John Harris

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Budget 2011: Guardian columnists’ verdict | The panel

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

From the deficit to green issues, did George Osborne’s budget deliver?

Jackie Ashley: Welfare

What a brave new world George Osborne promised for small businesses, entrepreneurs and city whizz-kids. His budget speech fizzed with new measures to reduce regulation and encourage investment – well, no one denies we need more jobs. But as he hailed “the march of the makers”, “start-up Britain” and “the home of enterprise”, I was reminded of that speech Neil Kinnock made back in 1983, warning of the dangers of a Tory government: “I warn you not to be ordinary,” he said, “I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old.”

His warnings seem appropriate today: this budget was all about help for business, but with little regard for those not lucky enough to be able to fund a start-up. What about the old? What about the disabled?

What about the unemployed young? There was no mitigation of the £18bn cuts in welfare announced in the spending review last autumn. So no help for those in residential homes who will lose their mobility allowance, no help for poorer students who have lost their education maintenance allowance to help them stay on at school and no help for the under 35s who are losing their housing benefit. Some brave new world.

Martin Kettle: What’s in it for the Lib Dems?

Tories and Lib Dems alike have been at pains to stress that George Osborne’s budget has been a genuinely collaborative effort between the two coalition parties – unlike the autumn spending review, some claim. But what have the Lib Dems got from the 2011 budget to ease some of the immense political pain that they have been shipping over the last 10 months, particularly over the deficit-cutting programme?

Lib Dems can make two main claims. The first is the £600 increase in the personal tax allowance from April 2012, which Osborne says will mean that more than a million people will have been taken out of tax by the coalition. That’s certainly a step towards achieving one of the Lib Dems’ four key demands in the 2010 election. The trouble is that it is subverted by VAT rises and other cost increases. Most households will be worse off not better from April 2011, and there was a lot less talk about fairness in Osborne’s speech than last year.

The second is the announcement on the green investment bank, where Osborne announced an extra £2bn from 2012 and which crucially will get borrowing and investment powers by 2015. That will certainly be something that the Lib Dems can parade to their activists as a genuine achievement.

These things will steady Lib Dem nerves. But there’s no disguising that, for many voters, they will only be pleas in mitigation when compared with the junior coalition party’s commitment to Osborne’s shock-and-awe fiscal tightening in the spending review. It’s not a day on which the Lib Dems can plausibly argue that the worst is over – the cuts and tax rises in last year’s measures are about to come in next month – but it is a day when they can argue that their presence in the coalition has done something for the less well-off and for environmental sustainability. And that’s a bit more than they could say six months ago.

George Monbiot: Green issues

Well what a disaster that was. Osborne has cut fuel tax for vehicles and abolished the fuel duty escalator. He’s frozen air passenger duty rates, and dropped plans for a tax on planes, which would have discouraged companies from running them half empty. (He’s hiding here behind international law, but the government has done nothing to test it). Aviation remains woefully undertaxed, even though it imposes high environmental costs.

The green investment bank won’t be allowed to borrow until 2015-2016, so attempts to avert runaway climate change by changing our energy sources will have to wait. And he sneaked in – though what this is doing in a budget statement isn’t clear – a “a new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’”. Notice the slippage within that sentence: it starts off as “sustainable development”, creating the impression that Osborne is talking only about solar panels and bird hides. Seven words later, you realise he means everything: the opposite of sustainable. So much for the better local control over planning decisions that Eric Pickles promised us.

The only positive development is a carbon floor price, which might provide an incentive to start disinvesting in fossil fuels – or would have done, had it been higher than a measly £16 per tonne. Otherwise, as far as the environment is concerned, it’s the blackest budget in living memory, from the team that claims to be the greenest government ever.

Julian Glover: Did the government waiver on the deficit?

All chancellors claim they are planning for the long term. All go wobbly as the political and economic context changes. But it didn’t happen today. Like it or loathe it, George Osborne’s plan A is still in place: a five-year, one-parliament gamble to cut the deficit without (he claims) killing growth. Everything else the chancellor announced was minor fiddling: dull, dull, dull – and that was the point.

