It is 27 years since Coventry ska band The Specials released Ghost Town – a doom-laden account of a recession-hit Midland city, boarded-up shops, dole queues and a sinister atmosphere of brooding violence in the streets and few night clubs remaining open.
The hit became a kind of late 20th century anthem for doomed youth, raging against Thatcherism, annihilation of the coal and motor industry and the devastating impact of a particularly savage economic slump.
In the near certainty that 2009 will be dominated by the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, it is timely to look back and wonder how much worse things might be for us today than was the case in the early 1980s.
This will be a different kind of recession, for sure. Cities like Birmingham and Coventry won’t see a return to the days when it was not uncommon to see 50,000 manufacturing jobs disappear in a week, simply because employment on such a scale no longer exists.
But the carefully diversified Midland industries, with a new focus on professional services, tourism, the service sector and research and development, is bound to suffer serious job losses over the next few months. For the surviving metal bashers and automotive factories, it is difficult to see how survival can be guaranteed without government intervention at a significant level.
The first indications of the way this recession will pan out can already be seen in the high streets, where the lights are going out at the premises of some very familiar names.
We have focused on Kings Heath, in Birmingham, as a case study, but much the same story could be told about any shopping centre in any suburb in this country. Shopkeepers have a natural propensity for gloom when takings fall and forecasts of 100 traders going out of business in the next three months may be unnecessarily pessimistic, but losses at even half of that figure would have a catastrophic impact on the local economy and community.
It is perhaps not surprising that the chairman of Kings Heath Business Association has chosen to adopt the ghost town analogy, while warning residents to use local shops or risk losing them. But, at a time when even the likes of Woolworth’s can collapse, the call to shop locally may already be too late.
We are yet to experience the scale of unemployment, community breakdown and riots in the streets that became a feature of the 1980s recession, but it would be naive to suppose that the social fabric of Britain will not be sorely tested over the next year or so.
The government is, rightly, concentrating on mending the economy. But ministers must understand that urgent measures are needed to make sure councils and public agencies are in a position to bring relief to millions of families whose livelihoods will be threatened during 2009.