Thanington is a deprived area beside the River Stour on the western outskirts of Canterbury. Before the pandemic many people here were working on zero-hour contracts as cleaners or supermarket shelf-stackers. Many settled Traveller families with a strong sense of solidarity live here, but the level of education in the area is low. Paula Spencer, who runs the local community centre, told me she was stopped in the street by a 15-year-old boy who asked her to type ‘BBC’ into Google on his phone because he didn’t know how to spell it. Twenty years ago the district used to be known locally as Little Beirut, thanks to the high incidence of violence and crime. This reputation had ebbed, though local people remain wary of talking to the police and speak of gangs taking over houses on the estates to sell drugs.
Compliance with lockdown rules was initially high: from the end of March there were no children playing in the streets even though large families were crammed into houses too small for them. Many people were terrified of coronavirus, according to a resident who doesn’t want his name published. His mother died recently, but not of Covid-19. ‘I think she really died of fear,’ he said. ‘She suffered badly from kidney disease, which made her feel vulnerable to coronavirus, and she was so terrified of getting it that the anxiety killed her.’ ‘The local reaction at the start of the pandemic was similar to when Aids first appeared,’ Spencer said. ‘The scaremongering and the unbalanced reporting by the media – including the social media, where most people here get their news – combined with a lack of knowledge, education and understanding.’ People became more afraid than they needed to be. She hadn’t heard of anybody in the area dying of the disease, though one young man she knew had committed suicide.
People already facing problems were unable to take the strain of being cooped up for so long. ‘My husband was a recovering alcoholic,’ a woman who has lived in Thanington for forty years told me, ‘but he went back on the booze and lost his job as a cleaner.’ She said that many people in the community had been drinking more in order to cope and predicted many divorces. Some haven’t been able to pay their rent and risk eviction and homelessness. She herself had run up debt on her credit card because she had no alternative: she was having to decide which bills she could afford to pay. Walking through central Canterbury before the reopening of pubs and restaurants on 4 July, she felt it was a ghost town: jobs were bound to disappear because many small businesses would never open up again.
Not everybody is so pessimistic. Older people in Thanington say children found it easier to adapt to lockdown. Job security was crucial to adults’ peace of mind. ‘I was off work from 27 March and only returned a couple of weeks ago,’ said Craig Hayes, who works as a caretaker at Canterbury Academy and has five children. ‘I was on full pay and I was left alone throughout the time off. We bought materials to do up the house so I have spent most of the time doing that while the kids played in the garden.’ He had been lucky so far, he said, though he worried about a second wave of the virus. Caroline Heggie, another long-term resident, is unemployed herself but said: ‘Both my neighbours work as hospital cleaners and their jobs are safer than ever.’ Pubs, restaurants, hotels and shops might not reopen, but she was encouraged that some supermarkets were taking on more workers, while those with hospital jobs were protected as ‘key workers’ – her daughter, for example, who had tested positive for the virus and was self-isolating in Dover.
I first visited Thanington early last year as an example of a poor white working-class district in which the majority had voted for Britain to leave the EU. It has a mixture of council and private housing and an estimated population of 2758 – low enough to allow its problems to be seen in some detail. Residents admitted that their area had a bad reputation. ‘I can’t even get my son to visit me, because he says the place is a shithole,’ one of them said. Its full name is Thanington Without, since it lies outside Canterbury’s medieval walls, but the residents sarcastically suggested that the name reflected the fact that it is ‘without a prayer, money or hope’. This is no longer quite as true as it was in the 1990s, when municipal workers refused to enter the main housing estate south of Ashford Road because they considered it too dangerous, and toys for a children’s playgroup on the estate had to be kept overnight in a gravediggers’ hut in the cemetery because there was nowhere else to put them. At one point the lack of essential services provoked a riot.
