Death of the high street: Why can’t Dover afford a Big Issue seller?
There’s an emergency on the high street. Insufficient affordable housing. Appalling levels of child poverty. We visit one of Britain’s hardest-hit areas, where things are reportedly so bad they can’t afford a Big Issue vendor.
Darren Roberts sells the Big Issue on the high street in Canterbury. Photo: Exposure Photo Agency
It’s a mild morning in Dover. The sun’s shining over the castle and on to the docks, illuminating the discount signs in the windows of Poundstretcher on the high street. We’re here to meet Big Issue vendor Colin Davey near his home, delivering the magazines that he will later sell further along the Kent coast in Broadstairs.
Davey used to sell The Big Issue outside Boots in the heart of Dover but in the last few years, he says, the town centre “just went dead”.
“Basically, I can’t make a living here anymore,” he says, speaking to me just after paying for his magazines. “The high street these days has no real shops as such. You don’t get people coming down, doing their proper shop.”
Big Issue vendors are a mainstay of the UK’s high street. Few people are better placed to give an on-the-ground temperature check of the economic climate in Britain’s town and cities. So when The Big Issue’s director of sales and operations, Chris Falchi Stead, said vendors were telling him something was going on in Kent, we went to find out more.
“I noticed when I came out to Kent, especially coming off the last lockdown, that where places were suffering from deprivation previously, it had been exacerbated to some mad levels,” says Falchi-Stead.
The picture in Kent is mixed. Some towns – Canterbury, Broadstairs, Westgate-On-Sea – still offer a decent opportunity for hard-working Big Issue sellers. In others, such as Dover and Margate, where you would expect a vendor to be able to make a living, it’s just not possible.
Early one morning in August, I join Falchi-Stead aboard the white van that delivers magazines to sellers all over Kent to see and hear for myself. Because of the geographic distribution of towns in Kent, The Big Issue doesn’t have an office in the area. Instead of the vendors all coming to us in one central point, it’s much more efficient for us to go to them, at their pitches or where they’re staying.
Eight years ago, this distribution run was Falchi-Stead’s first job at The Big Issue. Now, when he returns, he can see a change.
“I look at Colin, who had always sold in Dover. Dover is one of those really historic, beautiful towns and now it’s just impossible to sell there,” he says.
“On the streets, you just see charity shops and fast-food places and off licences. And it’s just repeat, repeat, repeat, with loads of boarded-up shops in between. It really feels like, especially when you speak to people here, there’s not a huge amount of hope.”
Davey’s experience in Dover reflects the state of many town centres across Britain. Already struggling before Covid-19, they are now reeling from the impact of the pandemic, as retail behemoths like Debenhams and Carphone Warehouse collapse and small businesses struggle to compete with the might of Amazon and its ilk . In the first six months of 2021, more than 8,700 chain stores closed in British high streets, shopping centres and retail parks.
But it also tells us something more. This isn’t just a story about retail trends or the shift to online shopping. It’s about how an area, in what is commonly thought of as one of the richest parts of the UK – the Garden of England – is struggling. About how high-level political decisions affect people’s lives. And about how far too many people in the UK are living in poverty –finding it hard to feed themselves and their families or find somewhere safe and secure to live.
According to the latest research by the End Child Poverty coalition, there were 104,951 children living in poverty in Kent in the year 2019/2020. That’s an additional 2,247 kids since 2015 whose families can’t afford the basic essentials of life.
Dover has the highest number of children living in deprivation in the county. More than one-third of its children (35 per cent) are growing up in poverty, a jump of 5.5 per cent in the last five years.
A swing seat, Dover has voted Conservative since 2010. Until 2019 the local MP was Charlie Elphicke, who is perhaps best known for being a convicted sexual predator who, after assaulting one woman, chanted “I’m a naughty Tory”. His wife, Natalie Elphicke, also a Conservative, succeeded him in the seat after his suspension from the party. In the Brexit referendum, the town – which is on the front line of the migrant crisis – voted Leave by 62 per cent to 38 per cent.