“Growth down this year and next year,” chanted Ed Miliband in response – and he might have added cash borrowing up, inflation high and the public anxious. If you want the government to change course then there was enough in the revised forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility to make you angry. Borrowing in the next financial year is forecast to be £5bn higher than previously expected. The chancellor had to take refuge in the structural deficit, and hoped-for higher long-term economic growth, to show his debt targets are on course.

But the cracks aren’t showing. Britain, said Osborne, “has a higher deficit than Portugal or Spain but virtually the same interest rates as Germany”. He – and the OBR – still think the deficit will fall and growth will come back. He held his nerve and the government will live or die by the consequences.

John Harris: Youth unemployment

Welcome, then, to “the march of the makers”; “fuel in the tank of the British economy”; Britain revived and rebalanced, via “a budget for making things”. Meanwhile, the immediate growth forecast is revised down, unemployment reaches a 17-year high, and 20% of our under-25s are in search of a job.

Nice, perhaps, to hear of thousands of proposed apprenticeships, but remember the abolition of the £1bn Future Jobs Fund. Some will cheer the expansion of the government’s decidedly flimsy work-experience programme; others are still reeling from the killing of the immeasurably more solid education maintenance allowance. And if you’re old enough to recall the grimmer aspects of the 1980s, you may well have heard the announcement of those Heseltine-esque enterprise zones and pictured well-meant but wafer-thin businesses, trying in vain to root themselves in local economies that remained all but dead (in George Osborne’s often unconvincing plans for acquainting young people with work, shades too of the the Thatcher government’s hated Youth Training Scheme).

Therein lies the poverty of Conservative supply-side myopia, further illustrated by an across-the-board attack on regulation that plenty of research suggests will not boost economic prospects – but rather, deepen our reliance on low-end, prospect-free work, and do little to address either the economy’s fundamental weaknesses, or the so-called lost generation’s fate. And remember: the worst of the cuts are still to come, threatening to suck precious demand from some of our most blighted places, and only further the rot.

Madeleine Bunting: A family-friendly budget?

George Osborne kept mentioning how he wanted to help hard-pressed families, but help clearly didn’t apply to that complex juggling of responsibilities of care and work. Given how much David Cameron made of this issue in his runup to power – remember his speech in 2006 when he enthusiastically talked about the benefits of flexible working for employee, employer and the economy: “I want a Conservative government to work towards an ambitious goal – to make the British public sector the world leader in progressive employment practice.”

Sadly, this excellent ambition is in danger of being kicked into some very long grass. It always came into conflict with small-business wing of the Tory party and they were the ones Osborne was playing to. Business friendly not family friendly was the order of the day and various stories about scrapping of onerous regulations have been well trailed to ensure the point got across. In the end, businesses complaining about the family-friendly agenda were thrown a few paltry sops. Businesses employing fewer than 10 people will have a moratorium from all new regulation. But that will be too late for the new regulations coming in around additional paternity leave, which start in less than a month on 3 April.

What Osborne has done is pick on a tiny group of parents who were expecting another new regulation to come into force next month that would enable them to request flexible working if they have a child of 17 for one year until the 18th birthday. This was repealed two days ago ahead of the budget, but it is tokenism politics; the regulation agreed by the last government a year ago was hardly going to lead to a large number of requests. It would probably have only been used by parents at their wits end in a crisis with a teenager going off the rails. It’s one of those tiny measures that can make a huge difference to a few people’s lives; helping parents to support a child at a key juncture ahead of exams or just entering the jobs market.

What is still missing is the commitment in the coalition agreement to extending the right to request flexible working to all employees not just parents. This was a good idea, which was much touted by Cameron in the days when he was trying to prove his family-friendly credentials. There is no timetable for this proposal.

So what does the moratorium really stack up to? It’s not as if there is a list of regulations in the pipeline that small businesses are now going to dodge. Interestingly, there is one new regulation proposed that is designed to help businesses (extending the period of employment before you can claim unfair dismissal). But perhaps small businesses won’t get the the benefit of that because they are on a regulation holiday.

