When Kim Woodward heard that her local job centre was closing its doors, at first she couldn’t believe it. “It was a massive shock, and a terrible blow for the community,” she says.
As a recipient of employment support benefits, Woodward was sometimes called to attend meetings at the centre in Herne Bay. They’d supported her too, when she was diagnosed with uncontrolled epilepsy in her mid-30s and had to move to part-time work.
But after it closed, Woodward became very anxious about her benefits. She was worried she’d be called for a meeting and would have to travel more than 45 minutes to the next closest centre in Canterbury. “That’s concerning because I have to eat regularly and I also get very tired. The idea of feeling that way or getting a seizure so far from home is terrifying. Then there is the worry you will get sanctioned if you don’t make it,” the 42-year-old said.
Both neighbouring seaside towns of Herne Bay and Whitstable lost their job centres in March, but they are far from the only towns to suffer the cuts. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 100 job centres – about 15% of the network – were closed for good. Thousands of experienced employment advisers also lost their jobs.
Campaigners estimated that around 1,200 job seekers were affected by the closures in Herne Bay and Whitstable, with others who have to regularly sign on for in-work benefits also impacted. There are now 9,174 claimants who use the job centre in the biggest city in the area, Canterbury, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The rationale was, of course, to save costs. The government was projected to save over £140m a year for the next 10 years from the country-wide closures. When announcing the decision, the DWP claimed fewer job centres were needed anyway because people are now more likely to submit claims online. They said the number of digital users would only increase as the controversial Universal Credit scheme continues to roll out.
However, unemployed claimants are still required to attend appointments in person at least every two weeks. Others without the internet at home still come into claim benefits in person, or use on-site computer or phone facilities to look for work.
Woodward, who used to work as an assistant manager in a retail job, suffers from complex partial seizures and also experiences stress, anxiety and fatigue as a result of her condition. Without being able to drive, she is reliant on her husband when he is not at work, or she uses public transport, but the worry that she may have a seizure is always there.
Like so many decisions driven by austerity over the past few years, the closure made sense on paper. Services were not withdrawn completely, and people could go to the job centre in Canterbury instead. But as with similar cuts across the UK, the loss of the local centre had a quiet but profound impact on the people who relied on it most.
After nearly eight years of shrinking local budgets, HuffPost UK has been examining the impact of disappearing local services – bus routes, leisure centres, clinics and job centres – that together paint a picture of what life is like for the millions of people who rely on public services in the age of austerity.
In the warm cafe of Whitstable’s Umbrella Community centre, charity worker and Stop The Cuts campaigner Kate Adams nurses a cup of tea while lamenting the loss of local services, of which the job centre is just one.
Adams – who used to be on incapacity benefit and later on employment and support allowance, or ESA – has been involved in campaigning against austerity for a number of years.
“When I heard about the closure, it just seemed like another thing we were losing,” she says. “The Citizens Advice Bureau here closed and we used to have a local council office and we lost those. It seemed one in a chain of things really. Now the library is under attack. They aren’t saying they are closing it yet but are reducing the hours. That’s always the first thing.”
“Many people who need those services are living on the bread line and can find it hard as it is to acquire the basics to survive.Father-of-three Caleb-Mark Vincent on the costs of getting to a job centre
Chris Weller, who led the battle to save both job centres, says it was an issue that really captured the imagination of the public, but it was difficult to engage the DWP. “It was very dispiriting, even though it was a very vociferous campaign. There were lots of demonstrations and a lot of public support but unfortunately it’s left both towns without a job centre.”
The problem was the DWP, he said. “I have to say the Department for Work and Pensions is the absolute worst I’ve ever dealt with.
“It was just faceless bureaucracy and they did not ever want to talk or engage with us whatsoever. They did the minimum amount of public consultation and then completely ignored that consultation and went ahead and closed them anyway.”
What makes things worse is the bus service. Public transport between the two towns and Canterbury is provided by the company Stagecoach, who run a service called The Triangle. While the double decker buses can be seen trundling through the Kent countryside every 15 minutes, the journeys can be 25-35 minutes, with a 10-15 minute walk at the other end.
The other issue is the additional cost. A round-trip from either Herne Bay or Whitstable to Canterbury is £7.80, and a day-pass is £7.
Father-of-three Caleb-Mark Vincent, 26, claimed benefits through Herne Bay’s job centre from November 2017 until its closure in March last year. For three more months he was forced to travel to Canterbury for appointments, which he said was “very difficult” with his children in tow.
While he doesn’t have to visit the job centre anymore, he has friends who do, and says it isn’t fair for people who need help to support their families to end up losing time and money just to get to appointments.
He said: “Many people who need those services are living on the bread line and can find it hard as it is to acquire the basics to survive.
“To then make people in more rural areas have to pay £7 to attend an appointment when they only get £72.40 a week is unfair, and some have daily sign-on so that doesn’t leave them with much to buy food, clothes and gas/electric. It isn’t fair.”
A spokesman for the DWP, however, said that support is always given to those in need and that funds are available for people to apply for to help pay for travel costs. However these payments are discretionary.
The spokesman said: “When we close a site, we take precautions to minimise disruption for customers. More people are accessing their benefits online, resulting in many of our buildings being underused.
“We will always make sure that people have the support they need to get into and progress within work, including scheduling appointments to suit them, supporting travel costs and arranging home visits for the most vulnerable.”
Like the rest of Kent, the area is traditionally a Conservative stronghold. However in 2017, the Canterbury constituency, which includes Whitstable, elected a Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, for the first time since the constituency was formed in 1918.
Duffield was involved in the campaign to save the job centre in Whitstable. She said: “When you take community facilities away (such as happened by the closure of the job centre in Whitstable in 2018) you are losing the heart from some of our towns.”
Simon Warley, a local councillor and chair of the Herne Bay Labour Party, agrees and says the job centre closures point to a bigger trend of moving services away to nearby cities or bigger centres.
“Lots of towns on the peripherals of cities are having their services removed whether it’s less banks, post offices, job centres. People were asking why everything has to focus on another town.
“We’re quite a large place and we should be an entity in our own right. It goes against the whole localism thing and the idea of bringing communities together.
“It would be easy to blame it on the local Conservative administration but it’s bigger than that. It’s part of the whole austerity agenda. It’s becoming more costly with the current financial settlement to run local services and we are seeing the effects of that.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re being left behind.”
In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org