Chatham, United Kingdom – From the quiet corner of a library nestled in the heart of Charles Dickens country, Vince Maple’s calm voice belies his frustration.
Of late, he explains, it has been the worst of times for his hometown in southeast England, situated just 50 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of the capital, London.
Perched by the River Medway, Chatham was once the stomping ground of the famed author and, for centuries, a shipbuilding powerhouse courtesy of the local dockyard.
Now, however, it lies testament to years of recent struggle; home to a tired high street and surrounding residential roads where dilapidated houses rub up, row-upon-row, against one another.
The decline can be traced back to the 1980s, when the dockyard was closed down and some 7,000 jobs evaporated almost overnight. “We’ve never replaced that,” Maple, a local councillor since 2007, admits softly as the library empties around him, casting young students and volunteers out into the biting cold of a winter night.
But it was in the last decade, he says, that things really took a turn for the worse as the town was ravaged by the United Kingdom‘s age of austerity, forcing its poorest residents to confront levels of hardship that echo Victorian-era Britain.
“Austerity to me is a working person having to access a charity to have enough food to eat,” explains Maple, who is running as the main opposition Labour Party‘s candidate for the constituency of Chatham and Aylesford in the UK’s upcoming December 12 general election.
“We are one of the biggest economies on the planet, so how on earth we have got to the situation where people who are deemed to be in good quality jobs are having to access charity to survive is just ludicrous.”
From ‘cradle to grave’
The UK has a storied history of offering a safety net for those deemed most in need of it.
In 1945, after World War II had drawn to a close in Europe, the newly-elected left-leaning Labour Party government immediately moved to reshape the country after successfully campaigning on a promise to tackle poverty.
Under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee, it passed a series of measures designed to take care of the British people from “the cradle to the grave”, creating over a period of six years what has since come to be known as the “Welfare State”.
Since then, healthcare has been free at the point of use in the UK’s National Health Service, financial protections have been afforded to the unemployed, and public housing provided to those who are homeless, or deemed to be most at the need of it.
But recently, the system has been creaking; edging closer than ever to breaking point as successive Conservative-led governments have overseen sweeping budget cuts as part of an austerity agenda ostensibly aimed at rebalancing Britain’s books in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
The tightening – although not as draconian as in other European countries, such as Greece – saw funding for local authorities and public services slashed and welfare provisions dramatically cut back, helping reduce the UK’s budget deficit from nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to below 2 percent.
Funding for councils – Britain’s fundamental unit of local government, which are responsible for the provision of an array of services including social care, schooling and housing – will have fallen by 60 percent by 2020, according to the Local Government Association.
Austerity to me is a working person having to access a charity to have enough food to eat.
The impact has been profound, transforming what it means to be poor in 21st-century Britain and prompting scorn from the United Nations over the “great misery … inflicted unnecessarily” by the policy in villages, towns and cities throughout the UK.
“The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings,” Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote in a scathing November 2018 assessment of austerity’s impacts after visiting the UK.
“The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the second world war has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos,” he added.
Austerity has coincided with a sharp downturn in many indicators tracking public wellbeing across the UK.
Hospital waiting times have hit the worst levels on record, food banks are increasingly relied on to plug the gaps left behind by low-paid, insecure jobs or inadequate benefit provision, and the number of children and elderly people living in absolute poverty has risen.
But the most visible impact of the policy, for Maple, has been the rise in the number of people sleeping on the streets
“The most visual thing undoubtedly across Medway, and on Chatham high street, in particular, is the number of street homeless,” he says, ruefully.
In Medway, the unitary authority under which Chatham falls, the number of people living on the streets has risen by at least 171 percent this decade, according to the latest figures compiled by Kent County Council.
Amid the crisis, local organisations such as the homeless shelter run by Liz Shaw and Marc Silvester have stepped in to try and help out.
Just off the high-street, which is lined by budget stores and shuttered-up shops, the pair have hunkered down in the corner of the shelter’s supply room to weigh up One Big Family’s importance to its users.
Around them, boxes filled with soup, baby clothes and donated shoes jostle for space with stacks of duvets and pillows; all readied for the harsh winter months that still lie ahead.
“You know, there are some members of our trustees’ board here, who sort of say, well, you shouldn’t be doing that because such and such agency should be doing that,” Shaw explains.
“Well, the point is, they’re not doing it and they can’t afford to do it, and so we are and we will do it,” she adds, defiantly.
