It’s hard to believe that the quaint town of Redruth in Cornwall is an area of severe deprivation. With its cobbled streets, cutesy cafes and nearby coastline, it seems like an idyllic Cornish town. However a 2019 report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government named it as among the most deprived areas in England.
Despite the hardship, I quickly find that Redruth has a strong sense of community. As I make my way from the station to the town centre, two elderly women approach me. They’d seen a man asking me for change, and were concerned that I looked vulnerable standing on the outskirts of the car park alone. I ask whether homelessness is a big problem in Redruth and they nod emphatically. They point me in the direction of Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change, a charity based in the town who support the homeless.
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Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that while Cornwall’s homeless population is smaller than that of London, Manchester and Birmingham, it has more rough sleepers than any other county in the UK. And according to local news website Cornwall Live, the majority of these street homeless are from the area, making it a worryingly local issue.
But homelessness isn’t the only problem here. Redruth is home to one of the UK’s largest independent food banks, Transformation CPR. “People think Cornwall is a holiday area but the deprivation behind the scenes is horrible,” says Donovan Gardner, who has been managing the food bank for the last ten years. “It gets the title of a lovely beach area, yet you go into the centre and you’ve got poverty, alcohol abuse, drugs and domestic violence.”
Gardner says that in his first year managing the food bank, they gave out just 84 meals. Today they’re providing more than 16,000 meals per month – an increase of over 2,000 percent.
I don’t think the sheer extent of food insecurity in Redruth and the surrounding area hits me until we arrive at the food bank’s warehouse. The colossal amount of food they store here is both impressive and saddening. Gardner talks me through the process of sorting donations, from date-checking to delivery. He’s eager to make our tour a quick one – the warehouse is kept cold to ensure the food stays fresh. This makes it all the more impressive when he tells me that the majority of his 74 volunteers are aged between 70 and 80. Gardner himself is 75 and works full-time for the charity.
As he shows me around, I notice a pile of furniture at the rear of the warehouse. The charity also provides items for people who have been rehoused, particularly victims of domestic violence. Gardner proceeds to show me a cupboard full of Christmas gifts ready to be delivered to under-privileged children. He says that despite Redruth being just three miles from the coast, there are children here who have never seen the sea.
“I see mums and dads who haven’t eaten for three days to feed their children,” Gardner says. This poverty leads to mental and physical health problems, preventing people from working. “It’s a downward spiral for families,” he adds.
Gardner and the food bank volunteers also run cookery courses for junior school children and their parents, gifting a slow-cooker to anyone who lasts the day. “Schools don’t teach domestic science like cooking and budgeting,” he points out. The food bank also recently raised £33,000 through a crowd-funding drive.
Gardner believes the biggest problem faced by the community here is food prices. “Just look at the people around you, you can clearly see that they’re poor,” he says. We've moved to the cafe of a nearby supermarket now, warming our hands on mugs of coffee. “The social set-up is completely wrong. The biggest problem is that we’re being overcharged for food, because they won’t sell fruit or veg that’s a bit wonky.”
His main hope for the upcoming general election is that a Brexit deal is reached. “It’s a big worry for people who don’t have much money,” he says. “They’re concerned the food prices will rise.”
I ask Gardner whether these issues have worsened under the austerity measures of the Conservative government. He prefers to remain politically neutral: “I will always support the town no matter who is in government,” he says.
The political issue Gardner is passionate about however, is Universal Credit, the government’s disastrously managed attempt to simplify the benefits system, which has left millions of households without their entitled allowance. Gardner tells me about a man who came to the food bank after waiting 13 weeks for his Universal Credit payments. The charity provides applicants with food for every week they are left without the means to survive.
Labour’s manifesto, released last week, includes a promise to scrap Universal Credit. “It has pushed thousands of people into poverty, caused families to lose their homes and forced parents to visit food banks in order to feed their children,” the pledge reads.
Garder and I finish our chat and he drops me back in Redruth’s town centre. He is an incredible man and I am in awe of his kindness, but in a country as rich as the UK, people should not have to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive. Cornwall is desperate, and something needs to change.
Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.