A Plague of Rats: How Years of Austerity Prompted Many Britons to Vote for Brexit

Thanington is a deprived district on the outskirts of Canterbury which used to be called “Little Beirut” because of its high levels of crimeand violence.

Caroline Heggie, a local resident, says: “When I moved in in 1998, half the houses [in my street] were empty. Out of 40 houses, 20 were empty because of antisocial behaviour. I moved into my house which had a broken window where a crossbow bolt had been fired.”

Di Hutchinson, a teacher’s assistant who has lived in Thanington for 59 years, agrees with her, saying: “We had a terrible reputation.”

There were no facilities for communal activities and the toys for a children’s play group had to be kept in the gravediggers’ hut next to the cemetery. Anger over poor social conditions grew so intense that it provoked a riot in the late 1990s. A local social activist who objected to youths smashing bottles on the road and handed a bin bag full of broken glass to the mother of one of those responsible says he had bricks thrown at his house and firecrackers pushed through the letterbox.

Paul Todd, a former resident who works on housing and homelessness issues, says: “About 20 years ago it was regenerated when it got a large dose of money out of the European regeneration budget.” The funding was used to make extensive renovations such as putting new roofs on the council houses and renewing bathrooms and bedrooms so the homes of council tenants looked better than those privately owned. In addition, the regeneration money funded a community centre, known locally as the Resource Centre, which provides space for sports and recreation, as well as accommodation for children doing homework which they could not do at home.

Paula Spencer, who has managed the centre since it was built, adds that the EU “spent £2.5m in doing up the estate and getting rid of the rat-runs. It used to be that they would nick your video machine and disappear down an alleyway.” Crime and antisocial behaviour dropped by 50 per cent as the regeneration measures took effect. As a newly arrived council tenant, Heggie says that she had been worried by the crossbow bolt incident but “apart from one broken car window on my driveway I have had no trouble since”.

The EU intervention enabled Thanington – which I previously featured in the first instalment of this series – to lose its nickname of “Little Beirut”, but its residents complain that they have lacked public investment ever since, and that this is beginning to show. The 2,794 people who live there work mostly in low-wage jobs, often as cleaners or in supermarkets in and around Canterbury, or they are on benefits. Educational standards are low, illiteracy is high, and many single-parent families are headed by women. Nevertheless, residents and outside observers agree that Thanington retains a strong sense of communal solidarity.

“It’s largely retained its village identity,” says Todd, whose relatives still live there and who has great affection for its people. “Everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

The only state institution to help preserve this small and vulnerable community was the EU, so it is worth asking why so many of those living in Thanington voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. At first glance, their actions, repeated in many deprived areas receiving EU funds in England and Wales, appear to be an inexplicable example of social and economic self-harm. Nevertheless, it was probably the high Leave votes in deprived white housing estates which tipped the balance towards Britain voting for Brexit. So it is important to discover why people from such places voted as they did in such overwhelming numbers. Was it a vote very much determined by opposition to immigration, or was it a more general protest by the “left-behinds” and the “left-outs”?

Most people in Thanington voted for Britain to leave the EU, and they did so because they are poor and feel neglected, according to Todd, who has known the area for 30 years. He says that there is an “assumption there that immigration has affected their prospects. I don’t think people are aware of how much Thanington did benefit from the EU. The European regeneration money certainly made a huge impact on the quality of the housing stock up there. It probably gave some of the houses another chance, otherwise they might have been knocked down. Some people want immigration cut and others think that talk of another referendum is an indicator that their concerns haven’t been taken seriously.”

Brett Bellas, a residential support worker with five children who has lived in Thanington for 10 years, agrees that people there feel neglected by everyone in authority. He points out that the full name of the district is Thanington Without [the medieval walls of Canterbury] and says that a running joke for people living there is to refer to it as “Thanington Without Prayers or Hope or Money” – a bit tongue-in-cheek, he says, but “for me it’s [about] lack of [public] investment”.

Bellas did not mention and may not have known about the EU regeneration effort which happened before he started living on the estate after years of homelessness and holding insecure jobs. In any case, the impact of that funding is running out and there are signs of growing decrepitude and insecurity.

“It’s quite a deprived area,” he says. “There’s a lot of people with drug problems and alcohol issues, and they seem to be moving families in who have already been evicted from homes because of antisocial behaviour. Everyone’s got a right to live anywhere but it doesn’t do great things for the estate.

“Over the past summer, we had a lot of guys coming down from London and selling drugs. They’d move into a house, take it over and intimidate the tenant – ‘you’re going to sell this for us’ – a lot of guys in Mercedes, real high-end saloons, who don’t fit on the estate. Then there was the shooting in the summer, which was a direct result of these guys coming down from London and that happened just around the corner from us.”

