Historic beauty but very modern poverty

The ancient town of Okehampton has been hit by unemployment. Charities are diverting food from Romania. But not all the residents are pleased.

The beautiful old town of Okehampton is situated on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, and is soaked in history.

Founded by the Anglo-Saxons in the 10th century, it grew on the wool trade in the Middle Ages. It still boasts the 15th Century Chapel of St James and its own castle, now owned by English Heritage, was once the largest in the county.

Unsurprisingly, Okehampton has always been considered a most desirable place to live, and a million miles from economic need. Yet these days, many residents are living off free food handouts. Why?

This year alone, the Robert Wiseman milk factory closed, followed by Browne's Chocolates and Polestar desserts. This brought the loss of 350 jobs.

The food donations were set up by town councillor Kay Bickley. The scheme is run from the Baptist chapel and is seeing 50 new families a week seeking help.

It's overseen by the Trussle Trust, a national charity, which usually helps starving families in Romania and Bulgaria. Now it's responding to what Ms Bickley calls a 'tragic situation' in Okehampton.

'There has been a huge rise in people needing short-term help,' she says, with many living below the poverty line as they wait to qualify for benefits, which can take five weeks or longer.

So how does Okehampton compare with the rest of the UK? Well, across the country, unemployment has been rising to just under 8 per cent, although in Scotland it is 0.2 per cent lower because of a large public sector payroll.

And overall, the young are facing more joblessness, with over 20 per cent out of work.

In Okehampton, fully 10% of the 7000 residents are without jobs, giving an unemployment rate that is above the national average.

Andrew Morgan helps at the Food Bank. 'We are still appealing for food,' he says, 'It is desperately needed.' Some workers made redundant haven't been paid for weeks.

Under the Food Bank system, authorities such as doctors, housing officers, social services and the Citizens Advice Bureau hand out vouchers to those needing food. Each voucher entitles the holder to one box, which varies depending on the size of the family.

No one here is starving
But not everyone is impressed, including Jane, a local retailer. 'No one here is starving,' she says. 'I am part of a thriving community of independent retailers who are struggling at the moment because the press haven't stopped going on and on about these food parcels.'

She blames 'sanctimonious councillors and vicars feeding their own egos. Who's going to refuse free food for goodness sake!'

These are troubled times for the historic town of Okehampton, whichever side you stand.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever accept free food handouts from charity?
  2. What is poverty? Is it just about money?


  1. Imagine you're one of those with no income at present. Write a letter to Jane, saying how you feel.
  2. Research the history of unemployment in the UK. And then write a controversial newspaper piece called 'Unemployment – fuss about nothing or human disaster?'

Some People Say...

“I'd never accept charity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What's going to happen to benefits during the recession?
The benefits system needs a bigger budget than almost any other area of government, so lowering its size is key to the Coalition's plans to cut the deficit.
How will they do that?
They're considering replacing dozens of benefits and tax credits paid to those out of work or on low wages with a single payment or 'universal credit'.
So what money can the unemployed of Okehampton expect?
Presently, the maximum weekly rates range from £51.85 for a single person to £102.75 for couples. But that's savings related; if you have savings it'll be less.
I was surprised Jane was so angry though.
Maybe those who have, always find it hard to understand those who don't have. Many people are very proud. They wouldn't feel happy about collecting free food.


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