‘Crisis in Employment’ by Revd Prof. Dr Michael Fass


Michael Fass is a Senior Research Fellow at the Westcott Foundation, Cambridge, & former Chair of ICF (Industrial Christian Fellowship)


As the news came through about the latest job losses at Newport in South Wales and Redcar in the North East of England memories came back to me of the hard years of the two great recessions in 1981-1984 and 1989-1994. The first recession was a so-called “blue collar” one with shipyards, coal mines and steel works closed down in all the formerly great and historic industrial areas of Central Scotland, the North East and South Wales. The second was quite different and was a “white collar” recession with many office workers, middle managers and professionals, for example, architects, put out of work throughout the UK. The first attracted national attention not least during and after the Miners Strike of 1984-1985. However, the second was less visible with a slower “after burn” of destructive force as the national economy recovered and boomed in the years following “big bang”.

In the first recession there were double blows to working age individuals. The 1981 Budget doubled VAT from 8% to 15% which brought the national economy to a shuddering halt and put many self-employed people – of whom I was one – out of work with no prospect of re-employment throughout the recession. Increases in direct and indirect taxes did for the rest of the economy.

The second recession which led to the closure of many corporate headquarters finished off white-collar professionals many of whom were never to work again although only in their 40s and 50s.

In the first recession I was more fortunate than many others because through my part-time work with the world’s first Small Firms Service inspired by the Bolton Committee’s 1971 report and started up by Harold Wilson in the mid-1970s, I was taken on to manage the Government’s response to unemployment in West Lothian, the UK’s fourth highest area of unemployment (TWA). Coal mining had been its traditional industry and on nationalisation vesting day in 1951 there were 31 collieries employing 12,000 miners. By the mid -1960s many of these had closed and in 1983 when I began work only two were still operational of which one – whose main shaft was named the Gallipoli shaft – had been sunk in 1915!

In 1964, as part of a national industrial dispersal policy, British Leyland were instructed to build a truck and engine building facility in the area and by 1983 this plant employed 9,500 – mainly men – that included over 600 engineering apprentices with a further 3,500 ancillary jobs in the surrounding community. I remember the local MP, Tam Dalyell, telling me that inside the plant was the largest concentration of machine tools in western Europe – 1400. The only problem was that Leyland had dumped their oldest equipment into the factory and most of the machines had manufacturers identification plates dating from 1953!

Between 1984-1986 all of these local jobs were lost, the level of adult unemployment rose to c.29% and unemployment amongst young people aged 19 was at c. 90%. Less than 5% of economically active people worked in smaller firms and one third of the adult population of c. 45,0000 out of a total population of 148,000 were without work or prospects. I remember going out of my office in my first week at work to buy a sandwich and being puzzled to see the number of young families pushing prams in the street during working hours. In retrospect I think that it was at that moment when I realised that the job on which I was about to embark was going to be more about prophecy than about national policy; more about action that economic theory and more about pastoral care than about personal boundaries although at the time I hardly knew the meaning of the word pastoral!

The role of prophetic leadership

The initial reactions of the community to the multiple closures that followed their announcement were those of shock and anger. This was closely followed by despair. It took a long time – around three years – for this to become the determination to create a new way for the community. I remember being asked by a redundant Leyland truck worker if I thought that he would ever work again. I responded that I believed he would not but that if what we were planning to do doing was successful, then his children and grandchildren would have good jobs. The community enjoyed a close knit culture – like many industrial areas –  and began to mobilise in a variety of ways. Much of this was related to temporary work schemes (the UK Govnt’s Community Programme was in full swing) but the resources available were quite inadequate to cope with the social and economic consequences of the situation and the large numbers of individuals needing support.

The most remarkable feature of the area that emerged was the quality of its leadership. At that time there were four layers of public authority in Scotland. These were: The national government at Westminster, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Office in Edinburgh and the regional and local authorities in the community. It might be imagined that this would a recipe for inaction at worst and duplication of effort at best but because of the quality of the individuals involved at all of these levels – and in particular, those responsible for the planning function – the actions that were first planned and then implemented, were unprecedented in the modern economic history of Scotland when applied to a local community.

For example, the two Westminster MPs, Tam Dalyell and the late Robin Cook, lent their support and lobbied ceaselessly for what needed to be done. One measure that was proposed but was considered totally unreasonable by those in control, would be the re-opening of the passenger rail line into the city of Edinburgh that would provide access to jobs in the short term whilst local jobs would take longer to be created.  This was achieved when the Convenor (Mayor) of the local authority hired a helicopter and flew the Secretary of State for Scotland along its proposed route. The route was the only new railway line built in the UK throughout the 17 years of Margaret Thatcher’s government!

Tam Dalyell, already with a fierce-some reputation at weekly PMQs, would visit my office most weeks to enquire how things were going and did I have a question for next Tuesday afternoon at 2.15pm – Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland-  conveniently placed immediately before questions to the Prime Minister at 2.45pm! The railway initiative was also an example of co-operation with no regard for Party lines: London and Edinburgh were ruled by the Conservatives but the regional and local authorities by Labour.

