May 24, 2022

Blakenall Heath, Walsall

The writing is almost on the wall in Blakenall Heath. Only the K and N of Blakenall remain on the sign that marks the entrance to this small suburb of Walsall in the West Midlands. “It’s about right,” says one local man with a hearty laugh. “Now it says: ‘Welcome to ***k*n Heath.’”

The only time this part of the world attracts national attention outside of the electoral cycle is when it receives the accolades no town wants. “‘Hell hole’ Walsall named in top 50 worst places to live in England,” reported the Birmingham Mail in January. Walsall has the worst community spirit of anywhere in the country, according to a 2016 poll. Giles Fraser once ministered to the folk of Blakenall Heath and wrote afterwards that the area “seethed with the anger of the unheard”.

When I visit, a sense of despair hangs in the air. The ground, meanwhile, is littered with the detritus of an area that has lost the respect of its own residents: fly-tipped waste, general litter and dog mess.

Blakenall abandoned its traditional loyalty to Labour, in the local elections this month, electing a Tory councillor for the first time in at least half a century (certainly as far back as records at The Elections Centre go). It was a remarkable victory for a party at a low ebb nationally, in one of the poorest areas of Britain during the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Blakenall is the most deprived ward in Walsall, which is itself within the most deprived 10% of districts in the country. On average, its residents are more likely to be economically inactive, be victims of crime and have no formal qualifications.

The recent electoral coup was either a vote of confidence in the local Tories, who actually managed to increase their majority on Walsall Council, or a last-resort howl of disaffection from voters sick at being taken for granted. Not that most here cared either way. After walking around its centre for 90 minutes, I can only find two people who voted. The rest look almost taken aback to be asked the question. Turnout was 22%.

“I never vote,” says a retired lorry driver in the local butcher’s. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for.” A 13-year-old is asked by the shopkeeper: “You understand voting? You know, when you’re 18 and you get the vote?” The boy gives a blank expression and walks off with his sausages.

“A lot of the people were surprised that somebody knocked on their door to canvass during the campaign,” Izzy Hussain, the newly minted Tory councillor, tells me. “They said that they’ve never had anyone call and ask questions about the area. I think that was a real plus point for us.” Hussain admits Partygate came up on the doorstep, but he resolutely focused on local issues, from rubbish to potholes. “I have seen what the Conservatives have done in the area,” he says. “They are in power [on the council] — they have done good work.”

But the Conservatives’ top buzzword gets short shrift on the streets of Blakenall. “It don’t want levelling-up!” exclaims a 71-year-old man. “It needs flattening and starting again.”

A 53-year-old woman who doesn’t “do any voting” and has lived here for 15 years sums up the village in a single word: “Depressing. There’s anti-social behaviour. Everywhere you go, you just see kids with kids. There’s no work ethic. They don’t look after their houses. It breaks my heart. I don’t think it will ever change, no matter how much money you put into it.”

Would you move if you could, I try to ask. She interrupts before I can finish. “I’ve got my own house and it’s lovely,” she says, lowering her voice and looking around nervously to check passers-by can’t hear. “But if I could pick it up and put it somewhere else, I’d be over the moon. Because I hate it around here.”

The mother-of-two earns the minimum wage working in a home for children with learning difficulties, but often feels she would be better off on benefits. She says: “I do my job because I care and I want to make a difference. I look like a tramp today. But I’m a hard-working tramp. It doesn’t pay me to be hard-working. But I don’t want to have that attitude. I’ve brought up the kids not to have that attitude.” Like many here, she is unmoved by rule-breaking in Downing Street. That would necessitate locals believing in the integrity of politicians in the first place — a fanciful luxury when the most fundamental needs of everyday life are left unmet.

Round the corner, a 20-year-old barber, who has also never voted, says: “Blakenall has its bumpy rides. So it was proper shit. Then it was all right, which is about as good as it gets.” What’s it like now, I ask. “Shit,” he says with a shrug. “You get 11-year-olds walking along the road smoking weed and getting mad at you.” He doesn’t even go out to the pub anymore, for fear of being glassed or stabbed at the end of the night. “It’s dangerous, way too dangerous. My generation is fucked. I just want to move to the countryside. I want to move to a farm.”

