Local Politics and Improvements to the Community

A City is a combination of both people and the environment in which they live. Therefore good housing provision and places for people to walk and feel safe or enjoy play are very important.

The Built Environment

Lobbying for human-scale architecture, good housing and well-equipped playgrounds – and asking for improvements to “built up areas”, such as applying the “Broken Windows Theory”, can make a considerable difference to how the built environment is used and maintained by the people living in it. Small changes, such as increasing the number of trees or green spaces can make people feel safer and happier in their neighbourhoods.

Jan Dod explains the success of a campaign in Somerstown.

Jan Dodd

Her group of local activists secured a grant from Play England for a new adventure playground in Somerstown. The grant also covered a couple of years of staffing costs., but then there was a change of government and in a climate of austerity these additional benefits were lost. There was also a threat that this playground , along with others in Portsmouth, would lose its protective fencing. Activists marched to Guildhall Square in protest. There was a rethink – Portsmouth Housing Association took over the playgrounds and the budget for maintenance was assured by getting the approval from tenants for a very small rent increase.

CELIA CLARK is a passionate conservationist. She arrived in Portsmouth in 1970 and has become a leading force with the Portsmouth Society. She tried to save the Tricorn and is now concerned with the future of the sea defences at Southsea.

Celia Clark

Her early projects in Portsmouth concerned the history of the local built environment, told by the people who lived there.

“We started the WEA local history group – now that’s still going strong, I’m really really proud of that – what we did was, we learnt from Centre Point in Hackney that oral history was the thing and what we did was write street biographies…

We would get out the street directory for 1934 and we’d say,
‘Well there was a rag and bone man here, wasn’t there. Tell us about that.’

…we didn’t keep the tapes, we wrote down what was said – and they are still doing that.”

The Portsmouth Society was formed in response to the reshaping of Portsmouth in the 1970s and the possible loss of heritage assets:

“In the Portsmouth Society we had several set piece fights which we won – and I am very, very proud of that. St Mary’s House, which is near the prison – that was due for the chop and there was a particularly unpleasant councillor, called John Marshall, who said

‘You’ll save that building over my dead body!’

…. I said, ‘I can, and I will.’

And I did – I saved the building!”


BEV SANDERS was born in Portsmouth but had an unhappy childhood, which caused her to leave home as soon as she could.

She worked for a time for C&A in Commercial Road, Portsmouth – in the factory over the top of the shop – but was made redundant and so started to work with local young people in the Landport area youth club and adventure playground.

This work interested her, so she went to Bristol to study for a qualification in youth work and then returned to Portsmouth to fully utilise her skills.

However, she suffered a stroke, and whilst recovering from this she saw someone living on the streets in the city centre and was moved to go back to her home and make up sandwiches and hot chocolate, which she then distributed to those sleeping rough.

From this initial act of altruism, she founded the organisation Helping Hands.

“This is what I always say, ‘The only thing you need to fill to come and see us is your belly.’

… Some of them will come and eat and they won’t engage with us, and some will engage with us and we’ll try and persuade them to go to the winter beds – ‘cos you know, who wants to sleep on the floor in a doorway – but some of them just won’t go there, because they’re not friends with this person, or that person’s there or there’s loads of drugs and they don’t want to be around it or they’ve been let down by them before and they don’t want to go there.”

Early Intervention

A City is also the sum total of the people who live in it – and for each generation, support for the early years is very important.

For the last 21 years, Carole Damper has run the E. C. Roberts Centre in Portsmouth. The Roberts Centre exists to work with partners to deliver services that support vulnerable people, families, and children giving them all the best possible chances to achieve their potential through social inclusion.

Carole Damper

Carole feels that her work has a problem-solving focus. The city has a very high percentage of recurrent removals of children from their families and part of the problem is that people stay put in Portsmouth and cycles of deprivation persist. Parents get legal aid for court cases but they are very much on their own to make the improvements required to prevent the removal of their children.

Carole believes that the actual removal has an effect similar to bereavement and it can be followed by another pregnancy and the rapid removal of the new baby. Carole’s approach is to write a model for improvement that works on the basis of small, achievable steps. She also believes that community support is vital as most people have friends who can offer particular coping strategies: “The real people who keep Portsmouth going are the lower level people”.

Political Representation

Jennie Brent has worked to support Portsmouth people with the problems of unemployment and of special needs, particularly through the Beneficial Foundation. The Foundation provides training to disadvantaged post-16 year old adults with special educational needs through route-to-work training

Jennie Brent

She states “My whole life has been about people, but doing good things”. She has encountered sexism, but feels that it is about women getting the skills and being assertive in challenging it.

Jennie was previously a Conservative councillor until she changed parties and represented the Liberal Democrats in 2018.

