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The street that voted for Brexit: What happens next?

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC Radio 4 PM programme

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  • Brexit

On Teesside, more than 60% of people voted to leave the EU in June's referendum. Emma Jane Kirby is following the residents of one road in the area to see what motivated them and what they make of the events following the vote.

"The core values of the community have gone," says Mark, lighting his first cigarette of the morning as we look out together on to the street.

"I've lived on this road 40 years, give or take, and I've seen the changes; communities disappearing, immigrants coming into the street, apprenticeships and heavy industry all gone."

Welcome to Brexit Street in Thornaby, near Middlesbrough.

image captionThornaby Town Hall

It's a long street that's mainly built up of terraced houses whose front windows are dressed with net curtains or newspaper and whose front doors open straight on to the road.

At the far end of the road, known by the locals as "the posh end", the houses have well-tended front gardens and courtyards.

When I first visited the street back in May, many of those front doors were painted red - the tell-tale sign that the properties housed asylum seekers.

Today, the doors have been repainted, but a large number of asylum seekers are still resident here and today, a couple of African refugees sit on the pavement in jogging pants and flip-flops, fiddling with their mobile phones, trying to get a signal.

A small boy half-heartedly kicks a deflated plastic ball in and out of the parked cars and a dog, home alone in one of the terraced houses, repeatedly yaps his indignation.

Mark, who is an unemployed carpet labourer, asks me if I have noticed how quiet the street is, how little movement there is of cars in the mornings or evenings. "Unemployment," he smiles thinly. "Almost no one goes out to work here."

He looks down at the carpet and crushes a little pile of cigarette ash with the heel of his shoe. "Makes you feel inadequate," he adds.

Mark watched all the TV debates in the run-up to the referendum. He voted to leave the European Union, citing uncontrolled immigration as his main reason.

image caption"It's the volume of people coming to our shores - we can't cope physically," says unemployed carpet labourer Mark

"I'm not racist," he insists. "I'm mixed race myself - my dad came over as an immigrant from Barbados - but it's the volume of people who are coming to our shores - we can't cope physically. We just overstretch our public services.

"And if Turkey joins the EU, that's another 88 million more people who will be eligible to work in Britain. But, of course, the people who are already here, well they should be allowed to stay."

Immigration is the topic that comes up time and time again when I talk to the people of Brexit Street. At the local social club, Colin, an HGV driver, and his friend John, who maintains aircraft for a living, are having a pint together in the sunshine. Both men work regularly in Europe.

"You only have to stand here five minutes and you'll see loads of them," grumbles Colin, nodding at two North African asylum seekers who are walking past.

"They do nothing all day and they get it all for free… whereas we have to go to work and we are getting less and less." John cuts across him.

"We should get out of the EU and close the tunnel!" he growls. Both men are surprised when I point out that asylum seekers are not allowed to work while they are waiting for their claims to be processed.

"But they'll knack us when they do work!" says John. "Because they will work for the minimum wage."

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe Channel Tunnel has been targeted by migrants trying to get into the UK

While immigration is a dominant theme, it is certainly not the only one that Brexit Street's residents give as to why they voted out. Poverty, unemployment, Britain's de-industrialisation, and a sense of social and political alienation from the South of England have also fuelled their vote to leave.

"I tell you what'll happen," says John, angrily banging down his pint on the wooden table. "In the South, where all the money is… the government will lie to us. They'll turn round and say, 'Sorry, we're going to stay in the EU because we'll lose too much money'. And the North, he said, would suffer.

In his crowded, toy-strewn sitting room in Brexit Street, Peter, a stay-at-home dad, patiently unwraps a chocolate biscuit for his little boy.

"It does feel like the North East has been forgotten," he agrees, heaving his son on to his lap. "And the government has become more focused on the South. In the Teesside area, you don't get much. "

Peter has struggled to find full-time work since he left university and he's now off sick with depression. Money, he admits is very tight in his household; his wife is working part-time, he has student debts to pay off and he has two young children to support. He voted to remain.