One shop owner says her neighbour shut up for good after boys kept hurling stones at the window. “When you call the police, they don’t really come.” A shopper says: “They need to do something for the kids. It’s no wonder they’re terrorising the shops, throwing eggs at them. Everything’s been taken off them.”

There doesn’t seem to be much on offer. Walsall Council has closed nine of its 16 libraries since 2016, including both in Blakenall. Walsall’s Civic Centre hasn’t reopened to the public since Covid. A sign reads: “WALSALL COUNCIL IS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.”

***

Dave Taylor initially tried to stand as a Labour candidate in Blakenall, but ultimately chose to be an independent, branding the local party “an utter shambles”. With 621 votes to Labour’s 692, he split the electorate, allowing the Tories in with 809. He says it is something that gives him no pleasure: “I’m a socialist at heart and I think Walsall should be Red.” But he adds: “There’s no firm leadership there at a local level and the Tory Party are running rings around Labour at every turn. It hurts me to see it.

“This is why I think it turned Tory — the Conservatives have got a model called Resilient Communities and when the pandemic came, they did a really good job. During that time, when people most needed them, they looked to Labour and saw absolutely nothing.”

He co-manages the Ryecroft Community Hub, a charity that gives social enterprises reduced rents, which in turn are used to fund a community centre where locals can receive financial and mental health support, plus advice on how to reduce their energy usage. (Almost a third of Blakenall’s households are in fuel poverty — unable to afford to adequately heat their homes — compared with an average in England of 13%.)

He says he came across one man at home sitting on a beanbag after selling all his possessions to make ends meet. Another, who fell ill during the pandemic, had no option but to flog his children’s beds. And he fears what is to come: “I’ve never known it this bad. After this October, when the next energy rise is coming, you’re going to see people dead in their homes. I’m convinced of it. It will have nothing to do with Covid. It will be because they’ve made the choice between eating and heating. Eating has won and so the heating has gone off.”

Neither Labour’s unsuccessful candidate in Blakenall nor its one remaining councillor responded to a request for an interview. Perhaps that’s unsurprising: the result came at the end of a torrid time for the local party. In March, former Labour Walsall Council leader Sean Coughlan was given an 18-month community order, after he admitted attempting to persuade what he thought was a 14-year-old girl to engage in a sexual activity.

Blakenall’s third councillor is independent Pete Smith, who first represented the ward in 1988 and who also abandoned Labour. Of his old party, the former Walsall mayor says: “At national level, I don’t think people know what they stand for and at branch level, they’re non-existent. They’ve shown no competence at council level. The Conservatives, led by Councillor Mike Bird, are very effective locally. He’s a lot more competent, it hurts me to say, than the Labour leader.”

I have a particularly spiky exchange with a woman who has been wheeling her shopping trolley aimlessly around the village — a lifelong Labour voter and a Boris Johnson admirer who stayed at home this month for the first time. She says she deduces I’m from a “good family”, concludes witheringly that I vote Tory because “Mummy and Daddy do, I suppose”, and wants to know where I went to university, before replying with a hard stare: “This isn’t Bristol. This is a working-class area that has debilitated.”

Her assumptions may be wrong, but who could blame her for resenting a London hack who’s only turned up after a headline-grabbing poll, and for being mystified by my interest in her voting habits and hopes for the future under a new political representative? It is, after all, between elections when the alienated of Blakenall find it impossible to be heard, returning to the obscurity where so many other communities are also wilting from national neglect.

The people here have just completed their hat-trick of electoral revolts (with 74%, Walsall North was the constituency with the second-highest Leave vote in the EU referendum, and in 2017 it kicked out its Labour MP of 38 years for a Tory Brexiteer). It’s no wonder, as they await the arrival of the next gas bill with dread, that most have no faith in the possibility of life improving.