Brexit: The city that took EU money but 50% voted to leave – BBC News

  • The EU referendum result in Leeds was one of the closest in the country
  • Remain just edged ahead with 50.3%, while 49.7% voted to leave
  • The area has benefited from EU funding

It’s a week after Brexit and despite the political and economic uncertainty, Selina Hartley is feeling positive. She is discussing a new business venture over coffee in the Victoria Quarter, an upmarket shopping centre that houses Harvey Nichols and Louis Vuitton, among other luxury retailers. Hartley has lived and worked in Europe, but still voted to leave.

“Although I love Europe, I believe that we need to take back some important legislation,” she says.

Can she explain why the vote in Leeds was so close? “I think it is probably divided. We are the financial capital of the North. There are many people who work in banking and insurance, all based in the city centre, so maybe they voted differently to the normal man on the street outside of commerce. South of Leeds is obviously a lot poorer.”

Outside, Frances Harrison-Burton, her husband Richard and grown-up daughter Dawn are heading home after a morning of shopping. Frances voted to remain, Richard voted Leave, and Dawn didn’t vote at all. She says she was too busy.

“When he walked out [of the polling booth] he said, ‘What did you vote?’,” says Frances. “I said I’d voted to stay in. He said ‘Well, you know what I’ve done, don’t you?'”

Richard is happy to be leaving. “We need to hold our own power again in Parliament, not some faceless machine in Brussels that says we can’t report all these criminals that are coming in,” he says.

There are no hard feelings, but Frances is concerned about how leaving the EU will affect young people like her 20-year-old grandson, who has to provide for his baby on a zero-hours contract. “Now we’ve left, is he still going to be in a job?” she wonders. Housing is also an issue – her grandson, girlfriend and baby are living with his parents. He is on the list for a council house, but she fears it may be a long wait.

One of the reasons Frances voted to remain is EU funding for the Burmantofts estate, where she lives. Research, however, shows, grants from Brussels have only covered a couple of small community schemes there.

“So why leave when they’re doing good things?”

It’s a different picture in nearby Harehills. Dawn bought a house there 11 years ago for 74,000. She says it has since dropped to 56,000. She blames the high number of immigrants. “There’s 44 houses on my side of the street – eight English people, the rest are Romanian,” she says. “I live next door to a lovely couple but there’s just too many now.”

Leeds has historically been regarded as “two cities within a city”, owing to the financial inequality that separates affluent, middle-class areas from deprived areas. The centre is prosperous, as are many of its suburbs, but there’s a ring around the city centre that has been called the “doughnut of deprivation”.

The wealth hasn’t spread into these areas, says Sally-Anne Greenfield, from the charity Leeds Community Foundation.

Back in 1999, Leeds applied for EU funding to address this “two-speed economy”.

“If you look at the deprivation indices between 2001 and 2011, many of the most deprived areas in Leeds have remained at the same level, so there’s a sense that the gap is still there,” says Greenfield.

“Leeds is a city of mobility, and people are supported to make economic progression. But the people who benefit from this mobility often move out of deprived areas and into more affluent ones.”

The Burmantofts estate overlooks the headquarters of NHS England, an imposing red building nicknamed the Kremlin. The roads have just been resurfaced and are divided by neat lawns.

In a house opposite the community centre, Sally (not her real name) shuts her two dogs inside the house before coming over to talk to us. She used to work at a local hospital, cleaning the ward and feeding patients, until she retired due to ill health. She is 53. Her grandchildren are playing in the front garden.

Sally voted to leave. She has lived on the estate for more than 20 years, but feels that British-born people are unfairly treated, while immigrants get good council houses. “People that have lived here all their lives can’t get the houses that they need,” she says. “I think there’s only five houses on this side with people from here.”

She says she’s not racist – her children are mixed-race – but blames the fact that there aren’t enough houses for those who need them.

Leeds City Council says priority for social housing is assessed on need, not origin, although some localities are able to prioritise some housing for local residents.

Almost a mile and a half down the road from Burmantofts, on Harehills Lane, businesses have sprung up to service the needs of the immigrant community. Outside St Gemma’s Hospice charity shop, women are combing through a pile of cast-off clothes under the watchful eye of Lee Hiamey.

“It’s a very mixed area,” says Hiamey. “We have problems, but it’s what you would expect from a growing town. We get a lot of crime, fighting, drinking on the street, that kind of problem. We get police sirens going every two seconds, night and day.”

He won’t reveal how he voted, but he wishes nothing had changed. “I have more worries now. We are in limbo. We don’t know how it will pan out.

Next door to the charity shop is the Ritz letting agency, managed by Bobby Sharma. “In this part of Leeds you’ve got a lot of housing benefit-style tenants.”

Many of his tenants are from Eastern Europe and this is part of his motivation for wanting to stay in the EU. “What would be the consequences if we end up losing these Eastern European tenants? That was one of the key business reasons for me voting to remain,” he says.

