Portsmouth – A City Divided by Council Priorities?

Katie Roberts asks some searching questions about the development of the wealthier southern parts of Portsmouth at the expense of the poorer north.

These days the coast of Portsmouth is characterised as the smart shops and eateries of Gunwharf Quays and the fancy glass Sky Deck of the Spinnaker Tower. Southsea is home to the city’s growing population of hipster cafes, independent breweries and eateries, while investment hits the seafront in the form of the Hotwalls Studios, a growing number of festivals and a healthy summertime events programme.

But the same can’t be said for areas like Buckland, North End or Paulsgrove, areas better known for graffiti-caked, derelict buildings, empty shops and dying high streets. This poses a question: have the policies of Portsmouth City Council encouraged a disparity between the north and south of our city?

Although Portsmouth has enjoyed a spike in tourism over the last couple of years, this revenue hasn’t been distributed evenly. The 2015 Indices of Deprivation Report for Hampshire found that the most deprived wards are in, and on the periphery of, the north of Portsmouth.

Last year Southsea hosted the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series at a cost to council tax payers of £1.4 million. With tickets costing between £25 and £595, the event was criticised for being accessible only to middle-class residents, most of whom live in the more affluent southern parts of the city. PCC defended the event, claiming it generated £9 million of ‘economic benefit’. Conservative councillor Linda Symes, Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Sport, claimed the America’s Cup ‘put Portsmouth on the map…attracted inward investment and boosted visitor numbers, [and] the local economy has benefited to the tune of millions of pounds.’

When Portsmouth resident Sameen Farouk made a Freedom of Information request to obtain evidence of these economic benefits, PCC’s response was: ‘Portsmouth City Council does not hold this information.’ This may be a sensitive matter for the Tories because councillor Scott Harris then decided to hatch a smear plot against Farouk simply for being curious about how local politicians spend our money.

But even if we take Symes at face value, can we be sure that any money made by the event will be re-invested in the north of Portsmouth rather than the south? Shortly before they gifted this cash to the America’s Cup, PCC slashed £13 million of vital services such as adult social care and dial-a-ride, which were badly needed by the poorest people, most of whom live in the north of our city. Just £500,000 has been spent by PCC on improving North End in the past five years, most of the money having gone on improving façades, widening pavements and increasing the number of parking spaces.

In 2008, PCC withdrew its funding of Hilsea Lido, an outdoor, family swimming pool that was opened in 1935. A community group has since taken over the operation, running it as a registered charity named Hilsea Lido Pool for the People Trust. The upkeep and maintenance of the lido depends entirely on grants and donations.

Helen Downing-Emms, Vice Chair of Hilsea Lido for the People Trust, told me her group ‘had worked hard to try to convince PCC of the importance of this facility for the city – most especially for the people living in the north of Portsmouth, some of whom never visit Southsea and therefore gain no direct benefit from the facilities on offer for locals and tourists visiting the city.’

She added, ‘We are a city with large clusters of deprivation and social isolation, with all the health problems related to these issues. Hilsea Lido is keen to promote watersports and to encourage every resident to learn to swim. It’s an ideal venue to support activity, fun, friendship and a healthy lifestyle. ‘

PCC’s decision to abandon the lido was disheartening for locals, but thanks to the altruism of Helen and her colleagues, the community is still able to enjoy it.

By contrast, the Pyramids, a swimming pool in Southsea run by the private company BH Live, receives constant subventions from PCC, including close to £1m to restore it after severe flooding in 2014.

PCC have prioritised capital investment in an already prosperous part of town over the quality of life of its deprived residents elsewhere. This puts to shame their commitment to be working on behalf of all the people of Portsmouth, not just the better-off ones by the seaside.

To appreciate this disturbing polarity in Portsmouth, we should think about how different a day out at the America’s Cup is to a day out at Hilsea Lido. The former involves the well-to-do sipping Prosecco, wearing bow-ties and clapping the catamarans drifting past. The latter involves the not-very-well-to-do making the most of limited facilities – and fighting hard to hang on to them.

Image by Sarah Cheverton.