Zarah Sultana – 2020 Speech on Coventry IKEA Store Closure

Below is the text of the speech made by Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, in the House of Commons on 13 February 2020.

I am very pleased to have secured my first Adjournment debate, and on a topic of real importance to my constituency. The Tuesday before last, IKEA announced that it will be closing its flagship store in Coventry this summer, putting 352 jobs at risk. The store is in the city centre, at the northernmost point of my constituency. The announcement came out of the blue for many, including its workers.

Coventrians have been in touch with me to express their shock and sadness at the announcement. Over 3,300 people have signed an online petition calling for the store to stay open. People have expressed their “devastation” at its loss, seeing it as “an iconic part” of the city’s landscape. It has been part of the city’s scene since 2007, when it became IKEA’s first city centre shop. It is indeed distinctive; its blue and grey walls, standing seven floors tall, can be seen from a distance. Since it opened, it has become a major site in the city’s shopping ecosystem, attracting people from across the region to the heart of Coventry. Its closure will be felt hard by the city—mostly, of course, by the workers and their families, who risk their livelihoods being devastated, but also by the many people who enjoyed spending time in its café, the small businesses that benefited from the people it attracted to the city, and the many students who relied upon it to fit out their university rooms. A friend even told me how sorely she would miss its meatballs.

The closure speaks to two much broader trends that have significance for Coventry and beyond. The first is the rise and fall of industry and the effects of what we now see in Coventry and across the midlands and the north: deindustrialisation. Where we now have low-paid and insecure retail jobs, there was once strongly unionised, relatively well-paid and stable employment.

Industry has always come and gone in Coventry. As with capitalism generally, it uses, exploits and discards working people as it pleases. This was true with the textile industry in the 17th century, which began with the labour of Huguenot refugees and at its height employed 25,000 people in the city, only later to crash and leave workers ruined. It was also true of the manufacturing of cycles and clocks, which in the late 19th and early 20th century became the backbone of the city’s industry. By the mid-20th century it was the motor industry that was booming, this time on the back of Irish migrants, and it provided the city’s working class with work.

By the 1970s, Jaguar, Standard-Triumph and Alvis all had manufacturing plants in what was then dubbed “Britain’s Detroit”. With it there came good, unionised jobs and Coventry enjoyed relative prosperity. However, as had happened to the industries before it, at the whims of bosses in search of cheaper labour, much of the motor industry moved abroad, again leaving the city’s working class abandoned. Unemployment exceeded 20%, and by the early 1990s discontent triggered riots across the city. This abandonment was felt so ​much that it is even said that the city’s very own The Specials based their classic “Ghost Town” on the sense of loss felt in the city.

The city has never fully recovered from deindustrialisation because today there are not the mass, well-paid, highly-skilled and secure employment opportunities for kids growing up in Coventry. This is clearly shown by the fact that where the IKEA store stands today there once stood the site of a General Electric Company factory.

Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are in urgent need of a clear strategy to maintain and grow our city centres? The UK must remain a place of thriving town centres, with security and well-paid jobs, and places such as Coventry must be at the centre of this work.

Zarah Sultana

I thank my hon. Friend for making a really important point. I will be coming to the decline of the high streets and regional investment in a moment.

The General Electric Company factory was a six-storey building, employing thousands of people in relatively decent and unionised work. With deindustrialisation, Coventry has seen secure and well-paid jobs replaced by insecure and poorly-paid work. This is the first story that the loss of the IKEA store speaks to. The second is the decline of the British high street.

Coventry city centre, like all our city centres, is more than a place to shop. It is the beating heart of the city—a place that should provide community, culture and character. But in the last decade, the retail sector has been increasingly hard hit and empty shops are becoming commonplace. As one Coventrian said at the news of the store’s closure, the city risks becoming a ghost town again.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

As someone who has bought numerous furniture items from IKEA and spent frustrating hours putting them together, I understand the IKEA furniture concept. Does the hon. Lady agree that the potential loss of 352 jobs is horrific, and that there must be an onus on a chain store as large as IKEA to go the extra mile by placing members of staff in other stores or ensuring that they are trained for new jobs? It is not enough to just up sticks with a “too bad, too sad” attitude; that just will not be accepted.

Zarah Sultana

Absolutely. The priority has to be every single member of staff whose job is at risk. IKEA should prioritise their needs, and ensure that they are redeployed to other stores or offered skills and training.

The words of The Specials risk becoming true once more. But there is a broader trend; there are now roughly 25,000 empty retail spaces around the country, which is a vacancy rate in excess of 10%. Last year, 57,000 retail jobs were lost, and a further 10,000 were lost last month alone. The market is only too happy to put workers on the scrapheap the moment that the profit motive demands, and there is a real danger that these IKEA workers will be discarded too, but they must not be forced into unemployment with all the strain and pain that it brings.

I know how grim unemployment can be. I know what it feels like. I know the sense of shame for people who stand in the queue at the jobcentre. I know the loss of confidence they feel, the impact it has on their self-esteem ​and the fear they feel that they may lose their skills. I have been there. For the sake of these workers—and workers across Coventry and the country who are at risk of losing their jobs, are stuck in insecure work or are already out of work—I tell the Minister that it is his responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. It is his responsibility to protect workers from unemployment and to ensure that the training, reskilling and job opportunities exist to give everyone the chance to have decent, well-paid and secure work. We cannot have a Government who oversee the opening up of food banks and the closing down of good workplaces.

The Prime Minister likes to talk about “levelling up” the country. Well, I hope I am forgiven for not believing a man whose party drove the deindustrialisation that now blights the midlands and the north; whose party slashed the funding of public services that working people rely on, cutting more in the midlands and the north than in the wealthy shires; and whose party continues to prioritise the City of London, which dominates the economy, and concentrate spending on the capital and the south-east. After all, in his own words, nobody “stuck up for the bankers” more than he did.

If the Prime Minister were to follow up on his promise to invest in the region, here is what he would do for workers in Coventry—here is what he would do to ensure that the 352 workers at the IKEA store would not have to fear unemployment. It means reversing decades of deindustrialisation and instead investing in new green industries to kick-start the green industrial revolution, including manufacturing electrical vehicles to bring back the motor industry to the west midlands, but now reducing emissions and improving air quality. It means investing in Coventry’s public transport, opening up new rail lines and bringing them into public ownership to make travel free and green. It means reversing cuts to local government, whereby councils have lost 60p to every £1, so that Coventry City Council can support the local community as it wants to. It means rejuvenating Coventry city centre and high streets across the country by giving local councils the power to open empty retail spaces to start-ups, co-operative businesses and local community projects. It means not pretending that you are not to blame for the collapse in bus services, when Conservative Governments have cut £645 million in real terms from buses, and instead putting real money into our bus services and letting under-25s travel for free. That is how we can rejuvenate Coventry city centre and high streets across the country.

Coventry is the city of culture 2021; it is a city rich in culture and industrial history. But the closure of IKEA will be the latest episode in what happens when Governments do not invest in all regions, allow deindustrialisation to go unchecked and let our high streets empty. That must not continue. I give my solidarity to the workers at IKEA at what is a difficult time for them and clearly state that I am here to fight for them and for all workers.