The last Saturday of Cowes Week is one of the Isle of Wight’s busiest days of year. But, east of the regatta, Ryde seafront does not mirror the bustle and extravagance of the major sailing event.
Elderly couples on benches gaze out at distant cargo ships, while others enjoy an ice cream outside the beach café. A huddle of people in their forties crouch beside the sea wall drinking cans of lager. A reclaimed 1930s London Underground train – somewhat incongruous in this setting – trundles up Ryde pier, ferrying passengers to the catamaran terminal.
The Ofsted chair, David Hoare, has just resigned, after describing the Isle of Wight as a “poor, white ghetto”, which suffers from “inbreeding”. He has announced that he will stand down from his position with immediate effect due to pressure on him following his controversial comments, made during a Teach First conference, about the Island, which was judged the second worst local authority in the last round of inspections.
I grew up on the Isle of Wight, before moving to London to work as a journalist. I head back there to find out what people think of Hoare’s characterisation of their home.
“I think he should be put on the bloody dole or something,” says a man sitting on the sea wall as he rolls tobacco from a tin. His dog is sleeping as music blares from a portable radio. “Politicians? They don’t care about us here.”
Island-based eco-fashion brand Rapanui has created a line of t-shirts inspired by Hoare’s comments. Photo: Rapanui
The crowd on the seafront is certainly white (94.8 per cent of the Island’s population identifies as White British) but almost everyone I meet is shocked and offended by the words inbred and ghetto.
“He’s obviously never been here and met people,” says Nicola Vaughan, a 45-year-old healthcare scientist, perching on the sea wall with her husband and 11-year-old son. “On the mainland they just think we’re a bit backward.”
The Isle of Wight, like the coastal towns of Thanet and Great Yarmouth, voted for Brexit. Leave won with 61.95 per cent of the vote on the Island. It is also the UK’s largest constituency and has been served by Conservative MP Andrew Turner since 2001.
The Island Line train. Photo: Natasha Preskey
“I work at the hospital and they’re always struggling,” continues Nicola. “We’re slated completely when it’s really not our fault.”
Nicola voted Leave after hearing Nigel Farage’s promise of more funding for the NHS. “I think I regret it,” she says, recalling Farage’s retraction.
Isle of Wight County Press editor Alan Marriott is backing the Fight For The Wight campaign, which aims to secure more funding for the Island. Campaigners accept that the Isle of Wight does not qualify for a rural grant but point to the area’s poverty relative to the rest of the south east (the Island’s average hourly wage is £11.56, compared with £14.39 in the region generally).
The editor believes that the Island’s reasons for voting Brexit were mixed (despite the lack of diversity in the area, many people I meet also express fears about immigration). He says that islanders who are feeling the pinch of austerity may “blame the EU” rather than looking to Westminster.
Marriott expresses disappointment that Hoare’s verdict ignored the beginnings of progress in Island education. “It’s a lot better than it was three years ago when virtually every high school was in special measures,” he says.
Anger at Hoare’s words dominates my Facebook feed and is the talk of Ventnor – a traditional seaside resort in the south of the Island, where the annual fringe festival is being held.
“He’s trying to blame his failures on people who live here,” hair braider Sally Phillips, 44, tells me in Ventnor Park. “I’ve just done a week’s work at Cowes Week and lots of elite types who have a holiday home here view it as almost disposable.”
Ventnor Bay. Photo: Tobias Penner
“I can’t believe a man in that position has those opinions,” adds teacher Sue Harriman, 49. “That whole vote [to leave the EU] was a backlash against the government and years of underfunding. I don’t think it’s the EU at all, it’s the one chance people had to give their opinion and it counted.”
The Island exists between two stereotypes, the boat-owning (usually mainland-dwelling) “yachties” who attend Cowes Week, and the poor, 1960s-esque place that Hoare describes. Islanders are not unaware of how they’re viewed by many in metropolitan areas.
“Anything out of London’s just ‘there’,” says 37-year-old Adam Towner, who moved here from the capital. Explaining why he voted Leave, he says: “Everything’s centralised in London and there’s so much money. People want to go back to being a bit small town and more self-sufficient. I don’t want to be controlled by a load of people in Europe that we didn’t vote for.”
Jack Whitewood, who was raised in Ventnor, launched the Fringe as a teenager in 2010. The 25-year-old went to drama school in London but returned after graduating to focus on the event, which last year featured more than 300 performers.
Artwork ‘The Portrait of a Town’ depicting Ventnor locals, created during the Fringe Festival. Photo: Tobias Penner
“Governments don’t seem to come up with answers for creating an economy in an area like this,” Jack explains, over the sound of a musician performing in the park. Drawing a comparison with former mining communities in the north, he adds: “Ventnor was purpose-built as a health spa and a place for people with TB to come to originally and when that became defunct and the hospital left … the town was left with no real purpose.”
Jack has been asked more than once why he chose the Island for this project.
“Does London really need another fringe theatre or another festival or another arts venue? Not especially,” he says. “What we want to do is work out how to actually sustainably regenerate the area.”
But Jack is optimistic about the Island’s future. “Maybe it seems slow from the cities but actually there has been progress here,” he says. “And when you get a bit of progress you don’t want to stamp it out, you need to encourage it.”