The turnround came twenty years ago, thanks to a £2.5 million grant from the EU regeneration budget. The money paid for new roofs and general refurbishment of the council houses as well as the building of a community centre with sports facilities and rooms where children could do homework. The crime rate halved and people in the rest of Canterbury stopped comparing Thanington to Beirut. But the district remains very poor: ‘It’s an area of huge deprivation with high unemployment and benefit dependency,’ said Paul Todd, who used to live there and works for a charity helping the homeless. ‘People are on the breadline and still have to use the foodbank,’ Spencer said, ‘even if a husband and wife both have jobs and are working as hard as they can.’ Austerity has chipped away at the improvements made with EU money. ‘A simple walk around the estate shows that it is more and more decrepit,’ Todd said, and pointed to uncollected rubbish, fly-tipping and the lack of repairs.
Among the signs of deterioration was a serious rat infestation last year. ‘People came to me and said there were rats in their kitchens, rats in their children’s bedrooms, running over kids’ feet,’ Spencer said. ‘Under bathrooms there was raw sewage seeping everywhere.’ The rat invasion may have been caused by work starting on construction sites for two new high-price private housing estates, with 750 and 450 houses apiece. Central government cuts to council budgets meant that Canterbury City Council allowed rubbish to accumulate, attracting rats, and was no longer operating a vermin control service. One family protected their house by giving their fence a concrete base sunk eight inches into the ground, with broken glass mixed into the concrete to prevent the rats from gnawing through. Late last year one of the construction companies paid for a rat eradication scheme that seems to have been effective.
The substantial aid from Brussels that had improved the area was spent long ago: residents could argue that whatever the EU had done it wasn’t enough to transform their lives, if they even knew that was where the money had come from. In any case, by the time of the referendum in 2016 conditions were deteriorating in new ways, not only as a result of council budget cuts. ‘We have had a lot of guys coming down from London and selling drugs,’ said Brett Bellas, a residential support worker. ‘They’d move into a house, take it over and intimidate the tenant: “You’ve got to sell this for us.”’ There were ‘a lot of guys in Mercedes, real high-end saloons, who don’t come from the estate’. A sign of this creeping criminalisation was the serious wounding of a man by two gunmen wearing balaclavas in what was said locally to be a drug-related shooting.
After at first complying with government lockdown regulations, many in Thanington abandoned voluntary self-isolation after the news broke in late May of Dominic Cummings’s 260-mile journey with his family to Durham two months earlier. This was the decisive moment for Caroline Heggie and many people she knows: ‘If somebody high up like Cummings can go off on holiday, why shouldn’t we visit our Auntie Flo?’ Heggie thought the community was divided between those who downplayed the danger and those who were still keeping to their houses, with NHS workers among the more cautious. There was a general consensus that children should be kept out of school for as long as possible, even though they were getting little schooling at home because their parents are too poorly educated to help them and the children don’t have laptops for online work.
Thanington is ill equipped to cope with the pressures of a post-lockdown economic recession. The low-paying jobs that residents relied on are disappearing faster here than elsewhere in the country. Canterbury has never been a rich city, despite the large number of restaurants, cafés and pubs catering for tourists and for the tens of thousands of staff and students at the University of Kent, Christ Church University and other educational institutions. These provide jobs, but most are poorly paid. Even before the pandemic, Canterbury had the second highest proportion of children living in poverty in Kent. Shops were already closing on the high street, as they are elsewhere in Britain, but the inevitable recession is likely to be particularly bad here because tourism and university teaching are vulnerable to the fear of infection and the measures necessary to prevent it. Government subsidies won’t alter the fact that many people who used to spend money in Canterbury aren’t going to come back. Foreign students paying high fees were already questioning the value for money of a UK university degree, and British students will be chary of going into debt and paying high rents in cities like Canterbury if they know that tuition will be mostly online. One way or another, jobs for Thanington residents will vanish. The charities that once helped them, like the community centre where Paula Spencer works, are running out of money and at risk of permanent closure. Canterbury may soon be hit by a cataclysmic recession, with the poorest parts hit hardest. Comparisons between Thanington and Beirut may once again be made.