For the first time in his life, Musah Stamburi will walk into a polling station next month and exercise his democratic right to vote in a general election. It’s a significant moment for the 22-year-old, who arrived in the UK six years ago from Zimbabwe and is now in the third year of a degree in public relations and communications.
Stamburi is one of more than 30,000 university students in the port city of Southampton, where he lives in the Itchen constituency held by the Conservatives with a majority of just 31 votes. “This year I’m definitely voting,” says Stamburi, who lives with his mother. “This time I feel we all have to – because everything is a mess from Brexit.”
Like many students, Stamburi is inclined to vote Labour. He doesn’t want Brexit to happen, but he’s more interested in talking about tuition fees, housing and immigration. He’s worried about how he will pay back the £54,000 of debt he will accrue through the course of his degree at Solent University. He is concerned about Conservative immigration policies. “As immigrants we feel marginalised to a certain extent. It knocks your confidence,” he says. And then there’s housing.
It doesn’t take long to discover that housing is a huge issue in Southampton. In a Guardian call-out to readers in the city, it came up again and again in the hundred-plus responses. Students such as Stamburi wonder how they will ever afford a home, saddled with decades of student debt. Other young people in the city complain of being priced out of the rental housing market, which is prohibitively expensive and increasingly targeted at students with their student finance and regular loans.
According to a recent report by the Southern Policy Centre thinktank, homelessness among young people in Southampton increased by 35% in a single year between 2016 and 2017. The region has become one of the most unaffordable for housing in the UK, with an average monthly rental for one-bedroom properties of £646. The authorities have been accused of prioritising housing for young professionals and families rather than single young people on low incomes. The city centre, meanwhile, is dotted with shiny new student housing developments such as Southampton University’s Mayflower Halls, complete with state-of-the-art gym and an annual rent of £6,000-£10,000.
On a chilly November morning, homeless people are very much in evidence in Southampton city centre, where bundles of duvets line the high street alongside the Christmas market. Among them, sitting on the freezing pavement, is 30-year-old Emma Eaton who moved to Southampton to look after her sick mother, but when she was no longer needed found herself homeless, sleeping in a donated caravan parked behind a shop in the city centre.
Eaton has no address so she could not register to vote. She says Brexit wouldn’t make any difference to her one way or the other. Her main concern is the roof over her head, or lack of it. “It’s all for students,” she says. “Granted, we need the students for our economy, but we also need housing for us.” The day we meet, she has already been offered a place in bed and breakfast accommodation but is worried about giving up the caravan in exchange for what will only be a temporary arrangement.
It’s a very long way from where she had hoped to be at this stage in her life. At 18 she planned to go to university to study child psychology, but after becoming pregnant as a teenager her life spiralled out of control. She has bipolar schizoaffective disorder – two of the four children she went on to have are being brought up by their father and two have been adopted. Now she begs for money outside Pret A Manger and has little faith that the general election – whatever the outcome – will have any impact on her desperate personal circumstances.
A little further down the high street, squeezed between Unilife student accommodation and a Coral betting shop, is No Limits, a charity offering advice, support and counselling to young people in Southampton. It’s busy. The atmosphere is lively and welcoming. There is a shower and a washing machine for those who need them; there is help with writing a CV or job application, and specialist services are available for young people needing help with substance misuse and mental and sexual health.
Its chief executive, Annabel Hodgson, acknowledges Brexit is an important issue for many young people in the city who may want to travel and work overseas, but for the disadvantaged young people who depend on her charity’s services, it is not high on their agenda. “The major issues would be housing and homelessness,” she says. “As a university city with two large universities, local young people really struggle to get into independent living. Landlords would rather rent for a year to a group of students than a young person who is on benefits or a zero-hours contract.”
With the growth in insecure employment, the city has seen a huge increase in the use of food banks, with churches opening their doors to those in need, and Hodgson says the charity is seeing more and more cases of young people in absolute destitution, unable to jump through the hoops to get the help they need. Youth services have gone, and apart from voluntary sector organisations, Hodgson says there is no one engaging with Southampton’s teenagers until they’re in serious trouble.
The city’s schools have suffered the same cuts as the rest of the country, with the loss of learning support assistants penalising the most disadvantaged pupils who depend on them. “Education is not fit for purpose for some of our young people,” Hodgson says. Exclusion rates are high and pupils are put on part-time timetables of as little as an hour a day. She is encouraged by Labour’s plans for a universal youth service and fears another Conservative government will lead to further privatisation of the NHS. On another note, she adds: “I think Jeremy Corbyn is the least likely of any potential prime minister to lead us into another war.”
Hodgson, a single parent of two adopted children, is also worried about Southampton’s air pollution, an issue that came up repeatedly in our call-out and in interviews in the city. “We live in a really polluted city,” she says. “Southampton has got some of the worst air quality. We’ve got the docks and the cruise ships come in and leave their diesel engines running. Lots of my friends have asthma. We absolutely know it’s having an impact.”
Southampton is indeed the number one cruise port in northern Europe, welcoming 2 million passengers every year. It is also home to the UK’s second-largest container terminal, catering for the largest container ships in the world. Last Tuesday, the vast bulk of the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner could be seen awaiting passengers for her transatlantic voyage, smoke drifting ceaselessly from her funnel. An ongoing dispute over plans to expand the airport has also helped to put environmental issues high up the agenda in Southampton.
In the quiet of the Coffee Pot, a small hall attached to the Church of the Holy Saviour in Bitterne, in the east of the city, a group of older residents have gathered for their twice-weekly coffee morning. They don’t want to give their names, but they too are concerned about the pollution and congestion caused by the container and cruise ships. They are worried about the state of footpaths and the difficulty of getting an appointment with their GP (it can take up to four weeks), and they’re unhappy that their local walk-in medical centre and police station have closed.
Ordinarily they try to avoid the subject of Brexit, but for the Guardian’s benefit they let rip. Most want to get it done, and will vote accordingly. Just one, a retired shipbuilder, says he wants to stay in the EU and will vote Liberal Democrat, but even those who support Brexit would prefer to talk about anything else. “I want Brexit. I want that done,” says a woman who goes on to talk at length about her problems accessing benefits and mental health services.
Later Stamburi, who has just finished his night shift as a support worker in a mental health unit, ponders on optimism. “I don’t know if I’m optimistic, but I will vote with hopes for a better future. My overall attitude to the election would be ‘hit and hope’.”