When people talk of the Southeast region of England, it can often come across in two distinct ways. One way people mention the area is in a pejorative way, alluding to the region’s perceived blandness, as if it were the magnolia paint of British regions. On the other hand, it can sometimes sound as if strangers are talking of a utopia when they reference the Southeast. when people say ‘Kent’, often the first thing that comes to mind is ‘the garden of England.’ When people talk of Sussex, we often think of the sunny beaches of Brighton, and certainly nobody could deny the fabulous history and academic prestige of Oxford.
The Southeast is often known to be one of the wealthiest regions in the UK, it has several prestigious higher education institutions, a highspeed rail line, and more importantly, relatively better weather compared to the rest of the UK (sorry Edinburgh, but it’s true). So, who in their right mind would want to change anything about the Southeast, let alone the current political order?
Well, according to the Care Quality Commission, Kent and Sussex have some of the lowest adult social care ratings in the country and parts of Surrey and Sussex have the worst GP practice ratings in the UK. With a flurry of cuts to the NHS, this Tory government has left health services across the country and in the Southeast under severe pressure.
Take the constituency of Canterbury, for which I am MP, as an example. Tory cuts have meant that all acute procedures from Canterbury hospital have been cancelled. This means that anybody who suffers a stroke or a heart attack must travel all the way to Ashford before they can receive the ‘urgent’ care they so desperately need. These cuts are reducing medical services, putting NHS staff under great financial and psychological stress, and risking the lives of citizens in need of medical attention. In many cases, the people most at risk are the elderly who live in rural areas. By the time an ambulance reaches those people and escorts them an hour away to the nearest hospital for emergency medical treatment, the chances of survival can be very slim indeed.
Another thing, which is often glossed over by Tory politicians, is the sheer level of economic deprivation in some areas of the Southeast. In Kent, 21 local wards fall within the 10% threshold of most deprived areas in England2 and in Sussex this number is 143. What is arguably more shocking, is that in some parts of Oxford, child poverty rates are close to 29%, in Hastings and Rye this figure is close to 32%, and in South Thanet, this figure is close to 33%4.
These horrifying figures paint a picture. The picture is that under the Tories, the Southeast is a place where there is increasingly a greater gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ the many and the few. So, yes, while the southeast remains one of the richest regions in the UK, cuts to social welfare has meant an increasing disparity between the wealthiest few and everybody else.
Things are worse now than ever before; it angers me that this government continues its careless crusade on the public sector and on social welfare, when children are going hungry and more and more families are relying on foodbanks to stay alive. Not voting Labour is a luxury that the Southeast and the UK can no longer afford.
Speaking then of luxury, the mere concept of home ownership is something reserved for an elite few. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show not only that house prices in the southeast are higher than in most other regions in the UK, but also house prices are rising faster than most of the UK6. One of the reasons for this is that better transportation links, such as the introduction of HS1, has meant that wealthy individuals are moving out of London into surrounding regions close enough to commute to the city. With already dwindling availability of housing, any available houses are becoming more and more expensive to buy. This means a growing lack of affordable housing, and combined with the cuts on public spending, social housing availability is at disastrously low levels.
Rising house prices not only exacerbates the level of inequality between wealthy landlords and renters, but the cost of renting has also meant that more and more people cannot even afford a rented roof above their head. In fact, when population size is considered, some of the worst rates of rough sleeping in the UK can be found in Southeast towns and cities such as Brighton and Hove, Canterbury and Hastings7. Rough sleeping, especially in the terrible weather we have been exposed to this year, can be incredibly dangerous. This year alone, I was made aware of the death of two of my rough sleeping constituents over the cold winter months, and it really brought home the harsh reality of what a lack of housing and well-funded social services for our most vulnerable citizens can cause. The southeast needs more housing, but not just for the wealthy few, but for the many who cannot afford the extortionate prices that currently exist, we need more social and truly affordable housing desperately.
So yes, the Southeast is a region of great natural beauty, of ancient historical importance, and great social diversity and vibrancy. However, it would not be right to celebrate the brilliance of the Southeast without recognising the disadvantages and difficulties that many of its residents face. The Southeast needs Labour. The complacency of its Tory politicians has meant that the inequality in the region has been ignored and the plight of the many has been sacrificed for the privilege of an elite few. Only a Labour Government can rectify these issues and ensure a Southeast which serves everybody equally.
Rosie Duffield MP for Canterbury
- The state of health care and adult social care in England 2016/17, Care Quality Commission, 2017.