We went to Harrogate yesterday afternoon. The sun was shining, it's a nice drive and we like the town. We'd nothing planned beyond a mooch followed by some food and drink. So this is what we did - window shopping (plus some actual impulse purchasing of a funky lamp that clamps onto a shelf) and then an Italian.
Harrogate has been undergoing what I'm sure the Council calls regeneration. At the top of the town centre by the railway there's a new Everyman cinema (interestingly about 100 yards from the existing Odeon) and, as happens these days, a collection of mid-market chain restaurants - CAU (who sell lumps of meat Argentinian-style), Byron Burger, Pizza Express, an Italian I forget the name of and a similarly unmemorable chain bistro. The cinema was having it's invitation only pre-opening shindig - the full opening is on Friday.
We'd originally planned to go to the Yorkshire Meatball Company for its advertised craft ales and artisan meatballs - what's not to like! But on arrival at said restaurant there's a big sign in the window (well actually quite a small sign) saying it's closed for September because the arrival of all these new chain restaurants has led to a staff shortage. Here's a little more from the Yorkshire Meatball Company's website:
Unfortunately, coinciding with the development of our retail products, the huge influx of chain restaurants into Harrogate – most notably those within the new Everyman Cinema development – has not gone un-noticed, as brands more commonly found in larger cities and retail parks now focus on regional expansion. Whilst we always welcome healthy competition, the recent openings have brought with them an unprecedented demand for hospitality staff, particularly kitchen staff, at a time when there is already a known national shortage of skilled chefs. This presents an incredibly challenging recruitment environment for small independents like us. Unfortunately, as a result we’ve had to say a sad goodbye to some; losing a number of our key staff in a relatively short period.
This piqued our interest and, as we continued our wandering around town we began to notice, in window after window, signs saying that there were jobs available. It was pretty clear that, right now, Harrogate is suffering a shortage of retail, waiting and cooking staff. And it struck me that, for all of Harrogate's attractions, it's an expensive place to live if all you've got is the sort of wage you'll get for most of these jobs. In other places ready access by public transport makes it relatively easy to travel a little distance but Harrogate lacks the public transport links that would make it possible to commute. Plus the bus company isn't going to put on a bus just so some workers can travel from Keighley or Harrogate for a job in a restaurant.
Now I'm sure that the situation in Harrogate will settle down, that I'll get my meatballs and craft beer, and most (if not all) of the chain restaurants will thrive on the back of that vibrant cinema crowd. But this situation rather reminds me of Cullingworth's chicken slaughterhouse (the food has to come from somewhere) and its workers.
When we first moved to Cullingworth in 1989, the chicken factory no longer employed many people from the village or indeed from surrounding communities. This was simply because most folk had better paying and less gory employment so didn't need work killing spent hens. So the company imported workers in a minibus - it used to stop just down from our house. These workers came from Doncaster recruited courtesy of an agency there who were willing to sign up the workers and arrange their transport to and from Cullingworth.
Some while later, when I next encountered the workforce of the factory it came as a result of a visit to a house on Lees Moor, about a mile from the village, who had a problem with an overloading and polluting septic tank. This tank served two houses, that of the couple who'd contacted me and another which was rented out. It was the tenants who had (inadvertently I hasten to add) caused the problem with the septic tank. These tenants were eight or ten Romanian women who were employed to kill those spent hens at the chicken slaughterhouse.
And what is the first thing ten women who've been killing chickens for eight hours do when they get home? Have a shower - a long and thorough shower. The septic tank was designed for the regular sort of use from one farm family and simply couldn't take the strain. I can't remember the solution we came up with to resolve the problem but all this tells us that the factory was no longer ferrying workers to and from Doncaster but was, instead, putting up workers from Eastern Europe in rented property nearby. Today, things have moved on with the (still mostly East European) workforce now coming in to work by car and bus from Bradford or Keighley.
It may indeed be the case that Harrogate's hospitality and retail staff shortage will disappear - or at least get under control allowing everywhere to open - but the story of the Yorkshire Meatball Company and the job vacancy signs in shop windows suggests that, as the UK's job market continues to tighten, it will become more and more of a problem. In one respect this will be good news for staff as it will tend to push up wages but there's obviously a limit to that as those costs end up on the price of food thereby risking fewer customers.
Even in Bradford, which may be a fabulous place but isn't a tourism mecca, local business people tell me there's a problem with recruiting good hospitality staff. This isn't because folk are sitting around doing nothing but rather because the sort of people who might in times past have chosen a hospitality job are now getting jobs with 9-5 hours in sales, marketing and financial services. And, just as is the case with killing chickens (and for that matter building houses, cleaning toilets and picking fruit), without immigrant labour these businesses struggle to fill the jobs they produce.
It is for this reason that the sort of UKIP (and sadly Tory right) policy of 'points-based immigration' is a daft idea. Here's Raedwald:
Agriculture and horticulture is utterly dependent on EU migrant labour to get strawberries into our dessert bowls and vegetables to the freezer plant. There have been harvest labour schemes long pre-dating freedom of movement from the new accession states.
None of these would get in under a points system. Nor would young European Erasmus students spending a year in 'intern' type jobs in our hotels and restaurants. Nor would the French Mauritian delivery driver who delivers French goods in London from 'French Click' with care, passion and pleasure.
To agriculture and horticulture we can add hospitality, retail, construction and facilities management - without immigration these things just don't happen. With a points-based system based on "high level skills" these unskilled workers who are essential to our economy simply aren't available. This has nothing to do with whether we're in the EU or even with what that malign body calls free movement. Rather it's about our economy and tells us that if someone arrives in Harrogate or Cullingworth with a job to go to, it doesn't matter whether they're from Keighley or Karachi, Basingstoke or Bucharest they should be allowed to go and do that job.