Politics

'I haven't voted since Blair': How politics failed one of the most Tory places in Britain

Castle Point is the Tories' third safest Tory seat. It has the sixth highest rate of home ownership in the country. Can the election bring solutions to a deeply weird housing crisis?

Labour's Castle Point candidate Mark Maguire began campaigning as an 'also-ran'. Now a seat in Parliament is in sight. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Jess Cable has been saving for a house deposit for four years now. When the temptation to get a takeaway hits, she puts the money into a pot. Friends try to get her out in London for trips clubbing, but she resists. “I’m quite tight, to be honest with you, because I do want to plan out for the future,” she says. There’s a catch here: Jess is only 18.

Life events which older generations saw as exciting landmarks are, in her way of listing them, hurdles to be cleared. “I find it very stressful. I’ve got a girlfriend, so if I ever wanted kids, it’s going to cost a lot more money. But we’re going to want a house first, and then we’re going to want to get married, which is also a lot of money, and if we have children, all that extra money. There’s so much money to live. It’s very nerve-wracking. It’s very stressful,” says Cable, who works at Canvey Island Youth Project.

Why is life like this? Cable lives in one of the most distorted areas for housing in the country, Castle Point. Sitting at the end of the Thames, the Essex constituency takes in Canvey Island and Benfleet.

On paper, you may think you can get the measure of Castle Point. It has the sixth highest rate of home ownership in the country, with 80.1% of households being homeowners. It is the third safest Conservative seat, with incumbent Rebecca Harris winning 60% of the vote in 2019. It had the sixth highest Brexit vote in 2016, a share of 72.7%. By those measures, its residents are winning politics. But what has politics delivered for Castle Point?

On a local council level, mainstream political parties have been rejected. Like nowhere else in the country, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens hold no seats. Instead, the council is ruled by a coalition of the Canvey Island Independent Party and the People’s Independent Party, who came to power and threw out what’s known as a “local plan” to build 5,300 homes. The government is trying to force the council to build more homes, shaming it as one of seven “consistent under-performance” local areas, but even plans for 84 new homes have been rejected in recent months.

‘If you haven’t been saving since you were like 14, it’s going to be so hard’

Jess Cable has been thinking about how to afford a home since she was 14. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

All of this comes together to shape Jess’s youth. She has worked in a pub kitchen, a nursery, as a football coach, and now a youth worker. At the moment, she lives with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s parents, and cannot see a way of moving out without buying a property. Rentals, she says, can reach £1,200 a month.

When I looked on RightMove the day after my visit, I could find just 43 properties to rent in Canvey Island and Benfleet. There were 756 for sale.

“To be honest, I’ve wanted to get on the property ladder for a long while, but it’s hard. I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my parents, so it’s always been in the back of my head: OK, how am I going to move out, better start saving early,” she says.

“You look at these house costs, the fact you’ve got to pay 30 grand deposit on these houses, it’s ridiculous. It’s just hard. If you haven’t been saving since you were like 14, 15, it’s going to be so hard to get on that,” she says.

Here are some more statistics which may help explain the situation: In 1995, the median house price in Castle Point was £57,000. In September 2023, it had risen to £362,500, compared to the England and Wales average of £285,000. House prices are 10.5 times greater than earnings, compared to the national average of 9.1 times.

Then there is age: 22.5% of residents in Castle Point are 65 and over, compared to 18.8% nationally in England and Wales. By one measure, it is the least educated place in the country, with the highest proportion of residents who have no qualifications beyond GCSE.

‘It’s probably hard to understand what it’s like for a young person’

Alex Hawkins has worked on Canvey Island her whole life, but is in fact from Benfleet. This makes her a “mainlander”, although “the young people don’t use those terms – it’s the older people that use those terms”.

As the CEO of the youth project, she sees the impact housing has on the lives of children who come through the centre’s yellow door.

“It varies a lot. The ones that have poor housing, some of them are in flats where they’re sharing rooms with their sisters when they’re teenagers. Sometimes their parents are sleeping on the sofas. Some of them are sharing bedrooms with their parents sometimes,” she says.

Artwork produced by children attending the Canvey Island Youth Project. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

The age divide, Hawkins explains, is not just present in low-stakes nicknames. “There’s enough room for more housing. It’s just people living here don’t want any more housing because obviously that will affect them,” she says. “It is just a conflict between the old people who bought their houses a long time ago, and the younger people who need housing. In particular, the social housing.”

