Please note that I partially rewrote this post in November 2016. While the fundamental problems remained, the political scene had transformed in the 3 years since I originally wrote it especially after the vote to leave the European Union. Scroll to the bottom for another map and a drone video from Deal Pier (2014).
It’s interesting when you return to a place you know after years away and view it with fresh eyes. Why does East Kent struggle to get businesses to locate here, grow here and make jobs here?
The most striking thing, being at the eastern-most end of the peninsula, is to notice how everyone faces west and northwest, i.e. 75 miles towards London and its orbit. A former local railway boss was at least honest enough to call the area ‘Outer Kent’ because it was further from London. Almost none of the students I met at Kent University travelled farther east than Canterbury and most had only a vague clue about what was ‘out there’ which they thought was populated by uneducated chavs and old people. It was a worrying foretaste of the EU Referendum.
So I come to this point from two angles. First, people tend not to look east for business: they don’t expect to find any worthwhile economic activity. Second, people in the east scratch their heads and wonder why they can’t attract people’s attention. Much of this isn’t unique to East Kent. It’s actually a problem of London’s predominance over the rest of the country. In my view there are 3 elements to the problems of centralisation we suffer from:
- Up to 50% of young people now leave school and leave the area to go to universities. This well-meaning policy has consequences for centralisation of jobs and facilities (especially for young people) in London and other university cities like Brighton.
- Centralisation of private sector and public sector activities, and the jobs that support them. With the move towards larger hospitals, larger shopping malls and larger distribution centres, there simply are no needs for the UK’s larger organisations to invest in small towns.
- Technology has tended to centralise rather than decentralise so far.
As a long-time analyst, used to studying complicated issues and trying to explain them in simple terms, I thought I would do the same for East Kent. We face immense challenges here, but we’re far from being alone. I could draw much of the UK outside an inner core of university cities and London in the same way. Would Cornwall, East Sussex or East Anglia be much different?
The fact is beyond the ‘mainland’ coast, economic activity mostly ceases beyond Canterbury and Ashford. Beyond there, we’re effectively an archipelago of islands. (At this point I offer my apologies to the inhabitants of East Kent’s beautiful villages!) There are links of course, by rail and road, but little hinterland. Southeastern’s fast trains are excellent of course. But we’re left puzzling the question, “Why would anyone from Maidstone come to Deal, or anywhere in the ‘islands’?” Do the trains suck people out to London or give opportunities here?
The idea is not to whinge, but to identify a problem and see what things we might change.
Of course when our towns were established centuries ago, land-borne communications were rare and everything happened through inshore sea-borne trade. Now the opposite is true (try getting a boat from Deal to anywhere these days), and these towns have become remote offshore islands.
So my vision is that we, the inhabitants of Kent’s eastern ‘islands’, can harness technology to rebalance our relationship with the rest of the county/country once again and develop our own economy, something that might encourage our young people to stay here and prosper. It’s a positive vision and people are trying, in Folkestone, Sandwich Discovery Park and around Margate’s Turner Gallery.
Technology, we can master. However, we in the east also have to provide something interesting for people to engage with. That’s harder, as we cannot compete with London.
If you’re interested in writing on themes of politics or society, I can help you shape your writing and think about how to publish it. Please just get in touch.