“We just, we do what’s needed when it’s needed, but yeah, it is a shame that we are needed at all. But until we are not, we will just carry on … we are plugging gaps.”
Offering a cooked meal, a warm bed and a hot shower in the morning, the shelter is a port of refuge for up to 20 rough sleepers in Chatham and its surrounding areas every weekend evening from November through March, when temperatures hover close to zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), and frequently drop below freezing point.
Silvester, whose own association with the charity stretches back to 2017, when he sought assistance during a period of homelessness, nervously points out the critical importance of making sure those basic needs are met.
“When asked about the shelter, we can say no one died [on our watch],” he explains, with tears in his eyes.
“It is important, because people do die [sleeping outside] in the extreme cold, and if we can save one person, that has to be something.”
In December 2016, two homeless men were found dead in Chatham in the space of one week, just a fraction of the thousands of people who have died on the UK’s streets in increasing numbers in recent years.
Austerity’s introduction, Conservative leaders suggested at the time, would also help bring about a so-called “Big Society”, in which charities, private companies and grassroots organisations would step in to the space left by the retreat of the state and deliver efficient public services.
In part, it has achieved that – despite the party having long-since ditched the slogan – with a steady stream of people across the UK turning out to volunteer at shelters, foodbanks and other charitable services in recent years.
But any increase in the community spirit that has fostered has been offset by the thinning out of meeting places and local institutions such as pubs, post offices, or sport centres, Danielle Day, a coordinator for Chatham-based charity the All Saints Project, argues.
“You’re coming into contact with less people, which makes for less aspiration,” she says, adding that many people’s lives were becoming “smaller, and harder”.
“Austerity was sold to us as ‘we all have to tighten our belts’ and then we will all be out of it, but it seems only poor people had to batten down the hatches.”
As Day speaks, volunteers busy themselves with running the centre – a point of assistance for those needing help claiming benefits support, seeking a foodbank voucher, or simply wanting a cup of tea and someone to talk to.
From young to old, the situation for many who come through the door is dire. Over the course of a morning, middle-aged women, 20-something men, and a handful of elderly people all step over the threshold.
“We are seeing people who cannot afford food, we are seeing people who cannot afford school uniforms for their children … it is a genuine, genuine poverty,” Day explains.
Look at the queues for foodbanks, look at the numbers of homeless people on our streets. This is what people should be angry about.
In Chatham, as elsewhere in the UK, those reliant on curtailed state support or working low-income jobs in an economy where wages are stagnant have faced a similar problem – making less stretch further and further as rents increase and the prices of staples such as food and heating continue to rise.
“There is a real struggle … we have people ring up and they break down on the phone and cry,” explains Diane Hatcher, an administrator for the All Saints Project.
“People shouldn’t be doing that, they should be able to live in a home, be safe, be warm and have food on the table,” she adds. “[But] whether they’re in work or not, there are too many people out there who need help … things are getting worse, rather than better.”
‘This is what people should be angry about’
Almost 10 years on from the beginnings of austerity, Chatham and the rest of the UK is readying to have its say in a general election – its fourth this decade.
But the anger and frustration felt by Maple and others in the town over the policy is at risk of being drowned out.
Despite pledges from the Conservative Party that “austerity is over” and promises from the Labour Party to radically shake up the UK economy, as polling day nears, Brexit has once more cannibalised almost every other talking point in the national political conversation.
The noise surrounding the UK’s long-running drama over its bid to depart the European Union is hard to break through, says Maple, whose bid to unseat incumbent Conservative Member of Parliament Tracey Crouch is anticipated to be a bellwether for which way the election will go.
“If you stop people in the high street and say what is this election about, not what is your most important issue, they will say Brexit,” he explains.
“They will say that because that’s what the narrative has been.”
But while arguments continue to swirl over what kind of future the UK wants to fashion for itself, those on the front lines of hard times in Chatham say there are more pressing concerns about the state of the nation today.
“For 90 percent of people, Brexit is abstract, and yet that’s all we seem to have been shouting about for years,” says Shaw, incredulously, as a middle-aged man politely enters the room to collect his possessions, stuffed in a single plastic bag.
“Look at the queues for foodbanks, look at the numbers of homeless people on our streets. This is what people should be angry about.”
Maple, preparing to hit the campaign trail again, agrees.
“The United Kingdom has often been held up as the benchmark of democracy, and as a good society, but I’m not sure if we are in that position [anymore],” he reflects.
“Austerity needed to have ended yesterday. No, last month even, or last year.”