Clacton-on-Sea: the ‘forgotten’ town that voted for Brexit

<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

At Geo’s Fish Bar in Clacton-on-Sea on a sunny afternoon, business is quiet enough for Peter Serghiou, the manager, to take a break. He rests his forearms on the wooden counter and gazes out at the high street in the town where he grew up.

“I mean, I like it. I’ve been down here all my life,” says Serghiou, whose parents moved to the seaside town from Cyprus more than 70 years ago. “But I think for newcomers that come into the town, there’s nothing much for them worthwhile. If they don’t want to work in shops, there’s nothing.”

Serghiou should know. One of his brothers still runs the barbers’ shop over the road; the other has a chip shop nearby. In a place that lives and dies by the number of tourists it gets each summer, they can at least guarantee that people will always want fried potatoes and a decent haircut.

Money isn’t easy to come by here. Clacton has the highest proportion of people classed as “economically inactive” in the UK, and like all of the coastal areas highlighted in a report by the thinktank Onward, this seaside resort on the Essex coast has higher crime rates, lower disposable incomes and poorer health than nearby inland areas.

“Trying to get a doctor’s appointment is ridiculous,” says Roberta Hicks, who works at one of the amusement arcades near the seafront. “I have to queue up at my doctor’s surgery at about 7.15am, physically queue, because there’s no point ringing.”

In the nearly three years she’s lived in Clacton she has not had access to an NHS dentist.

Beverley and Stephen Birch
Beverley and Stephen Birch moved to Clacton from Birmingham 40 years ago. Photograph: Martin Godwin/the Guardian

Beverley Birch, who moved here 40 years ago from Birmingham with her husband, Stephen, says: “It needs a lot of investment, which a lot of seaside towns do. But you do seem to be forgotten.”

The couple voted leave in the EU referendum, as did 70% of people here. They have only praise for the constituency’s former Ukip MP, Douglas Carswell, though its Conservative incumbent, the remain-voting Giles Watling, gets short shrift. “He’s a waste of space … he doesn’t seem interested,” says Stephen.

Thinking about the forthcoming election, Watling says: “I will probably face an uphill battle. They might boil that down to doctors’ appointments problems, dentistry problems but [really] it’s because of my stance on Brexit.”

Watling is right to fear a challenge. At elections, coastal communities tend to act as bellwethers for the rest of the country. About two-thirds of them are held by the Conservatives but with Rishi Sunak’s approval ratings 14 points below that of the the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, Watling needs to work hard to persuade his constituents to stick with him.

View of a gull flying over a beach in Clacton
Clacton has higher crime rates, lower disposable incomes and poorer health than nearby inland areas. Photograph: Martin Godwin/the Guardian

He mentions the £20m levelling-up grant the town centre won this year as a marker of his success. “We’re always talked about as this ‘desperate’ place. It isn’t desperate, it’s fantastic,” he says.

Stefan Pitsillides, a recovery worker for people with drug and alcohol addictions, says: “I’ve never voted Conservative in my life. I don’t think I will be doing in the next election.”

Pitsillides helps run the community outreach bus, which parks up in Clacton every Friday, the “busiest area” in its route around the Tendring district.

“It’s quite a deprived area,” says the 55-year-old. “There’s a lot of issues with people sleeping rough on the beach and stuff like that.”

The SOS bus, which is part-funded by the council and local agencies, provides a space for people to get help with homelessness, housing benefits, mental health support and food vouchers. Today it is busy.

This bright green bus is a visual symbol of hope in a town where many say they feel forgotten.