"I believe we are stronger together," he explains. "There were people who voted out just to throw a punch at the government… But I think of the example I am setting my kids and I don't want them to see it like it's them against everyone else.

"There are too many divides. And I don't want it to be that when they get to working age, they'll have great difficulty getting a job because of a decision we have made now."

He knows, he says, that the EU has given grants and funding to various projects in the North East and he was concerned that the region would feel the pinch when that investment was pulled.

"Once we leave, that funding's gone and the Leavers had no plans for how we get that money back - so that's one of the things I was thinking about when I voted Remain."

Although Peter is convinced he did the right thing by voting Remain, he dared not talk to his relatives about his vote, fearing a family feud. And just over the road, Jo is cautious about talking to me for the same reason.

"I voted Remain," she whispers from her half-opened door. "And people round here won't like that. I voted Remain for my grandchildren and their future but I know a lot of people won't like that because I'm working-class and I'm supposed to… you know…" She trails off, "But there's no niceness in being alone."

Jo, who is not working at the moment because of ill health, tells me she had never been interested in politics until the referendum debate but she's now becoming curious.

image copyrightJEFF OVERS
image captionJeremy Corbyn argues his case on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show during the referendum campaign

"We've been Labour all our lives," she tells me. "But I'm studying that now." When I ask her what she thought of Jeremy Corbyn's performance in the run-up to the referendum, her brow furrows.

"Now I'm not too sure who that is," she says.

Both Jo and Peter live next to asylum seekers and both are concerned that Britain is becoming a less tolerant society. Peter tells me that, last year, swastikas appeared on the pavements of Brexit Street and racist graffiti was chalked on the walls.

In the cramped, stuffy bedroom which she shares with a stranger, Camille, from Congo, sits sobbing. She's lived on Brexit Street for 18 months now but knows no-one. She only goes out to walk to her bi-weekly English lessons or to the drop-in centre round the corner.

"When I walk down the street, they shout Ebola, Ebola!" she weeps. "I don't want this life."

Twenty-year-old Camille says she had never intended to come to Britain. When her parents and sister were murdered in Congo, Camille was "rescued" by a white man who came to her village. He promised her that he would take her to a safe place where she could go to school but he trafficked her and forced her to work as a prostitute.

"But they (the immigration authorities) say to me; 'You lie, you lie!'" she cries. She switches to her native French. "I'm not lying," she pleads. "My mum is dead, but I just want my mum. I just want my mum. "

A little further down the street, landscape gardener Wayne is watching his son play tag with his school friends. Wayne voted out because he felt too many asylum seekers were coming to Britain and that Britain could not afford to welcome them. He is sure that when Britain leaves the EU, immigration will be curbed.

"The thing is," he says, nodding up the street towards the African men who are still fiddling with their phones, "in their houses they get given microwaves and ovens and sofas and everything. I mean I had to take a loan to get that stuff." He shakes his head. "They get supermarket vouchers too - we don't get that. But lots more people round here have to go to food banks now."

image copyrightGetty Images
image caption"More people round here are having to go to food banks," says landscape gardener Wayne

The kettle is singing back in Mark's house. His housemate, who's also unemployed, offers tea. Mark also shares his home with his teenage son who will be leaving school next year. His future gives Mark sleepless nights.

"There's nothing for him round here, no heavy industries. The only thing I could suggest is he goes into the forces because that's the only guarantee of five or six years' employment round here."

I ask him if he worries that he's made a mistake with his Out vote - that perhaps by voting to leave the European Union, Britain will be worse off.

"I think we are probably going to be worse off economically by leaving the EU," he agrees. "But I think that's a small price to pay to get our independence back. For us to rule our own shores."

A few days later, back in London, I get a surprise call from the Brexit Street drop-in centre. Camille's asylum claim has been rejected and on Monday, she must hand in her front door keys and leave Brexit Street.

Listen to Emma Jane Kirby's reports for PM via BBC iPlayer.

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