When the results came in, many of his landlords were worried. “On the way to work the following morning I must have had about four or five phone calls from large investors, saying: ‘Bobby what’s going to happen to our properties now that we’re going to be exiting?'”

Sharma admits there aren’t enough affordable, well-maintained houses available, and that the area is overpopulated, but the rents are good.

Pushing her cheery toddler down Harehills Lane single mum Sophie Whittaker is heading back to her privately-rented property. “It’s horrible,” she says. “I’ve got mice, my son brought me a dead mouse, he’s two. I can’t get re-housed because there’s no houses.” She didn’t vote because she says she just didn’t know much about it.

Her bright red hair is a sign of her profession – hairdresser – but the 21-year-old is unemployed. She didn’t vote in the referendum. She says she didn’t know much about it and was waiting for a leaflet to come through her door.

“If you’d asked me last year I’d have said, ‘Send them all back’ but now I have Romanian neighbours I feel nasty saying that.”

Many of the people the BBC meets on the streets of Harehills and Hovingham did not vote. Some were not eligible, but others say they never bother. “The government will do what they want to do at the end of the day so what’s the point,” says one mother who has just picked up her son from school.

Other mothers on the school run did vote.

Sameena Akhtar, 38, is an assistant pharmacist. She says she voted to stay because of who she is – a British Asian. “Already you can see on the news that people are being racially abused. I think it will affect us, even though we’re British.”

Across town, in upmarket Oakwood, Charlotte Walker, 27, is being treated to high tea by her two aunts. Her son Riley is with them – he should be at school, but they recently moved to be closer to her mother and found there was no school place. “All schools are just bursting. There’s just no room. Classes are just full everywhere,” she says.

Leeds City Council says 10 years of rising birth rates, reflecting the national picture, has put pressure on school places. Some schools have added an extra class to accommodate the new pupils.

“Leeds is a growing city and families arrive from elsewhere in the country as well as from other countries. Families move from one part of the city to another,” it said in a statement.

Walker’s voting registration did not come through in time, but her aunts, Julie Simpson, 57, and Moira Ross, 52, both voted to leave. In the run-up to the referendum Ross organised events for both UKIP and Labour. She says she likes the fact that Leeds has become more cosmopolitan, but it’s gone too far.

“When you see what’s getting handed out to foreigners, and our own pensioners having to scrimp and scrape and be cold in winter, it gets your back up,” says Simpson. “I’ve worked all my life and paid taxes and I don’t mind doing that – as long as my grandchildren are going to benefit.”

It’s been a turbulent week in politics since the vote, but they are still convinced leaving is the right thing to do.

Simpson is looking forward to a holiday in Spain next week. She says that the fact that the pound is weak against the euro because of the vote doesn’t worry her. She is more concerned about the future of the country, than the cost of her holiday.

In an attempt to combat Brexit gloom, Jameson’s cafe and tea rooms in Oakwood have put up a sign that says: “Cake makes you happy.”

But it’s going to take more than tea and cake to make Remain voters Nancy Crang and Joanne Kay happy.

Crang, 49, a civil servant, is very uncomfortable with the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration. “I definitely want to be an inclusive country,” she says “I’m really sad that some people from outside the country don’t feel welcome here. That’s a big thing for me.”

Kay, 51, says although she can understand the resentment, she feels all workers have the same chances. As part of her work for the Environment Agency she has to inspect waste management companies, which rely heavily on European labour.

She asked the owner of the biggest skip company in Leeds why he didn’t employ more locals. He says that he has tried to, but they aren’t as committed. “They come to work for a few days and then they don’t come back. The people come back time and time again are the Eastern Europeans.”

Now Kay is worried about how leaving the EU will affect her own job – the Environment Agency depends on Europe for much of its funding and legislation.

“I can’t remember feeling as devastated after any kind of political vote as I did when I found out about this,” she says. “It’s seismic.

Down the hill in Killingbeck, among the suburban semis one house leaps out as a celebration of British and Irish culture. Liam Lawlor, who immigrated from Wexford in the 1960s, has filled his front garden with an astonishing collection of pub signs and other memorabilia which he uses to raise money for charity.

He says he loves Leeds. “It’s friendly and you’ve only got to go a couple of miles outside and it looks like Ireland.”

But he voted to leave the EU.

He thinks the opportunities for his grandchildren aren’t as good as they were for him. “I think there’s too many people – the doctors are full the hospitals are full, the houses are full.” Although he admits he has never suffered any NHS delays himself, and he has nothing but praise for Leeds’ St James hospital, where he had a major operation.

A week on, and doubt is creeping in. “I’m not sure if I’ve done the right thing now,” he says.

Photographs by Paul Kerley. Additional reporting by Camila Ruz and James Stewart