Brighton has become seedy. I was born in Brighton and went to St Margaret’s Church of England school in Queensbury Mews. The school’s playground was where the Metropole Hotel car park is now sited. I then went on to the Technical High School (also no longer) and the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School. After going up to university, I returned to Brighton to take a master of science degree at the University of Sussex. So I guess my Brighton credentials are as good as anyone’s. I still have my cottage in Rottingdean.
Perhaps you get used to seediness like a married couple doesn’t notice the signs of ageing in one another if you live together the whole time. But if you are like me, coming down to Brighton only once in a while, you notice the changes. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There have been some changes for the better. Brighton still enjoys excellent restaurants and clubs. Churchill Square is getting a long overdue facelift, and even the West Pier may be put back together again before too long. The Brighton Festival still attracts plaudits and Brighton still attracts conferences. So what’s wrong?
Brighton seems to have become a centre, a mecca even, for beggars, no hopers, for itinerants – you name it, Brighton’s got it. I don’t mean sellers of the Big Issue, though heaven knows, Brighton seems to have more of them per square foot than there are burger stands in New York City. At least they are doing something. It’s the others. The ones who are fit and well yet lie in the street with a practised air of patheticness begging for coins. And if that weren’t bad enough, some of them have to drag poor dumb animals into the act. You’ve seen them. Young guys, perfectly fit and mentally sound, lying on old blankets with a dog. And with a hang-dog expression they ask you, "Any spare change, mate?"
Get a grip! At the moment there are not high levels of unemployment though heaven knows with the unnecessary interest rate rises driving up the pound, we’ll soon all be going into a recession sooner rather than later. There are jobs for the asking in the midlands and elsewhere. But that wouldn’t suit. Brighton offers an ideal environment to beg. Tourists, conference goers, the sea and a Brighton & Hove Council which seems to encourages this. Indeed, only in Brighton can squatting be rewarded with a peerage!
The ethos is all here. It shouts at you. "Come to Brighton where you can be proud to beg! No need to be ashamed here, other poor suckers who work for a living and pay taxes will subsidise you! After all, the world owes you a living: it’s your right."
The problem is that I am not the only one to see all this. Once Brighton attracted major international corporations like American Express. Now with high council taxes and a Labour council which has its own rather peculiar priorities, apart from a few exceptions firms would rather locate elsewhere nowadays.
The unemployment rate in Brighton is much higher than the national average. Shops are closed in the centre of Brighton – in August and September – the tourist season! Yet there is an air of complacency which seems to be setting this once proud and bustling town down the road to not so genteel obscurity and decline like some of the other former great watering holes of the nineteenth century along the coast.
Yes, the State and Brighton must care for those unable to get a job through disabilities not of their own making. But to encourage a begging society, to provide an environment where fit and intelligent young men scrounging for change is the acceptable norm, is bad for society, bad for the beggars of Brighton, and is a disaster waiting to happen for those who live and work in the town.