35% of children in Dover live in poverty
“The south-east has become synonymous with being rich and wealthy. Dover, despite the fact that it is as far south-east as you can be, is none of that,” says writer, political researcher and 2019 Labour candidate for the constituency Charlotte Cornell. “The town definitely isn’t thriving and Covid was yet another nail in the economic coffin.”
Several major employers have left the region in the last decade. In 1998 there were 3,000 people employed by GlaxoSmithKline at its factory in Dartford. By 2008, that had dwindled to 620, and by 2011, the plant was closed, ending more than 120 years of pharmaceutical production at the site. In 2014, the loss of Manston Airport, in north-east Kent, was also a blow.
Dover’s port dominates the town and remains a vital source of income for the region, but it too has been adversely affected by the pandemic. Last year, more than 700 people were made redundant in the area by P&O Ferries. Brexit uncertainty still looms large at the port of choice for hauliers travelling to and from Europe.
Nonetheless, at 5.5 per cent, unemployment rates in Dover are around the UK average. The difficulty is many of those in employment are in low-paid work. According to jobs platform Adzuna, the average salary in Dover is £27,514 – 18.5 per cent lower than the UK average. “Where 15 years ago, one man’s wages at the port would easily sustain a family of four or five, that’s just not true any more,” says Cornell. “The conditions and the wages have been suppressed. Wage inflation here in Dover hasn’t caught up in any way with price inflation, so people are – on a day-by-day and week-by-week basis –much, much poorer.”
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Across the UK, three out of four children who live in poverty have at least one working adult in their household. Yet low pay and a freeze on in-work benefits mean their incomes are no longer enough to provide for their families. We don’t yet know how Covid-19 will impact child poverty figures, but most experts agree it’s unlikely to be good news.
“If people are earning less, they have less money to spend, which means more businesses go under on the high street,” explains Cornell. “And when one business goes under, there’s an empty shop that takes down, over the next three or four years, two more. And so you’re trapped in this vortex.”
Davey and Cornell agree that Dover still has advantages. It has a beautiful location at the foot of the famous White Cliffs. A fascinating history. And proud Dovorians working hard for their town in community organisations like the Samphire project, which supports people who’ve previously been detained at the Dover Immigration Removal Centre, and the Dover smART Project, an art group for young carers.
Local MP Natalie Elphicke expects to see the area improve soon. “During the pandemic footfall in all town centres dramatically fell. But with the exciting multi-million pound redevelopment of Dover’s Market Square and seafront, as well as the recovery of town centres following the end of lockdown, we expect Dover to bounce back strongly,” she says.
“There’s lots of investment and job creation going on locally so we are increasingly optimistic about the future of the town.”
“Dover is a great place to live, to be honest,” says Davey. The high street may be “going downhill”, as it is in many similar towns, but he remains expectant for a post-Covid bounce back. “Hopefully there’ll be changes, and the high streets will pick up again, so it doesn’t do me out of a job.”
With arty shops, lively bars and the Turner Contemporary gallery overlooking sandy beaches, Margate feels very different to the depressed high street in Dover, some 23 miles south. Through a conscious strategy of culture-led regeneration – backed by rock band The Libertines, who now own a hotel there, and Margate born artist Tracey Emin – the seaside resort has cultivated a cool, creative reputation.
The Turner Contemporary is a major part of that new cool. The first contemporary building to feature on a UK bank note, the art gallery has had 3.6 million visitors and generated more than £70m for the local economy since it opened in 2011. Like Dover, the area is represented by Conservative MPs. The Thanet district, which covers Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, was among the most pro-Brexit in the UK, with almost 64 per cent of voters backing Leave.
A little up the coast from the Turner, in the Cliftonville area, we’re dropping magazines off with Richard Broadway and Mark Stevenson, both of whom live here but travel out to sell on pitches in nearby towns. The eastern end of Cliftonville, with its newer-build houses, doesn’t have the galleries or vintage shops of central Margate. In fact, there’s barely a newsagent to be seen, much less a greengrocers or butcher.