Claire Udy is a Non Aligned Independent Councillor for the Charles Dickens Ward of the city.

She is a committed trade unionist who is President of her branch of the GMB Union (General Municipal Boilermakers). This union represents people in a wide variety of occupations, including those in council and school support roles. Claire’s aim is to continue with her academic studies and train to be a representative for people at employment tribunals. She also sees herself as an advocate for Trans people in Portsmouth and the LGBTQ community in general.

Claire Udy

Claire is passionate about giving a voice to those in the City who have been marginalised.

“My problem – which is where kind of feminism might be divided – is that, I’m OK with people being sex workers and do whatever they want. I think they should unionise – absolutely – if they are going to work in that environment and they should be working in the safest ways possible.

But I … disagree with the practice of it. I disagree with the practice of men having capitalist dominance over women in that regard. I find it quite creepy and I found men in disagreement.

It’s like people are saying, ‘Oh but men are getting their urges out by going.’

And I’m so sorry but there is actual evidence to show that sexual violence and assaults increases in an area where there’s a sex establishment, and we should be fighting that more than anything.

I don’t care if a sex club opens up, I don’t care about my kids being near it, I care about the fact that people will sexually assault people and we live in a city where we do have an unproportionately high amount of sexual violence happening.”

Sally Thomas then and now

SALLY THOMAS (shown on the left with Eva Alloway) became a Portsmouth councillor in 1976 in addition to her day job as a teacher. She had been made aware of the Portsea housing issue when her husband Roger became a Labour Party councillor for Portsea in the early 1970s. A huge public meeting which was held on this issue and how an action group, mainly consisting of Portsea women, took on the council.

“So one of the first things we did was call…put out piece paper right round the whole area, which is probably two thousand properties maybe, I don’t know, more. Yeah, about two thousand properties. And say right, come to a big meeting, we’re going to discuss the repairs and everything, right?”

“So I learnt that was part of it really. It was learning so much from them. So I might have become a councillor, but an awful lot of it was about learning from the women around me. One of the women who was incredibly important to me was called Eva Alloway… She came from rough family, like me… But she’d been in the Labour Party before me and she actually taught me how to run elections, you know, gave me a lot of advice, incredible support.”

The Somerstown residents also became involved in the campaign as they had similar problems. A series of legal actions were started against the council for repairs. There were a number of victories. Sadly, these legal challenges were curtailed when the council made it clear that in the event of a Council victory, they would claim full legal costs (amounting to many thousands of pounds) which would be disastrous for the campaign.

Other aspects of the campaign continued, and Sally was joined by another woman councillor and housing campaigner Johanna Sugre the council having previously been an all-male citadel. Together Joanna and Sally really shook things up. The campaign continued into the 1980s and a number of good quality new houses were built. 

Community Diversity

Portsmouth is host to people from all over the world and many of its ethnic communities go back generations. In the early 1960s Portsmouth attracted a new community of Chinese migrants. Generally, the husbands came first as migrant workers and then applied to move their families to Portsmouth. This was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Most worked in catering.

Mrs Lai:
“At first I struggled a lot. My kids were all in Hong Kong; we had to leave our home to make a living… We worked in the kitchen; my husband earned £20, me £10. Altogether there was just £30, we had to support the family, so little money…”

One of the key issues that came out of the interview was that women found it difficult to access medical care because of limited English. This problem, and continued reliance on an interpreter, seems to have resulted from the fact that members of the community worked with each other and therefore continued to speak Chinese.

Ms Yu:
“For me the most difficult issue is medical care, there’s no one who can interpret for me…. Sometimes there are Chinese nurses in hospital…we can’t speak English, we’ll ask those Chinese nurses for help…. Since we have language barriers, what’s most worrying is seeing a doctor.
When I first arrived, I felt very depressed. I had no friends, and there were hardly any Chinese here. Now there are more and more Chinese. I started to feel much better seeing more Chinese, especially when my father opened a restaurant.

In 1980 our Chinese Association was set up. I was delighted that we had our own Chinese organisation. Life was happy and lively. We now have a Chinese school, and the elderly lunch club is also running

… In 1998, 2004 and 2011 Chinese women from all over the country joined together for big celebrations in the Guildhall. We also organised a fund-raising event for the association: we gathered the old people to make Zongzi for sale.

We helped the needy Chinese women in the community. We also have a Hope Project, with which we support more than ten village schools in the deprived areas in China… I am committed to this community.”

Photo courtesy of the Portsmouth Chinese Association

While the younger people are increasingly integrated, there is also a desire to preserve and share cultural heritage. On Sundays, a Chinese School runs at Milton Cross for about 200 students. These come from as far away as Guildford and Chichester and are aged from 4 to 18. There is also a class for adults. Instruction is mainly in Mandarin Chinese.