Polly Toynbee: Tax

Fiscally neutral, the chancellor said, so with £81bn taken out of demand all the rest was scarcely more than deckchair shuffling. Not so much a budget for growth, but the budget that never was.

Missing altogether was any recognition that next week hundreds of thousands of people start losing their jobs. This was no budget for families, as most start seeing the effects of £18bn vanishing from child tax credits, child benefit, disability and scores more cuts. Working mothers finding 10% gone from childcare credits will discover nursery and child-minder bills suddenly unaffordable, tipping many out of work, as Sure Start centres close.

Before the election David Cameron said: “We can make British poverty history” and “It falls to us, the modern Conservative party, to fight for the poorest.” But no word was said in this budget about the Conservatives’ child poverty pledge. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts government fiscal plans will push another 200,000 children below the poverty line. Lib Dems may boast of lifting more of the low-paid out of income tax: sounds good but what does that mean? Only an extra 90p a week. This will be squandered on higher-rate taxpayers, too, instead of giving working mothers the childcare to keep them in their jobs. All in this together? Osborne pledged the 50p top rate will be temporary.

Deborah Orr: Housing

The new first-time buyer scheme, offering 20% deposits, interest free for five years, to people with incomes under £60,000, is grabbing early headlines. No wonder. It is quite astonishingly dense. The only thing that can be said in its favour is that it claims to “help” only 10,000 people. It would be 10 times worse if it aimed to “help” 100,000.

Britain’s housing market has been grossly inflated for years. Now, as inflation on pretty much everything else is rising, house prices have to drop. Only the lack of supply is slowing this. A swift collapse in house prices would cause much pain. No one is claiming that this problem is not intractable.

But who does this £250m initiative help? If you’re a construction company pushing new-build at first-time buyers on low incomes, it will help you shift a few units, without having to lower your price quite as much as you might. The profit goes to the builder, the debt goes to the householder, and the risk is transferred to the taxpayer. It would be better, but still a drop in the ocean, to spend the £250m on building social housing for rent. But that wouldn’t involve lending poor people money to buy homes they can’t really afford. Sub-prime, I think they call it. And it was stupid enough when prices were on the up.

Simon Jenkins: Charities

The chancellor has adhered to one budget maxim: giving the arts what they want yields the biggest political bang for the smallest buck. He had been lobbied intensely to make some amends for cuts in the direct arts budget. The cry was to get the rich to replace what the taxpayer had withdrawn. George Osborne has clearly listened.

Freeing smaller charities of the absurd red tape surrounding “gift aid” is long overdue and one wonders why Labour never thought of such simple aids. It also makes sense to enable charities to benefit their donors and “members” by more than £500 a year, now raised to £2,500. Gifts of works of art in place of tax is a long-standing plea and one on which Osborne has promised to “consult”. In America it has given rise to spectacular abuse, like the lady who painted a picture a year, got it overvalued by a friendly dealer, gave it to her town museum and cut her tax bill accordingly.

Biggest of the innovations is that donors can now leave up to 10% of their estates to charities free of inheritance tax, attracting a pound-for-pound allowance. Charities will be able to enhance their gifts directly. It is a substantial step towards enabling them more easily to accumulate endowment funds. The additional endowment “match fund” of £80m announced by the arts minister, Jeremy Hunt, is not much, but overall Britain is at last on the way to having probably the most generous tax regime for arts giving anywhere.

Jackie Ashley
Martin Kettle
George Monbiot
Julian Glover
John Harris
Madeleine Bunting
Polly Toynbee
Deborah Orr
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How the home of Mini Rolls and Smash was gobbled up | John Harris

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Food factory workers facing the the sack will march on Saturday for an economy that values more than just money

Among the thousands of people who join the big anti-cuts march this Saturday will be a coach load from Wirral. Though where they live has been suffering from the public-sector axe since 2009, their cause is less about austerity than a story that extends from the looming closure of a 60-year old biscuit factory into the byzantine workings of the modern business. Given that the demonstration – organised by the TUC – is titled the “March for the alternative”, they surely have something crucial to contribute: an argument not just against cuts, but the kind of flimsy, imbalanced economy that makes millions of people even more vulnerable to them.

