Whenever I return to Gosport, the seaside town where I grew up, it is like watching one of those time-lapse videos of a bowl of fruit decaying; the once-delicious offering gradually becoming less and less appealing, as it transitions into a festering heap that no one wants to clean up.
As I wander through the high street, I recall the little bookstore that is now home to a solicitors firm, or afternoons spent with my mum in the now-defunct museum. When I go past the hollowed-out shells of Dorothy Perkins, Clarks and Burtons, I start guessing how long it will be until a vaping lounge (yes, they’re really a thing), card shop or key-cutters pops up in their place, only to shut down again a few months later.
A trip to the beach used to be the highlight of my visits home, but now all I see is the crumbling sea wall, bald patches between pebbles, and the tired promenade that has not been repaved since I was a kid.
Of course, Gosport isn’t unique in that sense. According to a 2020 report by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 67 per cent of coastal towns in England and Wales are in the higher income deprivation category, compared to just 36 per cent of non-coastal towns. But the borough also has seven lower layer super output areas (LSOAs) in the 20 per cent most deprived nationally.
It’s something that Dame Caroline Dinenage, the town’s MP since 2010, noted during a telephone interview. “People always imagine that the south coast of England is affluent”, she told me, “but, actually, you could take Gosport or Portsmouth, and you could sort of place it in the north of England or the Midlands and it wouldn’t look out of place.” She also identified this as a key factor in her struggle to secure funding and “fight our corner” at Westminster.
But that’s what makes it an even bitter pill to swallow that the town is a Tory safe seat, and has been my entire life. I cannot reconcile the abject poverty with the town’s conservative sentiments. To me, it makes no sense for working class people to continually vote for a party that does not serve their best interests, especially when they feel marginalised or disenfranchised.
To my slight comfort, Caroline Dinenage did share plans to regenerate the main shopping area, and focus on protecting and amplifying the town’s heritage status (though I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful Ritz cinema, a 1930s theatre that was demolished and replaced with an Iceland and a Jobcentre Plus, and the gaudy shop fronts that have emerged of late).
But that all relies on tourism (something Gosport is not known for), or rich people on super yachts mooring in the marinas nearby. Rather than promoting regeneration plans that would benefit ordinary people, it seems like they’re relying more and more on third parties to plough ahead with gentrification designs, which would surely isolate those in lower income households further and push them to the periphery.
Equally, thanks to the government’s academy roll out, my old school (which was once one of the best state schools in the county) is suffering. As of last year, 78 per cent of secondary institutions in the UK are either academies or free schools. And while some schools benefit from the shared resources, others are crippled by the mergers and teachers are spread thin, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Without access to better education, young people will be deprived not just presently, but also in the future.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Caroline Dinenage’s predecessor, the late Sir Peter Viggers (of duck house fame). Beyond his expenses snafu, his thirty six-year career as our local MP saw the closure of the town’s main hospital, Haslar.
Not only did it once provide thousands of jobs, it was also an integral part of the community and saved countless lives. When it stopped operating on a medical basis in 2009, it forced the Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth – some 45 minutes away by car – to take on the extra burden, thus adding strain on the already-overworked NHS staff there and risking lives with slower response times. It also means that poorer households now have to strain to afford the bus fare or petrol money in order to see loved ones who are seriously ill or critical (a pain I know all too well).
The point of all this? To sell off the heritage site and convert it into luxury apartments – something that didn’t happen until almost a decade later, leaving the site standing empty for years.
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Sir Peter Viggers also waved in a plan to pave over the town’s existing rail infrastructure, in order to have a designated bus route – and to turn the Grade II-listed terminus once used by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert into, you guessed it, yet more flats.
This is absurd on many levels, not least because Gosport is one of the largest towns in the UK to not have a train station, but it’s also on the peninsula, meaning it’s incredibly hard (both metaphorically and physically) to get out of the town. And of course the fares are extortionate to all but pensioners, who enjoy a free pass, and the buses stop running in the early evening.
This isn’t just about nostalgia or tearing into the place where I spent my formative years. As I said, these are not troubles unique to Gosport.
It’s about creating opportunities for young people in deprived areas; it’s about ensuring that every person, regardless of their background, has access to fundamentals like healthcare, education and work. By failing to create fairer opportunities, we are only depriving wider society.
Think of all the brilliant minds left undiscovered, purely because they couldn’t afford to stay in education or buy their course material. Think of all the parents who can’t afford to go to work and put their kids through childcare. Think of all the regular people on zero-hour contracts, having to work two hours just to make up the money for their commute. Think of all the people who are failed by the system and turn to drugs or crime.
Really, a vote in favour of working class people is a vote in favour of everyone. As was established in lockdowns, society cannot function without these people and it is not right to overlook them.