There are older people who may not have needed to think about housing for half a century. “If you’re in that position, it’s probably hard to understand what it’s like for a young person who has to pay the rent,” she says.

“It’s very difficult to imagine what that’s like – but then you can see your open fields and you want to keep it the way it is. Which is totally understandable. But for those young people, you have to build those houses or they’re never going to live anywhere.”

Outside the youth project, on Canvey High Street, housing does not figure in the list of complaints. Instead, pot holes and the need for a third road off the island dominate conversation. There is little hope the election will bring change.

The need for a third road off Canvey Island features heavily in Del Goddard’s priorities. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

“I am fed up with it being on the telly,” says Julie, a lost Labour voter. “I went up to Tony Blair and that was it,” she adds.

“I can remember there was a time on Canvey in the 60s and 70s you could buy a one bed bungalow for £500,” says Del Goddard, who runs a flower stall outside an Indian restaurant.

‘People in Castle Point feel let down, but then people vote by habit’

Hoping to change the constituency is Mark Maguire. The 48-year-old IT worker is wearing a navy Converse t-shirt, jeans and white trainers. He started the campaign as one of the most long-shot Labour candidates, staring down a 26,634-vote Conservative majority, and ran to fulfil a promise made to his dad that he’d do it by the time he was 50. The campaign is a one-man show, with Maguire’s role spanning social media, leafleting, door knocking and beyond. It’s also involved safety briefings from the police and a level of online abuse which means his door is always locked at night.

“I live in Castle Point, even though people online say ‘he’s not local’. Well they don’t know I’m Welsh, they don’t know I’m Welsh. Nobody knows that because nobody’s really heard me speak,” Maguire said. “But they say I’m not local because they say I’m not from Castle Point. But that’s not true, I am, I live in Castle Point.”

He grew up in the Valleys but moved to Castle Point after meeting his wife online in 2007. By the time we meet, it’s something resembling a three-horse race. A recent poll from Sky News and YouGov has projected the Conservatives on 39.8%, Reform UK on 26.6%, and Labour on 26.6%. MRP polling by Survation on 15 June actually had Labour ahead on 36.7%, the Tories just behind on 35.9% and Reform lagging on 21.9%.

Mark Maguire, the Labour candidate for Castle Point in the 2024 General Election, stands with his hands behind his back
Mark Maguire hopes to overturn one of the biggest Tory majorities in the country. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

“Just to be close here. Even two months ago we thought this was going to be an also-ran seat, and suddenly we’re in with a shout. Now we want to spread our positive message, and we’re going to do that,” he says, sitting on a bench by the river which separates Benfleet and Canvey Island.

One interpretation has Castle Point as the land Thatcher created, and right to buy as a demographic magic wand pulling voters towards the Conservatives for a generation. But Maguire believes home ownership should no longer be a political dividing line.

“I really don’t think home ownership is relevant any more. The Labour Party – we’re not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party are we? He [Starmer] says it all the time, but he’s right. We are changed. We’re not looking at people and saying ‘take a step backwards’. We want everyone to be mobile and to look after themselves, absolutely. I don’t see how that makes any difference, really,” he says.

“There’s nothing wrong with having aspiration, is there? Having aspiration’s a good thing. I don’t think what they voted for is what they got, or what they thought they’d get. I really don’t.”

On housing, there is a tentative balance to Maguire’s comments – protecting the green belt, yes, but also adding more housing. “We can’t go gung-ho into these things. Do we need more social housing? Yes, probably. Do we need as much as some parts of the UK? Probably not,” he says.

“My plan would be to try to protect the green belt, but find better places – there are better places to build. There are greyfield they call it, brownfield sites to build on,” he says. The local plan, branded “deeply unpopular and non-adoptable” by the council “needs to be revisited properly, that’s all I’m saying”.

By 5 July, Maguire could be on his way to Westminster, likely held up as the kind of MP Labour needs to listen to if it is to keep former Tory strongholds. “I think people feel let down, but then people vote by habit,” he says.

“I’ll be disappointed in two weeks when it’s over. Back to reality then. Although I will have more time to watch the Euros.” 

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