BLYTH in Northumberland and Sheerness in Kent are at opposite ends of England – but share a history of faded glory.

Both are coastal towns with proud shipbuilding pasts that have gone into steep decline since their yards closed in the Sixties.

Blyth’s once thriving market square is now lined with bargain stores, vape shops and derelict empty buildings
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Darren Fletcher

Closed shops next to Sheerness’s 120-year-old clock tower[/caption]

There is no North-South divide here when it comes to poverty, crime, unem-ployment and poor education as both areas have far more than their fair share.

In the once-bustling market town of Blyth, security guards in shop doors look out for shoplifters on the make, while in Sheerness a mural near the seafront depicts a mermaid ready to wreck the place with TNT.

But when the £2billion second round of government levelling-up funds was announced last week, Sheerness got £20million and Blyth nothing.

To make matters worse for Blyth, plans for a £3.8billion electric car battery plant in Blyth looked doomed last week after the company behind it, Britishvolt, went into administration.

Critics seized on such discrepancies to slam PM Rishi Sunak’s levelling-up plan, which was meant to improve standards of living in the North. Instead, £210 million was given to the South East and just £108 millon to the North East.

With more funding coming from other sources, we sent reporters to the two towns to reveal how much work is yet to be done at both ends of the country.

Blyth

IN the doorway of a boarded-up store, a woman rummages in her Poundland carrier bags then plods along the almost deserted road.

She is a few steps from Blyth’s once thriving market square which is now lined with bargain stores, vape shops and derelict empty buildings, and a hangout for junkies and alcoholics.

Blyth may have a party to play in the UK’s green revolution
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here’s more suicide around here because people can’t afford their bills, says former Blyth cafe owner Peter Bakura
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Shoplifting is so rife in this town with a population of about 37,000, that Poundland and Boots have security guards manning the doors.

Blyth was given hope with plans for an electric car battery plant that would bring 3,000 skilled jobs.

But the project, still under construction, now looks doomed after the firm behind it, Britishvolt, has hit financial difficulties.

With almost one in ten locals not having worked in the past year, according to the latest census, this is a devastating blow.

A Boots worker told The Sun: “Things are so bad here we have a security guard on the door. People steal cosmetics so we only have one of each No7 product out at a time. All the electronics boxes are empty so people can’t nick them.”

The town’s crime rate of 113 cases per 1,000 people compares to a figure of 69 for Northumberland as a whole.

Local resident Alison Heslop, 55, said: “You can see junkies taking drugs in the market square. There are drunk people outside Morrisons. It scares a lot of the old people away, and businesses away. No one comes here any more.”

Supermarket worker Lynn Tate, 73, who has lived in Blyth all her life, said: “This used to be a bustling market town. On a Saturday you couldn’t move for stalls. My daughter had a shoe stall. It’s a waste of time coming here. There’s absolutely nothing.”

Its shipyard shut in 1966 with the loss of 1,400 jobs, starting Blyth’s decline.

It was once the North East’s biggest yard, proud to have built the Royal Navy’s first seaplane carrier, Ark Royal, in 1914. The town’s train station closed in 1964.

Then in 1986 the Bates coal mine ceased operation, and the local coal power station was shut in 2001.

Today’s locals who we spoke to told of deep and grinding poverty.

Former cafe owner Peter Bakura, 33, says: “There’s more suicide around here because people can’t afford their bills. My electricity bills are eight times as much, and my rent has gone up.”

Local resident Alison Heslop, 55, said: ‘You can see junkies taking drugs in the market square’
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Britishvolt was behind a electric car battery plant in Blyth – but has since hit financial difficulties
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It was hoped the battery plant would revive a town where one in three people aged 16 to 74 have no qualifications.
There have been other broken dreams, too, as longed-for boosts have failed to materialise.

Billy Richardson, 79, a retired Remploy charity worker said: “We were told we would get levelling up money. They’re telling tales all the time and we believe them.”

Lynn Tate, 73, a retired shop-worker said: “We were told we would get more money for the area. If we aren’t getting the levelling-up money, does this mean that we won’t get the community centre and the cinema?”

Ian Levy is Blyth’s first ever Tory MP, after overturning a Labour majority of 7,915. But he won in 2019 by just 712 votes so could be in danger a the next election.

He will hope that all is not lost, just yet.

Whitehall has allocated £11million to help revive the town centre, and £20million is being pumped in by Northumberland County Council.

The port is now a hub for wind farm technology, with German energy firm RWE announcing in December it is investing in Blyth as a construction base.

The plan is to build an offshore wind farm in the North Sea the size of the Isle of Man.

So Blyth may have a party to play in the UK’s green revolution.

Sheerness

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 locals will tell you the same thing: “This town is dead.”

Darren Fletcher

Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, is now far from where Britain’s first aeroplanes were built[/caption]

Darren Fletcher

Sheerness has one of the highest unemployed counts in the UK[/caption]

With one of the worst crime rates for a British small town, one of the highest unemployment counts in the UK and almost half the children living in poverty, pessimism is understandable.

Locals believe this sea-side town is in desperate need of the £20million of levelling-up money it has been awarded.

Pauline Luddington, 84, who has lived in town her whole life, told us: “It used to be very busy, everybody used to come here, the Dutch and the Danes on a ferry from Holland. Now there is nothing. We need help.”

Residents of this town of just under 12,000 tell of play areas being set alight, drugs sold openly on the high street, shops closing and muggers prowling.

Cleaner Pearl Morgan, 59, said: “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.”

Janine Harris, 25, said: “They poured petrol over the play area and burned it. The town is full of drugs. There is a smell of weed outside.”

Her partner Jason Kettle, 31, is one of the many residents looking for work.

Unemployment crisis

Last year, the unemployment rate was 8.6 per cent, more than double the current UK average.

Jason said: “I did a bit of painting and decorating but since Covid it’s a lot worse.”

The town’s Navy dockyard once built the 60-gun HMS Medway, in 1693. But it shut in 1960, along with a naval garrison, with 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.
But past glories aside, there are signs of hope for Sheerness.

Like in Blyth, the port has adapted to changing times and is now one of biggest importers of foreign cars.

The levelling-up cash will help improve the Beachfields seafront, adding a cafe, outdoor gym, soft- play area and adventure golf.

Greengrocer Lewis Feaver, 37, whose store has been family-run for 140 years, says: “It would be good to use the money to spruce up the town. We need to attract tourists.”

A few locals cruelly suggested to us the money should be used to level the town and start again. But they wouldn’t need the mermaid armed with TNT in a mural close to the seafront to do that.

Thankfully, much of the levelling-up money will be spent instead on Sheppey College which provides much-needed skills and training.

Darren Fletcher

Cleaner Pearl Morgan, 59, said: ‘They need to use the money to clean the streets up and get rid of the drugs’[/caption]

Latest census figures reveal that in parts of Sheerness two in five adults have no qualifications.

Local school the Oasis Academy, was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors last year.

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.

Local MP Gordon Henderson, a 74-year-old Conservative who has repre-sented the seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey since 2010, says: “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.”

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