England in 2019: Split by wealth but united by Brexit

They sit side by side, separated by a small green used by dog walkers. And yet the income disparity between the densely populated Prenton Dell estate, and an adjoining hill of Edwardian mansions in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, is among the steepest in England. 

According to a new report by academics at the University of Sheffield, the estate is inside the top 0.5 per cent of the most deprived areas of England. The suburban neighbourhood it sits directly next to is within the most affluent 4 per cent.

This is one of 155 areas of the country highlighted by the “English Atlas of Inequality”, published on Friday, which maps income disparity street by street using the latest data. Its authors call it a “cheek by jowl index”, a reference to how it has revealed how some of the country’s poorest communities live in clusters alongside the wealthiest.

In a general election where Labour has placed tackling inequality at the heart of its manifesto, pledging a radical programme of social and economic reform paid for by increased taxes on business and the rich, the choice in such places should be clear cut.

But visiting two of England’s hotspots of inequality this month revealed how Brexit has created a much more confusing picture.

Chart showing how often political manifestos mentioned Brexit and inequality. Labour mentioned inequality more than Brexit. Lib Dems mentioned inequality 11 times but Brexit much more. The Conservatices mentioned Brexit over 60 times but inequality just twice

Britain’s protracted divorce from the EU has driven a wave of anger and anxiety across the country, overriding some of the very grievances — between north and south, metropolitan and left behind — that pushed the Leave vote over the line in the 2016 Brexit referendum. On both sides of the wealth divide there are voters who feel unmoored from ancestral party loyalty or unrepresented altogether, as a result. 

In places such as Birkenhead and Havant, 260 miles from Liverpool near the south coast city of Portsmouth, it is Boris Johnson’s message of “Get Brexit Done” that is cutting through.

“It is making me angry, and people like me angry, that it’s not done and dusted,” said Alan Dollery, who chairs the residents association on the Prenton Dell estate.

A map of spatial inequality in England. The areas with greatest inequality are generally in the midlands and the north

But he has nevertheless been left scratching his head in advance of this year’s poll — as repelled by the radical leftwing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn as he was mistrustful of the Tory prime minister, Mr Johnson. 

“I feel really disheartened about the choice of who we are going to put in power to get this Great Britain back on the tracks,” added Mr Dollery. 

In the Saddle Club, a nearby community club, Tommy Kennedy’s confusion was typical. He was a strong believer in leaving the EU. But his animosity to the Tories was even stronger. 

Alan Dollery, Chair person for the Preston residence association.Birkenhead. 19/11/19
Alan Dollery: ‘I feel really disheartened about the choice’
Frank Field. In the Market. Birkenhead. 20/11/19
Frank Field is standing as an independent after falling out with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

“If the choice is between having Brexit with the Conservatives and Labour I will vote Labour,” said Mr Kennedy. “The Tories have always destroyed the north of England.”

Speak to people on the wealthier side of Prenton and, surprisingly perhaps, people are more sympathetic to Mr Corbyn’s agenda than one might expect.

“If we are to get out of the situation we are in, it is realistic that people on a higher income should be contributing more in taxes,” said a communications professional who asked not to be named.

A map of spatial inequality in Birkenhead. The West is generally more affluent, the East less so. There is one area in Prenton where one of the most deprived areas in the country abutts one of the most affluent

Frank Field, Birkenhead’s popular Labour MP since 1979, who is standing as an independent after falling out with Mr Corbyn, lamented the country’s failure to close the gap between the poor and the wealthy. “One of the things we have failed to do as a modern economy is to build a bridge to link the two,” he said.

In Havant, a leave-voting stronghold, the contrast in living standards is just as pronounced. 

Leigh Park was once the largest social housing estate in Europe. It is now a working class enclave, with pockets of severe deprivation, inside a much wealthier area of bayside villages and leafy suburbs. The brutalist concrete shopping centre at its heart, is made up of pawnbrokers, betting shops and charity outlets. 

Rosamund Knight, Havant Labour Party delegate. In Leigh Park. Hampshire. For piece by William Wallis 15/11/19
Labour’s candidate in Havant, Rosamund Knight
East Street, Havant, false shop fronts. 14/11/19
Some of the fake shop fronts in Havant

“It’s a dying town. There are so many closed units they put fake fronts on hoardings,” said Rosamund Knight, the Labour candidate in the constituency. “We have to laugh or we’d cry.”

Ms Knight, a mother of three, has a mountain to climb to overturn the 15,956 majority enjoyed by the Conservative’s candidate Alan Mak. Labour’s most leftwing manifesto in decades was not necessarily helping. 

The estate, which once had a solid Labour vote, was swept by a Tory tide in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy council houses, appealing to an aspirant working class. Nearly two-thirds of housing is now in private hands. 

A map of income deprivation in Havant that shows how the Leigh Park estate is geographically and economically isolated from the rest of the constituency

A support group for mothers with children with the developmental disorder Asperger’s syndrome was meeting at the Hub café. Most of the women had voted Labour in the past. But despite suffering directly from cuts to child mental healthcare, they were caught in similar pre-election confusion as Mr Dollery, up north. 

“I wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I can throw them and I have a black belt in judo,” said Chris, a special needs adviser, of the two main election protagonists. 

“I think Corbyn is saying everything he can to make people vote for him and it’s totally unrealistic. It’s like offering a kid a family sized bar of chocolate and at the end of the week he can’t afford it,” chipped in Ysanne, who, for want of social assistance, looks after her child full time. 

Alan Mak. Conservative MP Candidate. 14/11/19 delivering leaflets North Hayling
Conservative candidate Alan Mak
Tony (wouldn't give his full name) in The Blue Bell pub , Emsworth. 14/11/19
Tony: ‘The Leigh Park-Emsworth divide doesn’t exist in terms of this particular debate. They want the same thing — Britain for the British’

Nearby is Emsworth, an elegant village on the bay where a local estate agent said a bungalow at the most desirable waterfront address would cost £1m or more. The village is a redoubt of retired navy admirals, stockbrokers down from London, and even some Leigh Park veterans made good. Where there are bingo halls and boxing clubs on the estate, in Emsworth it is all yachts and golf.

“I’m Boris all the way. He’s got to grips with Brexit and made difficult decisions,” said the estate agent, who declined to give his name.

The extreme divide in the area implied by income data, was not borne out socially on the ground. “I am sat here with a millionaire and you can comfortably talk to us both,” said Michael Hayes, a window cleaner, propping up a bar on a blustery afternoon. 

A pair of scatterplot charts showing that in both Birkenhead and Havant, votes to leave the EU were strongly correlated with deprivation

At the Blue Bell Inn, a group of friends suggested Brexit, among other things, was a unifying factor. 

“The Leigh Park-Emsworth divide doesn’t exist in terms of this particular debate. They want the same thing — Britain for the British,” said Tony, who made money selling superyachts in the south of France and was known at the bar by his nickname “Farage”. 

“The country voted, why aren’t the politicians delivering?” he said.

Photographs by Anna Gordon/FT


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