WE OFTEN HEAR ABOUT the affluent South East, but this generalisation cannot be applied universally. Parts of the South East have as many challenges as the North of England. This is particularly true of coastal areas like Thanet where more than a third of our population is living in extreme deprivation.
Unemployment in Thanet stands at 5.3% (compared to a national average of 2.7%). Much of the work that exists is casualised and seasonal, and the average weekly wage is lower than in other parts of the country. The 2015 English indices of deprivation show Thanet to be the eleventh worst local authority area in the country for working-age employment deprivation. More than 20% of residents claim benefits (compared to a national average of 13.5%), and around 12,000 people in South Thanet alone will be on Universal Credit when it is fully rolled out.
We urgently need a jobs action plan that benefits the people of Thanet. Many local Labour Party members have been inspired by the example of Preston, which has reduced unemployment to 3.1% (from 6.5% in 2014). Preston has done this by redirecting the combined £1.2bn spending power of twelve anchor institutions towards local providers. In November 2018, as part of a series called ‘Building a Thriving Thanet’, South Thanet Labour Party invited one of the architects of the ‘Preston model’ – the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), Neil McInroy – to give a public talk in Ramsgate. In advance of this event, we established that, in 2017/18, only 16% of approximately £32m spending by Thanet District Council (TDC) went to local businesses, leaving £27m leaking out of the local economy.
For the local election campaign in May 2019, the Thanet Labour manifesto stated: “We propose to review all council spending, re-directing it, wherever possible to local suppliers that benefit the local community, boosting jobs and opportunities locally.” Thanet defied the national trend by electing 20 Labour councillors to office, quadrupling our influence and enabling us to hold the 25 Conservative councillors to account.
The month after the election, a meeting with the leader and deputy chief executive of TDC and councillor Mark Hopkinson (Labour) demonstrated great openness to the idea of building local wealth. We hope to raise funds for CLES to carry out diagnostics on TDC, looking at where the current procurement budget is going and how this need could be met locally. This could be extended to other local public services, particularly those in health and social care, which account for almost a fifth of our employment.
Thanet is not Preston. We do not have comparable spending power, but we do have some unique resources. We inhabit a beautiful part of the coast, with some of the best beaches in the country and some fantastic architecture, providing scope to develop tourism in a way that benefits the local economy. We have the potential to generate wind, wave and solar power and to help eradicate fuel poverty (which affects more than 11% of households in South Thanet). We will need investment to grow local co-operatives and small businesses and to establish a locally owned energy supplier. The National Investment Bank, which forms one of the cornerstones of Labour’s economic policy, will be invaluable.
Educational levels in Thanet are lower than in the rest of the country, with 28.4% of people having no qualifications (compared to a national average of 22.5%) and only 19.6% educated to diploma level (compared to a national average of 27.4%). Kent maintains a grammar school system which reinforces educational inequalities The majority of our schools have suffered massive cuts, the highest this year being more than £700 per pupil. While we have some visionary teachers, parents often complain about the quality of education their children receive in religious schools and those that form part of multi-academy trusts.
Head teachers recount horror stories about the state in which children are arriving at school – tired, hungry and sometimes in nappies. While we still have the equivalent of Sure Start centres, there is insufficient funding for the outreach work that is badly needed to engage hardto- reach families. In December 2018, as part of ‘Building a Thriving Thanet’, South Thanet Labour Party hosted a community conversation in Cliftonville, one of our most deprived wards, which was attended by many concerned members of the public as well as senior representatives from our local schools and synagogue. A table dedicated to the discussion of education and training identified many ways in which Labour’s National Education Service could address our needs.
Thanet has a large proportion of people who have retired to the seaside and own their homes outright (33.4% compared to a national average of 30.6%). At the same time, Thanet has lost 65% of its council housing since Right to Buy was introduced, and only 120 homes were built in 2017/18. This is largely as a result of TDC’s failure to have its Local Plan approved because of a persistent wrangle over the future of the former Manston Airport site. As a result, 22% of people (compared to a national average of 15.4%) have been forced into privately rented accommodation, and rogue landlords abound. The rise in homelessness on our streets is tangible, accompanied by an increase in hidden homelessness and families in temporary accommodation. Thanet Winter Shelter, which operates across our churches during the colder months, works to tackle the most pressing demand, but we need a systemic solution.
The Labour Party has committed to building a million new homes, including “at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale.” In July 2019, South Thanet Labour Party passed a model resolution by Labour Campaign for Council Housing, calling on Labour to commit to building 155,000 social rented homes per year, allocating £10 billion annually to construct at least 100,000 council homes per year and ending Right to Buy. We need to build carbon-neutral housing, in gap sites and new developments, as well as retrofitting existing properties. Labour’s plan to introduce a holiday home levy to tackle homelessness would be welcome in an area like Thanet, where many people own second homes.
TDC has been told by central government that more than 17,000 new homes must be built locally. Rather than being subject to arbitrary formulae, we need to assess local housing need along with the availability of brownfield sites, employment and infrastructure. We need a people-powered local plan that decides collectively how we use our vacant land and buildings.
Government cuts to local authority funding have forced the council to sell off valuable assets and tracts of land. To enable a comprehensive house-building programme, TDC will need additional resources to retain public land. At the same time, the system for designating assets of community value needs to be fortified; we have many sites which have fallen into private hands and, with the necessary investment, could be reclaimed to build community wellbeing.
Thanet has a smaller proportion of people in the best of health and a higher proportion of people in the worst of health than other parts of the country. Our population is ageing at a faster rate than the national average, with retired people accounting for 23% of our community and predicted to increase to 31% by 2037. Our health services are stretched to breaking point. GPs’ surgeries are closing their books to new patients, our only hospital consistently misses its targets and our underfunded mental health services are failing on a scale that has led to a tragic rise in suicides.
The Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) for Kent and Medway is predicated on a need to save almost £500m.
As a result, health commissioners have decided to close our local stroke unit. People in Thanet are more likely than people in more affluent parts of Kent to suffer a stroke and to be admitted to hospital as a result. The Health and Social Care Act of 2012 conferred a duty upon clinical commissioners to reduce inequalities between patients. Save Our NHS in Kent, which includes many Labour Party members, has waged a vibrant community campaign, aimed at holding commissioners to account, which is likely to culminate in a judicial review.
The Labour Party’s policy of halting the STP and asking residents to review plans on the basis of local need rather than available finance will enable us to retain our stroke unit and avert the loss of further services. Labour’s pledge, during the 2017 General Election, to stop cuts and closures, would benefit from being reiterated at the next election.
While similar areas in the North of England traditionally vote Labour, the same is not necessarily true of Thanet. Despite their contribution to the endemic problems outlined above, the Conservatives have held North Thanet since the constituency was created in 1983. South Thanet returned a Labour MP between 1997 and 2010, but it has more recently been prey to reactionary forces - Nigel Farage notoriously stood here in 2015.
If we are to retake this seat, we need to restore hope in our core vote through the measures suggested here. This will require a commitment to our deprived area on the part of the Labour leadership.
policy researcher at Kings College London and South Thanet CLP policy officer.