The Burton’s Foods factory has been in the pinched suburb of Moreton since 1953. For the first 30 years of its life, with a workforce peaking at nearly 5,000, the factory was part of the confectionery empire run by Cadbury’s, with an enlightened labour relations model and an array of fondly loved brands that tumbled from its production lines: Mini Rolls, Chocolate Fingers, Smash instant mash.

But in 1986, there was a management buyout, and its troubled second act began. Since then, the company that renamed itself Burton’s Foods has switched owners at least five times, and a recent private equity buyout saddled the firm with very serious debts. Now the biggest shareholders are the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and a multinational finance outfit called Apollo Global Management. Burton’s biscuit production turns a profit, and life for its board seems very nice indeed. Last year, directors’ pay rose by an average of 97.5%, and the most handsome package went up by 119.9%.

There are no such glad tidings in Moreton. After serially cutting production here, the company now plans to close the factory with the loss of 342 jobs. Worse still, Wirral borough council is set on shedding more than a thousand people – a sixth of its payroll – by the summer, and for every local job vacancy there are currently 17 applicants. When George Osborne delivers Wednesday’s budget, he will doubtless point to supposed sunlit uplands of recovery, and perhaps underline his belief that, as he hacks back the public sector, private firms will fill the gap. Not here.

I came to Wirral after we appealed on Comment is free for word from the frontline of British trade unionism. On the thread that followed, hostile voices (”unions need to be crushed”) took issue with more supportive contributors (”people have a fundamental right to collectively improve their lot”), and a few people mentioned the dreamy idea of European-style social partnership, whereby British labour relations might lose their traditionally adversarial charge.

In Moreton, on the union’s side at least, that has happened. For four of the last 10 years the workforce has agreed to a pay freeze. Since 2001 they have delivered £12.7m of cost savings, while the success of the lines they produce has often skyrocketed. In 2007, when closure was first suggested and the Unite union led a successful campaign – without a strike – to save the factory, at the cost of 500 jobs, the firm promised to turn one production line into “a centre of excellence”, and not to attempt any more big changes before May 2012. To quote the local MP, the shadow Treasury minister Angela Eagle: “None of the workforce could have done any better – and what is their reward? The sack.”

Listening to people who fear being left at the mercy of a non-existent job market, I was struck by one thought: as far as mainstream politics is concerned, talking about the root of this place’s predicament is clearly off limits. Yet ideas are out there: Unite talks about working at an EU level to give deals struck with employees legal force, so the shadowy financial interests that control increasing parts of the economy cannot always devastate communities on a whim. More generally, there is the kind of enlightened business approach urged last weekend by Andrew Witty, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, who bemoaned not only corporate tax avoidance, but the entire economic culture in which bottom lines are relentlessly pushed downwards, and the social costs are always someone else’s concern.

Witty summed up the great misstep of business over the last 20 years: “They’ve allowed it to be perceived that it’s all about money. It shouldn’t be about that … We want to make a return, yes – we’re not a charity. We want to make a good return for our shareholders. But we’re going to do it by being in step with society.”

Somewhere in those words, even if he himself may not know it, there is not just a pithy diagnosis of what has gone wrong, but a tantalising hint of how things could be different. Not the standard free-market cartoon of a world returned to the 1970s, but corporate social responsibility pushed beyond the odd bit of charity, and politicians on the left realising that if they think seriously – and internationally – about all this, some business people might not be quite as hostile as they think.

To echo the title of the big march, there is an alternative. But on a grey day in Moreton, it seems light years away: distant, theoretical, and no compensation for the blows to come.