According to a 2021 study by researchers from the London School Of Economics, Margate is notable for its “poverty-based polarisation”, with people divided into extremes of wealth and deprivation, and very few in the middle. The result, the study argues, is people living “parallel lives with limited connections or networks between them”.
Not so long ago, Margate was an inexpensive place to live, says community activist Stephen Darrer, but with more and more people moving from the capital, that’s no longer true. The DFLs (Down From Londons), as locals call them, have brought wealth to the town – but it is a double-edged sword.
“I am one of the DFLs,” admits Darrer. “I moved here seven years ago and there have been huge changes to this area, even in the short time I’ve been here. The biggest thing is that house prices have gone through the roof. So many people have been displaced from the area. We’re losing people who are integral to the community.”
As secretary of GRASS Cliftonville, Darrer is part of a group that’s working hard to bridge the gap between the social extremes in his area. The hyper-local, resident-led social enterprise advocates for the area, runs events and recently completed a community buy-out of the Oval Bandstand and Lawns to create a community hub.
But for many, even those who are working and were previously able to afford their rent, it is now impossible to find suitable housing. Darrer says his neighbour, a single mother originally from Poland, had been happily renting her home for 12 years. But when her landlord recently decided to sell up, she couldn’t find anywhere to move to. She has since decided to go back to Poland.
Airbnb has 300+ rental listings in Margate
“We’ve also been hit by the Airbnb effect, which happens a lot in seaside areas,” says Darrer. “I run a traditional B&B. When I started, there were about 50 Airbnb properties in Margate. Now it’s about 420.”
Indeed, when I check the listings for available properties in Margate, Airbnb has “300+” available, whereas Rightmove – the go-to site for longer-term lets – has just 14 listed.
The extent to which Margate is geared towards the tourist population at the expense of locals is also obvious on Tuesday lunchtime when I’m trying to meet Darryn de la Soul, founder of MiFoodbank and MiCommunity shop, for a bite to eat. We’re rebuffed by closed sign after closed sign, with many need” she saw around her. “At the height of the pandemic,” she says, “I think there were 15 foodbanks in the three towns of Thanet. That’s a lot of foodbanks, and everybody was busy.”
Like Darrer, de la Soul moved from London to take advantage of the cheap rents, creative community and seaside charm of Margate. In the following years, her own street became a perfect microcosm of inequality.
“Artists and musicians came here because they could afford to live in Margate,” she says. “Five years ago the road I’m living on was a no-go zone. Now the top half of the road is all enormous, six-bedroomed houses. On the other end of the road, the same buildings are HMOs [houses of multiple occupation], which maybe have 10 families living in them.”
Gentrification has followed a familiar pattern. “It’s exactly what happened to Hackney and other places like that,” she says. “So many people have now come down here that you cannot buy – or rent – a house for love nor money. It has exacerbated a lot of the problems that were already here. It’s making life even more difficult for people for whom life already was difficult.”
As lockdown restrictions eased, de la Soul shifted the foodbank operation to become the MiCommunity shop. Working from cosy and welcoming premises in the town centre, the shop offers food and other daily essentials at extremely reduced prices, as well as giving people advice to help them manage their finances and maximise their incomes.
“It’s an attempt to give people the dignity of being able to buy your own food and make your own choices,” she explains. “If people are unable to afford it, we will give out £5 vouchers for the shop. And with £5 in this shop, you can buy considerably more than you can in Tesco.”
Already busy, and constantly caught in the race to maintain funding, De La Soul is concerned by the challenges facing her community in the next few months. She fears the end of furlough and the cancellation of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit instituted during the pandemic will mean more people beating a path to her door.
She has a message for everyone who gets on the train at St Pancras for a weekend escape in Margate: “Please continue to come and visit. But don’t forget that what you see is just the surface of what’s going on.”