At every level of public service, plans were made for both short and long term developments that included better road networks and motorway access points, an increase in industrial building of small and medium sized factories and offices; access to venture capital funds that could be drawn upon by local businesses and an increase in education and training provisions in local high schools and colleges.  All of these proposed activities were founded on a new vision for the community that was developed and promoted that would replace its former reliance on one way of work and life to provide a more diverse future. Whilst the initial focus of leadership was on key infrastructural improvements, the long term task was about  changing hearts and minds.

The focus for practical action

Whilst planning work progressed there was much to organise. I remember the Convenor (Chair) of the Planning Committee asking me how many months it would be before I would be in a position to open our offices to the public and offer advice to businesses. I replied that we were open for business on the day of my arrival and could the local authority help to promote the services we could provide? From a standing start of a total of three staff and a budget of £180,000, the agency grew in the next three years to a total of 19 staff and a budget of over £5 million a year. The programmes that were initiated included a woman-only enterprise programme, the first in Scotland, and work with young people starting up in business in addition to management services for existing companies but the main priority was to stabilise the local businesses that remained and to encourage new ones to start up.

The public authorities primary and secondary schools were of a high standard but entry to higher education was low as formerly there had been an expectation that the majority of young people would become apprentices in local factories or go to work in the public utilities.  These routes into work were now blocked. As a way to help young people adjust, we initiated a Soc.&Voc. programme for both students and teachers that was designed to introduce them to the economy in which they would be working in the future. After initial resistance, over 100 high school teachers participated in the scheme.  Similar changes were introduced into the curriculum of the local FE college so that young people would be able to participate in new employment opportunities when these should arise.

The voluntary sector in the area was already well developed but, for example, CAB became a key resource for the community. The local authority embarked on a major house improvement programme in its smaller settlements and community-based social agencies were very active in providing a wide variety of social and economic services.  These would now be called ‘social enterprises’.

The need for pastoral attention

Such was the high level of suspicion about the situation and the charge that I was a government lackey, it took me almost two years before I was invited to meet the Joint Shop Stewards Committee (JSSC) representing 19 separate union organisations inside the Leyland plant to discuss ideas about the alternative ownership of manufacturing operations. In addition to the 98 series engine being fitted into Leyland’s own truck range, it was also used in a number of other applications including JCB back-loaders. The hope of the shop stewards was that the plant could continue to produce the engine -although at a lower volume of production – by selling to other users. This led to one of the most sensitive car journeys in my life as the Convenor (Chair) of the JSSC and I travelled by car down to England and after an overnight stay in a nearby hotel, met with JCB’s leadership the following morning to discuss our proposal.   Although not successful, the experience changed the way I thought and felt about opposition to the changes that were happening to individuals and groups who found themselves in situations for which they were completely unprepared and illequipped to manage for themselves and for their families.

Such interventions occurred on a daily basis either in our own offices and workshops, at meetings with individuals and groups throughout the community and alongside those who were responsible for providing the resources required which involved public and private institutions in the UK and EU. In each of these settings there were opportunities for engagement both with those to whom I wished to explain and promote plans and activities and with those who were anxious about their future.


Thinking about areas that are currently being challenged by profound changes in industrial and employment infrastructure – let alone the additional pressures of global trade and competition – I wonder what the lessons for ministry might be for today.

First, my experience tells me that the most important feature for taking action is the quality of the leadership that is available locally and regionally. This demands an equally high standard of response from church leaders so that by their example, knowledge and commitment they can participate in all that needs to be done. I was at a meeting of clergy recently which was discussing the role of mission in the Parish. Each individual was asked to draw a map of their community networks. Most could not get much further than conducting the Remembrance Day service for the British Legion each year! Ministers need to have extensive networks of relationships already in place that canl anticipate trouble that might lie ahead.

Second, there are many practical actions in which the local church can become involved. The  local church is often located at the centre of the community both socially and psychically and can be used as a focal point for those who would not otherwise meet or communicate with each other. Ministers need to draw up mind-maps of who and where the key sources of intelligence, power. leadership and resources can be found and identify the ways of influencing their plans and actions.

Third, the local church should also plan to provide resources in its own right and as a partner in the provision of services. In the second of the recessions the church in which I worshipped started up a ‘Crisis in Employment’ group for which I was responsible that provided CV writing, interview practice and personal support.

Prophetic leadership, practical action and pastoral attention are all issues about which the church knows a great deal from its accumulated wisdom over many generations and ministers  who are serious about the industrial and employment situations in which they and their communities face have a vital role to play in their resolution.

After many years of struggle and hard work, the area in which I worked between 1983-1992 now has over 45% of its economically active people working in smaller firms, an unemployment rate of less than 6%, a prize-winning local authority and a community that considers itself to be socially and economically successful. I make no claims for my part in these changes except for the privilege of having been a participant in them.

(This article first appeared in Urban Bulletin Issue No. 30 June 2016) .


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