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How do you save a biscuit factory when it’s not even clear who owns it? – video

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Anywhere but Westminster: In Moreton, Wirral, a union is struggling to keep up with mind-boggling globalised capitalism – and save 342 jobs at the Burton’s Foods factory still known as ‘Cadbury’

John Domokos
John Harris

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Labour-til-I-die is dead in the water | John Harris

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

The party must reach out and participate in a wider centre-left politics if it is to have any kind of meaningful future

Things may be grim and getting grimmer, but let’s cheer up a little. Never mind that Labour just scored the second-lowest share of the vote in its history. Forget the fact that the Tories’ free-market project is backed by a titanic array of forces, and that coalition with the Lib Dems strengthens their hand even further. No: as Britain is reshaped according to the same social model as, say, California, hold on. In four years’ time Labour will be back in power – possibly aware of the weakness of its position, and likely to accept a lot of what it inherits. But keep calm and carry on; cling to that famous Herbert Morrison quotation. Socialism is what a Labour government does, remember?

That would be an outrageous caricature of Labour groupthink, were it not dangerously close to the truth. In fairness to Ed Miliband, he has at least tried to alert his colleagues to their predicament, and the need for new thinking – although his thoughts still seem to be issued piecemeal, without much of a compelling account of either Labour’s past, or its future. But on the whole, the party seems stubborn and self-righteous to the point of pomposity.

One recent Labour saga says a lot. Towards the end of last year, the Labour-aligned pressure group Compass announced that it was minded to change its membership rules so as to put members of other political parties on the same footing as Labour people. Work with the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and some Lib Dems had been productive, and exciting. The suggested change also recognised changing times: if the coalition seemed set on a realignment of the centre-right, wasn’t it time to start thinking about the broadening of the centre-left? The move was put to the vote and passed; this week, an array of senior Greens, Lucas included, will join up.

But as they have entered the room, others have stomped out. Most of the organising committee of Compass’s youth wing have resigned, stating their case in a rather deadened vocabulary that will be familiar to people who spend their spare time fussing over resolutions. It was, they said, “necessary to organise in support of the politics initially espoused by Compass as members of the party, within the party, rather than through a broader structure”. In this paper’s Letters page, a brassed-off former member of Compass’s executive committee writes that opening out is “bizarre” and, for some reason, at odds with the imperative to work for the return of a Labour government.

Meanwhile, Labour’s anti-AV tendency is in full cry, warning anyone who’ll listen about a system that’s supposedly “complicated” and, “expensive” and “a politician’s fix”. In fact, what many of them cannot abide is the prospect of a politics in which Labour will have to reach out a bit, and election campaigning will no longer consist of stupidly declaring war on everyone – Tories, Lib Dems, nationalists, Greens – with equal ferocity. These are people who remember Ken Livingstone’s enlightened approach to other parties as London mayor, or the early Blair era’s rapprochement with Paddy Ashdown’s Lib Dems, and shudder. Indeed, their antipathy to any kind of pluralism is so deep that they have managed to create their own deranged version – making common cause with David Cameron, Michael Howard’s old batman Lynton Crosby, and the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

In that lost world where Labour could scrape 50% of the poll and embed its ideas in society via a vast trade union membership, Labour-til-I-die politics just about worked. Now, in a world of plural identities, waning party loyalty and a resurgent right, it has to go. Put another way, if meaningful centre-left politics will inevitably annoy Rupert Murdoch, the CBI, and the forces of international capital, keeping them at bay will need a little more than a small hardcore of activists, a few hundred MPs and what remains of the Labour movement. Didn’t work last time, did it?

• This article was amended on 18 March 2011. The original version was edited in such a way as to imply that “keep calm and carry on” was a quotation of Herbert Morrison’s. In fact the Morrison quotation the author was referring to was “socialism is what a Labour government does”. That section has now been amended to make this clear

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Quiet epitaph to industry: a typical East German town

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

A huge drop in births after reunification and lack of job prospects has led to empty estates and silent streets

It’s the silence that hits you first. On one side of the centre of Hoyerswerda is a stereotypically east German high-rise estate, whose car park is no more than a quarter full. Concrete brutalism apart, the atmosphere is weirdly akin to that perfect stillness you get in the countryside.