As we drive across Kent, the Big Issue vendors I meet are keen to talk about homelessness, a predictable outcome of the pressure on housing in the county. Most speak from personal experience and express a sense that too little is being done.
“Homelessness is a big problem in Thanet,” says Richard Broadway, who lives in Cliftonville and sells The Big Issue in Westgate-On-Sea. “If the government could house people during Covid, why can’t they do it all the time?”
“It seems like there’s many more homeless people in town now,” agrees Darren Roberts, who sells the magazine in Canterbury High Street. “Which is a shame because it doesn’t feel like the government or anybody’s doing anything about it.”
Though they have been suppressed by the Everyone In programme instituted during Covid, and now finished, rough sleeping figures for Kent remain above the national average. The latest numbers show the rate of rough sleeping per 10,000 households stands at 1.1 for England as a whole, but at 1.5 for Kent. In the latest count, Canterbury had the highest number of rough sleepers in the county.
“Homelessness is definitely everywhere,” Mark Stevenson tells me outside his mum’s house in Cliftonville. “Everywhere you look, there’s someone sleeping in a shop doorway.”
Stevenson’s own most recent brush with rough sleeping happened last year. He split up with his partner and spent almost a week outdoors. “At first, because it was sunny and hot, I thought, ‘Aye, it’ll be all right – it’s like I’m camping,’” he recalls. “No. I’ve never experienced hunger so much. I couldn’t do the seventh night. I came and knocked on my mum’s door after not talking to her for years. That’s how bad it was.”
Stevenson is still staying with his mother. He makes money to support himself and to send to his children by selling The Big Issue in Canterbury. In his opinion, the council there are keen to hide the problem of homelessness.
“What they’ve done in Canterbury is that they’ve shifted them [the rough sleepers]. They won’t let them on the High Street. But then you go three streets down and there’s a park that’s just tent city. They’re like, just push them over there so we can’t see them and it’ll be fine. That’s the way they’re handling it, I think.”
Earlier this summer a homeless man who had been sleeping in a Canterbury park suffered burns to his hands when his tent was set on fire while he slept inside. At the time, the manager of Canterbury homelessness charity Catching Lives, Terry Gore, said that this was not an isolated incident.
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Leo Whitlock, head of policy and communications at Canterbury City Council, says the area does attract rough sleepers, but it’s because of the “high quality of the support services” available there. He emphasises that Canterbury has benefited from being a part of the Rough Sleeper Initiative since 2018, and operates outreach five days a week, year-round.
“If Canterbury City Council is being accused of clearing people off of the streets, then we are guilty as charged and proud of that fact,” he added. “But this is not a case of removing rough sleepers from public view. It is about helping every single individual person to get the help and accommodation they need as quickly as we possibly can.”
Broadway warns, however, that the rough sleeping numbers are just the most visible sign of the housing crisis. Beyond those individuals are many more who are in unsuitable or temporary accommodation, sleeping on friends’ sofas or, like Mark Stevenson, have been forced to move in with family members.
In July, The Big Issue revealed that one UK household had been made homeless every three-and-a-half hours in the first quarter of 2021. With the government safety nets put in place during the pandemic – the repossession ban, furlough, UC uplift – due to fall away this autumn, and electricity and gas prices set to rise, Big Issue founder John Bird has warned of a potential “avalanche of homelessness”.
Stevenson has a clear idea of the solution: “Build houses. Build more houses.”
The problems facing Kent are complex, and the solutions will be equally so. But at the core of all the issues is the sense that this region has been overlooked. It truly is “left behind”, says Charlotte Cornell.
“I really hate that Tory phrase,” she adds. “I do. Because it’s being buttered all over certain towns up in the north and north-east as a sweeping generalisation that all those towns are the same and they all have the same problems. Which is crap.
“But Kent does suffer from south-east England-itis. Politically, the word ‘south-east’ just isn’t sexy. It’s not going to sell, and it’s not going to get anyone to put their hand in their pocket from any central government department. The south-east has become this byword for ‘had it all for too long’, and that’s just not ringing true.”