NOT far from where Britain’s first aeroplanes were built and some of the Royal Navy’s finest ships sailed, there is little hope for the future.
Walk along the high street of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent and the locals will tell you the same thing – “this town is dead”.
That sense of despondency can be seen in the huge mural next to the amusement arcades closed for winter where a mermaid has a hand on a detonator, ready to blow up the sea.
With one of the worst crime rates for a British small town, one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and almost half the children living in poverty, that sense of pessimism is understandable.
So is the lack of sympathy for the idea that too much levelling up money is going to the South East.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was criticised this week for giving £210 million for ten projects in the region, while the likes of the West Midlands or Yorkshire and Humber will receive less.
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But the residents of Sheerness believe the isolated seaside town is in need of the £20 million it has been awarded.
Pauline Luddington, 84, who has lived in Sheerness her whole life, says: “It used to be a very busy little town, everybody used to come here, the Dutch and the Danes on a ferry from Holland.
“Now there is nothing here.
“Sheerness needs help just as much as anywhere else.”
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Certainly, a visit to the town of just under 12,000 disproves the myth that the streets of southern England are paved with gold.
Residents tell of play areas being set alight, drugs being sold openly on the high street, shops closing and muggers on the prowl.
Cleaner Pearl Morgan, 59, claims: “They need to use the money to clean the streets up and get rid of the drugs.
“You can buy them on one end of the high street, walk to the other, buy more, and then get mugged.”
While young couple Jason Kettle, 31, and Janine Harris, 25, spoke about yobbish behaviour by disaffected youths.
Pregnant mother-of-two Janine says: “They poured petrol over the play area and burned it.
“The town is full of drugs. There is a smell of weed outside.”
Jason is one of the many residents looking for work.
In December the unemployment rate was 8.6 per cent, which is more than double the current national average and double that of Swale borough in which the town sits.
Matters are even more dire in one part of Sheerness West, where only a quarter of the people were economically active according to 2021’s census results.
Jason says: “The dock is the main employer and if you can’t get in there are few opportunities.
“I did a bit of painting and decorating, but since Covid it’s a lot worse.”
Sheerness is one of many deprived areas in the South East that enjoyed a glorious past.
The Royal Navy dockyard built the 60 gun HMS Medway as far back as 1693.
But it closed in 1960, along with a naval garrison, which meant the loss of more than 2,500 jobs.
Just along the northern coast of Sheppey, an island which sits in the Thames estuary about 40 miles from London, is arguably the birthplace of aviation in the UK.
The Short Brothers chose Leysdown on the island to build the Wright Brothers' first ever planes.
And it was from Shellbeach that John Moore-Brabazon made the first flight in Britain by a British aviator in 1909.
There was also a steelworks in the town but it ceased production in 2011.
One man who is proud of the island’s past is local MP Gordon Henderson.
The 74-year-old Conservative, who has represented the seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey since 2010, rattles off its historical achievements when we meet at his office in Milton Regis back on the mainland.
He has campaigned for levelling up funds to be dished out in Sheerness and believes that the town can be turned around.
Gordon says that the port is “expanding” and “one of biggest importers of foreign cars comes through Sheerness”.
The £20million will help to improve Beachfield's seafront, adding a cafe, outdoor gym, soft play area and adventure golf.
“By providing more leisure facilities for local people we’ll also be helping get back to the days when Sheppey was a tourism attraction,” the MP says.
Understandably, on a cold January day there are no tourists about.
But locals insist there is little to attract visitors even in the summer.
Brian Osborne, 48, who works at the docks, says: “There is nothing to do here. There is a playground and swimming pool, but we don’t have a cinema.”
The shingle beach isn’t visible from the town because of the concrete flood defence walls and there are none of the usual signs of British seaside fun such as beach balls hanging from shop fronts or candy floss stalls.
Locals complain that most of the shops are either hairdressers or nail bars.
There are few high street brands in Sheerness and the Bon Marche clothes store was one of the most recent to close its doors.
Greengrocer Lewis Feaver, 37, whose store has been family-run for 140 years, says: “We need to attract tourists.
“It would be good to use the money to spruce up the town.”
Gary Contant, 48, who works in a hardware store, was one of many people to blame the council for driving people out of the town centre with expensive parking.
He adds: “There is a lack of hope.”
A couple of locals cruelly suggested that the levelling up money should be used to level the town and start again.
But you wouldn’t need a mermaid armed with TNT to do that.
One mile off the coast of Sheerness sits the wreck of a United States cargo ship that ran aground in 1944 during World War II.
It holds 3,172 tonnes of high explosive, which according to scientists would cause one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history if it was to go off.
Thankfully, the levelling-up money is going to be spent far more wisely.
It will also be heading to Sheppey College, which provides much needed skills and training.
The most recent census shows that in some parts of Sheerness as much as 40 per cent of the population have no qualifications.
Local school the Oasis Academy, which has sites in both Sheerness and Minster on the Isle of Sheppey, was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors last year.
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Poor education is linked to low wages and figures in 2018 revealed a child poverty rate of 44 per cent in Sheerness East, well above the national average of 27 per cent.
Gordon states: “If they are talking about levelling up they have got to remember that many areas in the so-called affluent South East have deep deprivation and Sheerness is one of those.”
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