Eventually, the silence is punctured by the sound of a domestic argument in a nearby apartment. They are actually rowing up on the 10th or 11th floor, but in a town this quiet even the faintest noise carries.

Hoyerswerda is about 90 miles south of Berlin and 40 miles from the Polish border. Around one in five of the local population are Sorbs, who speak a language related to Polish and Czech which is used on bilingual road signs.

This was once the communist equivalent of a boomtown, with the highest birth rate in the German Democratic Republic and more than 70,000 inhabitants. But in the great bonfire of east German industry that followed reunification the local economy – centred on the mining and processing of lignite, the soft brown fuel halfway between coal and peat – was devastated. On the face of it, this is a case study in de-industrialisation familiar to anyone from the more blighted parts of Britain – but here, there are very German peculiarities that take things into the realm of the surreal.

Hoyerswerda’s peak population has dropped by around 40%, emptying out vast residential leviathans that are still being demolished. In the short-term, the results of the town’s decline were in keeping with that time-honoured symbiosis between shrinking prospects and the politics of hate: Hoyerswerda remains a byword for a deeply ugly episode in 1991 when local neo-nazis besieged a hostel for refugees, cheered on by hundreds of locals.

Meanwhile, one of the most sobering aspects of Germany’s recent history was drastically altering life here. In the east, as the uncertainty that followed reunification spread at speed, a huge drop in births created what’s known as “the kink”, whereby the number of children fell to an extent only usually seen during wartime. Walking around former East German towns, you instantly see the result: a striking lack of teens and twentysomethings, compounded by the fact that as they have come of age, thousands of the comparatively few newborns have either got out, or are preparing to do so.

Those that remain are faced with one cast-iron legacy of the east-west split. Of late, Germany has been praised for comparatively low youth unemployment, put at only 6.5%. But in the east, in keeping with the unemployment figure for the workforce as a whole – 10.8%, twice the rate in the west – it’s reckoned to be at least double that number.

This, then, is hardly the greatest place to be young. Ask anyone under 30 to describe life in Hoyerswerda, and out it all comes: it’s a “pensioner town” where young people are too often sidelined. “If there are youth clubs, teenagers hang around there, but at the weekend they just walk around town mucking about and getting pissed,” says Falko Ebeling, 25. “There’s just less and less stuff being provided for kids.”

Ebeling is an embodiment of Hoyerswerda’s predicament: he’s been through two traineeships in the retail trade, but remains unemployed, with vague plans to go to either Dresden or Leipzig, east German cities held up as examples of post-reunification success.

His fate also shines light on the alleged failings of the German education system. The GDR had its own kind of comprehensive schools but, post-1990, the logic of the selective West German model was extended to the east. In most west German lander there remain three tiers: the gymnasien aimed at those deemed to have academic talent; supposedly vocational hauptschulen; and realschulen, which fall somewhere in the middle. On the whole, East Germany opted for a two-tier system, built around gymnasien-plus schools that combined the lower two levels. But the west’s model was carried over into the central fact of all German secondary education: that too many people’s life chances are crudely decided at one moment – somewhere between the ages of nine and 10 in the west, and a couple of years later in most of the east.

To its critics, this is not just unfair but anachronistic. Where, for example, do you put the child with a gift for IT? Moreover, the paths of children follow those of their parents closely enough for reformers to malign it as a de facto caste system. Certainly, among millions of middle-class Germans, the sanctity of gymnasien is non-negotiable, and the idea of changing the system unthinkable (when a Christian-Democrat/Green coalition in Hamburg recently floated the modest idea of delaying selection until the age of 12, it was faced with an unbeatable rebellion known as the “Gucci protest”, and defeated in a referendum). Most pertinently in the case of Hoyerswerda, there is the fact that thousands of pupils who don’t make it to a gymnasium are readied for the so-called “dual system”: an enduring example of German corporatism whereby school leads to a wage-paying apprenticeship. This staple of German industry is praised for its role in the lid the country has kept on youth unemployment. But in the de-industrialised east, it presents a big problem: what if a whole swath of the school system is built around a vision of work that simply doesn’t exist?

