The only way is Brexit?

Hilary Clarke asks Romford, an Essex town full of Leavers, if it is having any second thoughts

White Van Man country: the Vote Leave headquarters in Romford

The east London town of Romford is used to stereotypes. For many years it was one of the last outposts for the capital’s white working class. It was here that people moved from the East End to escape the damage of the Second World War in search of a house with a garden.

In the Eighties it became synonymous with the ‘Essex Man’ whom Margaret Thatcher had won over, the self-employed ‘man with a van’ and home of a famous dog racing track. Last year, Romford gained another distinction. It became the holder of the unofficial title of ‘Brexit Central’, after 69.7 per cent of the London Borough of Havering where it lies voted to leave the European Union.

A year on, with the triumph of Donald Trump in America and with a general election in the UK, and the realization that leaving the EU might not be as straight-forward as it first appeared, it seemed a good place to visit to see if Brexit voters were beginning to have regrets. 

‘Definitely not,’ said father-of-two Terry Bourne, 32, an accountant, even though Brexit might threaten his job in the City. 

‘I’m not fussed about whether my bananas are straight or not, but I do care if my kids can’t get a school place or an appointment at the doctor.’ 

He said that most of his friends were skilled manual workers, who voted ‘ten out of ten’ to leave because of downward pressure on wages they believe has been caused by East European migrants. 

‘I voted Brexit because everyone said do it – my family, my friends, the media. I’m not sure now, though, I mean I don’t really understand it’

The population of Havering as a whole is one of the most static in the South East, rising by only 6 per cent between 2001 and 2011, compared with a London average in the period of 14 per cent. But the population of Romford itself has shot up by 21 per cent, with the town’s ethnic minority population more than doubling in the same period. 

Still, Romford, like the rest of Havering, has one of the oldest and whitest populations in London. Family ties are strong. 

‘It’s the kind of place where if you didn’t go to the Gingham café with your Nan, then you are a foreigner,’ said Angelina Leatherbarrow, the Labour candidate for Romford in the general election, referring to a popular local cafeteria.

‘Romford is like your Mum,’ reads a poster in the window of the Co-op store, ‘Love her or hate her, there is no one quite like her.’ The poster optimistically asks people to vote for the east London town in the ‘Great British High Street’ awards.Romford High Street, with its nail bars, greasy spoon cafes, charity and betting shops, has a long way to go before it makes the shortlist. The town’s homeless and drugs problems are instantly visible. 

Things only start to improve when you leave the High Street for the newer arcades. It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago Romford was the best place in east London to shop, but the arrival of another Essex stereotype, Lakeside shopping centre in 1990, was the starting gun for the town’s decline. Thirty years ago Romford was better known for the brewery which produced John Bull bitter, whose sickly stench engulfed the town. A major employer, it closed down in 1993, but Romford never recovered from the hangover.

In the 1990s a raft of bars with names such as Voodoo opened to boost the nighttime economy, and another stereotype was born of drunk Essex girls in white stiletto heels. Between 2010-2012 the Metropolitan Police placed Romford third out of Greater London’s 624 electoral wards for reported incidents of violence against a person. 

Romford had a popular leisure centre called The Dolphin, which closed in 1995, and a popular Ice Arena, which closed permanently in 2013. Supermarkets and flats were built on both sites. Nighttime hooliganism has declined, but successive attempts to regenerate the centre have proved challenging. 

Perhaps the best example is Romford Market. Until 10 years ago, the ancient market, founded 700 years ago as a sheep fair, had hundreds of stalls. Today only about 150 remain despite the relatively modest price of £25-a-day for a pitch. A £1 million revamp scheme by the council, including a ‘foodie’ corner, has so far failed to materialize. 

It is going to take more than the annual St George’s Day parade, or the England flags fluttering from the stalls, and a Brexit vote so resounding that for several weeks it became the spotlight of international media attention, to make Romford Market great again. And although in Romford Brexit still means a clean break with the EU, the first half of ‘Eurosceptic’ seems to have been dropped, leaving just sceptic. 

‘To be honest love, everyone in this market is sick of talking to the media about Brexit,’ said the Leave voter in the orange sunglasses selling high-visibility work wear who gave his name only as Tony.  ‘Regrets, I don’t think anyone can have those yet. Maybe in a couple of years, but even then it can’t be any worse than now.’

He wouldn’t be drawn to discuss the contradiction that many of his customers these days are East European builders. 

So what about the non-English traders in Romford Market? ‘I’ve been here 13 years so I am OK, I’ll just have to get a visa maybe if I go home and want to return here. But of course, I wish it hadn’t happened and it is a worry,’ said the Bulgarian man at the mobile café who sold me a bacon sandwich and coffee for the modest price of £3.30. 

When the market was thriving 10 years ago, if you weren’t white English, you wouldn’t have been able to obtain a licence to trade in Romford Market. Even today, although many of the customers are immigrants, for whatever reason, most of the traders are still ‘white English’, although that too is changing.

‘I’m from west London, and when I first came here, they gave me a stall by the toilet, and told me if I wanted to trade here, that is where I had to go,’ said Prem Singh, a Sikh, and progeny of an older generation of immigrants to Britain. ‘It has changed now, but there is still a lot of racism around.’ He voted Remain. 

‘I was brought up never to talk about religion or politics,’ said a smiling Terry Webb, a butcher, on a well-stocked meat counter in an arcade off the main market square before he admitted, with a nod of his head, that he had voted Remain. 

The economic downturn that started a few years ago meant he had to drop organic meat because it was too expensive, he said. ‘Go and talk to the workers in our Rush Green branch though,’ he said. ‘Ooh, it’s Brexit daggers there. All out.’

The closest to a ‘Regrexiter’ was Mira, 21, a hairdresser, enjoying a cup cake and coffee with her friend Shelley, also 21, and their two happy babies. ‘I voted Brexit because everyone said do it − my family, my friends, the media. I’m not so sure now, though, I mean I don’t really understand it.’ Shelley said her main concern was whether she would ever have a home of her own. ‘My best chance is if my step-mother dies and leaves us some money,’ she said. ‘That’s not nice, is it?’

‘We need to be a bit more vocal in our Romford pride and heritage, and promote local culture,’ said photographer and art curator Christine Santa-Ana who runs Romford in Colour, a cultural organization that has been given local government funding to improve the town’s image. 

‘There is a lot more to Romford than the nightclub strip it used to be. The problem is getting over the stereotypes,’ she said. 

One of the artists commissioned is Ben Eine, whose famous bold lettering on walls and shopfronts in the East End helped to regenerate the places that many of Romford’s older inhabitants had left. The hope is he can help rebrand the town too. 

On a nightclub wall near the station, after wide consultation with young Romfordians, he has painted the words ‘Simmering and Dirty’, a lyric from the Welsh electronic group Underworld, who lived in Romford and once described it as ‘their New York’. 

Miracles are possible in Romford. Soul diva Jessie J, who shot to fame singing to the world that life is ‘not about the money’, grew up there, as did the soul singer Billy Ocean. 

Gary Dennis is a DJ and owner of the record shop Crazy Beat, in Upminster, a shrine to a lesser known Essex stereotype, a love of Black American soul music. The shop has been trading now for 30 years. 

‘I didn’t vote because I didn’t know how to vote. I felt I didn’t know enough about it, and I don’t think anyone else round here can honestly say they did either.’

He said that he hadn’t heard of anyone who had voted to leave and later changed their mind. ‘The vote was like, shall we go to Lakeside, or shall we go to Bluewater,’ he said referring to another large shopping centre on the other side of the Thames, a little bit closer to Europe.