
The broader levelling-up agenda – the defining mission of this Government – needs to be the focus, and delivering on key manifesto promised on hospitals, police numbers, nurses and doctors must be the overarching focus post-Coronavirus.
But now that the budget is delayed until spring, we have a window of opportunity for the Chancellor and his team to also step back, and target support for schemes and policies that can really deliver those smaller changes that make a difference to families and communities in the ‘Blue Wall’, and also pockets in every constituency.
Not all of it needs to cost the earth – and in some cases, need not cost anything. Access to cash is one of these issues in the broader Treasury remit, and needs to be looked at. With a bit of time, we can drill down into the long-term issues that make communities feel left behind, isolated, ignored and yes, ripped off.
By listening to them, rather than talking at them, we can avoid the fate of our Labour predecessors across the newly Blue constituencies by getting things done on the ground that make an immediate difference to people’s lives, alongside our broader ‘levelling up’ agenda.