“It’s a lack of funding and a lack of police. You only ever see police when these things happen and it’s after the fact. Our kids don’t play out on the street. I know all my neighbours and I know all their kids, but it’s really difficult because there are people from off the estate come to sell their drugs that I don’t know. We had a heroin dealer set up in the house next door to us and for about six weeks, we had people knocking on our door coming to pick up their drugs up and it took 50 phone calls to the police to get them to sort it out.”

The shooting Bellas refers to took place on 19 July last year when two men in balaclavas shot and seriously wounded Danny Mobey in Thanington’s Godwin Road.

Bellas voted Leave in the referendum, denying that this had anything to do with immigration and saying that his decision was more to do with democracy and resistance to power being devolved to a centralised European government and unelected officials making decisions on his behalf. He says: “I just feel that there is something quite sinister and secret about a federal government.”

About the economic consequences of departure from the EU, he is optimistic, arguing that the Germans, French and Spanish will want to go on selling goods to Britain. He says that a lot of people he knows had voted Leave influenced by “the Brexiteers’ promise that there would be £350m extra for the NHS”. His two biggest concerns are the lack of policing and the decline of the NHS, where his wife works as a nurse, and which he fears the government wants to privatise.

Even in a place as small as Thanington, perceptions of violence vary markedly from street to street and person to person. Di Hutchinson agrees that things are getting worse: “I was ill last Christmas and I saw a drug deal going down and I was shocked because it was the first time I’d ever seen it.” Overall, however, residents and outside observers say that Thanington is no worse than other housing estates and other areas of deprivation anywhere in UK. (There are more affluent parts of the district away from the estate.)

Financial aid from the EU and other advantages stemming from membership had little effect on poor Leave voters in 2016. Either the EU’s achievements were under-publicised, or – and this is probably the crucial factor – whatever the EU did was not enough to counterbalance a pervasive sense among millions of voters that their lives are getting more pressured and insecure. This was as true in east Kent as it was in Cornwall, an example of ingratitude for EU largesse often cited. That county has a population of 530,000 and received €654m (£574m) from the EU between 2007 and 2013. It was due to receive another €600m before 2020, yet 54.5 per cent voted Leave.

Fear of immigration was probably the most important factor in the way people voted, but so too was the privatisation and outsourcing of utitlities and services, job insecurity, decline in real wages, high rents, deindustrialisation and a lack of cheap transport. The EU and its supporters can justly complain that Brussels is being unfairly scapegoated for failings that it has nothing to do with, and which should be blamed rather on globalisation, privatisation and the austerity policies pursued by Conservative governments.

Yet, even if the EU is not responsible, this does not mean that the deep discontent revealed by the referendum result is not real. Simply put, Brexit is a symptom as well as a cause of the crisis which has enveloped Britain and envenomed its politics. The ill-considered Remain slogan of 2016 – “Better Together” – was never going to resonate with those whose standard of living had stagnated or deteriorated over the past decade despite Britain being in the EU.

Thanington is a useful microcosm showing why so many all over Britain feel they are on the receiving end of multiple pressures. In many respects, Thanington is a community that feels under siege. Just to its south, a large new housing development is under construction. Spencer – described by one former resident as being “if not the heart beat [of Thanington], the one who brings heartbeats together” – says that this is worrying news for the community. She says that the two new communities with respectively 750 and 450 private houses being built means that “all the traffic going there will have to pass through the estate, which will cause resentment”. There will be little parking and children will no longer be able to play games in the street.

Transport is already scarce: according to Spencer, it takes two bus trips to get to the nearest doctor, while there is only one bus every two hours in the evening. A planned new exit from the A2, which is being contested by local residents, will make Thanington even more isolated from the rest of Canterbury than it is at present. And as houses become more expensive and cost far more than the present population on their low-paying jobs can afford, the traditional community will break up as parents find that their children have to move off the estate if they want find anywhere cheap enough to live.

Even more seriously, the insecure low-paid work done by many in Thanington does not provide enough to pay rent and food. The result is reliance on food banks and free school meals. Caroline Heggie says that people are becoming more and more indebted “because now you’ve got companies giving out credit cards to people with low credit ratings”.

A telling sign of the growing deprivation in Thanington – and the sort of event which may explain why people there failed to endorse the status quo in 2016 – is a recent plague of rats.

“People came to me and said that there were rats in their kitchens, rats in their children’s bedrooms, running over kids’ feet, and under bathrooms so there was raw sewage seeping everywhere,” says Spencer. The origin of the rat infestation is unclear: it may be that rats were disturbed by the new housing construction in nearby fields, or that the council no longer deals with rubbish that has been left to pile up. Cuts in public services of all kinds have hit Thanington hard, and services dropped include pest control.

A rat catcher charges £60, which tenants must now pay themselves though there may be 10 or 12 rats to be disposed of, necessitating more than one visit. Heggie says: “You used to have council ‘rat people’, but because of austerity, you don’t have them anymore.”


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).