In Hoyerswerda, worthwhile apprenticeships are pathetically thin on the ground. Schemes in what passes for the local service sector offer only flimsy prospects and are often hard to find. Non-gymnasium students often complain of a dead-end education, the most likely outcome of which is a life spent in low-wage employment or on benefits.

So, in a town like this, if you don’t make it into a Gymnasium, the rest of your life may well have been decided: you’ll be in danger of getting stuck, both professionally and geographically. To quote 29-year-old Cordula Drautz, a prominent young activist from the Social Democrats, this is why the school system “triples the disadvantages of young people in the east”.

On a half-empty industrial estate on the edge of Hoyerswerda is the local Euro-schule. It’s one of a chain of German institutions that has a two-sided mission: to familiarise high-achieving young Germans with the rest of Europe, and to assist the prospects of people much further down the educational hierarchy. Here, it’s all about the latter: encouraging young people with no qualifications, or learning difficulties, to recover lost time and get some vocational training – and, ideally, a job.

By and large, the twentysomethings here are sparky and articulate. All of them smoke: the de rigeur brand is a faux-American variety called Route 66. Set against the dead streets just down the road, they seem like virtual prisoners, itching to leave but still stranded.

“There are no opportunities here,” says Sophia Mark, 21, after a flurry of conversation about the local presence of “Nazis” and “delinquents”.

“Well, there are opportunities,” offers Stefanie Nauge, a 26-year-old mother of one, now being trained at a local shoe shop. “But early in your life, you need to focus and get into a gymnasium.”

“If I’d known how important that actually was – well, definitely, I would have worked harder,” says 25-year-old Daniel Heidemeier, who has found a traineeship in the building trade. What he says sounds reasonable enough, until you remember that he is probably casting his mind back to life as an 11-year-old.

And what of living here? Out of his secondary school class of around 25, only three people are still in Hoyerswerda. “I grew up here, this is my town, and always will be,” he says. “I’d love to stay if there were any opportunities, like back in the day. But maybe I’ve now got the opportunity to leave. So I’ll put money aside. And soon, I’ll be out of here.”

On the other side of town is an after-school youth club called Ossi – a reference to both a Soviet author named Nikolai Ostrowski, and the national colloquialism for easterners. Through the week, up to 40 teenagers come and go; it’s some token of how rigidly the German school system carves up the population that according to the people in charge, only one of them goes to a gymnasium. Breakdance classes are a weekly fixture and, inside and out, there are huge, graffitied murals that capture a seemingly unanimous dedication to the culture of urban black America. When I ask why, the answer sounds like it came from some spoof youth TV documentary. “It reflects reality,” says Riccardo Danz, 16. “It gives us something to relate to.”

Both his parents, he says, are on benefits – they want him out of Hoyerswerda, and fast. “My mum is already getting me worked up about leaving this place. She says: ‘There’s nothing here for you.’ Even if there is work, it’s just odd jobs for a couple of euros. And look at the place: all those empty blocks of flats. Even now, they’re still knocking them down.”

The youth club is run by a young social worker called Sandra Neuber, one of a small but driven band of people who have refused to join the exodus, and are trying their utmost to stop hopes being broken beyond repair. But inevitably, she’s up against it. Even the tenor of the local nightlife seems almost comically grim: though it’s sponsored by the local McDonalds, a forthcoming club night is titled – in English – “Fuck the Beat and Die Dancing”, and advertised with a flyer featuring a monochrome figure wearing a gas mask.

I leave at dusk. On the edge of the Hoyerswerda’s main park, six or seven adolescents – all hooded tops, beer bottles and cigarette smoke – seem to be readying themselves for a night of getting pissed and mucking about. The odd pensioner is walking home, along roads hardly troubled by end-of-day traffic. As ever, the quiet is overwhelming.

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