I visited former councillor Mary Mears the other day.
Mary was elected as a Conservative councillor in 1993, serving as leader of Brighton and Hove City Council from 2008 to 2011. She represented Rottingdean, lived in Woodingdean and knew east Brighton like the back of her hand.
Along with other charismatic local leaders, such as the late Faith Matyszak, Mary considered Whitehawk her turf. She was passionate about housing and chaired the local Royal British Legion.
Mary was poised to become mayor of Brighton and Hove when, tragically, she suffered a stroke, complicated by covid.
This independent, hard-working woman is now physically disabled and dependent upon others. Since her discharge from hospital, she has had no choice but to live in a local nursing home.
The nursing home is well run and the staff are kind. Yet the freedoms that Mary used to take for granted are lost to her. This highly intelligent politician has little chance to discuss current affairs or influence the world about her. The staff are busy and many of her fellow residents have dementia.
Her pleasant room has become a prison. There’s a lovely view but she can’t see out of it – a common design fault which planners could easily address but do not.
Mary is visited by friends and family, and has a wheelchair. It would be pleasant to accompany her to a nearby café or park, except there are none. There is nowhere for anyone to go, unless they have access to suitable transport – and the strength to bear the journey.
Unfortunately, Mary’s nursing home, like so many in the city, is situated in a place unsuitable for older people and others with disabilities. It’s at the top of a hill, with no parks, shops, cafés or community centres in easy walking distance. The road is so steep that last time I visited I nearly fell.
It’s deeply shocking to me that Mary, so vibrant and well known in the community, should be stripped of power or what is now called “agency”.
And yet, as someone who cared for many years for my late mother, I know this is a problem that has blighted the lives and often the final days of many thousands of local people.
I have written before about the tendency of the local council to favour student accommodation over the needs of frail elderly people and others with chronic ill health, whose residential services are often pushed to the outskirts of the city.
Time and again, when sites suitable for supported housing or care facilities have become available in accessible sites, close to facilities, they have been earmarked for others, often students, most of them young and able bodied.
Years ago, when the large Co-op department store in London Road was closed and the site became available, I wrote that it would be ideal for frail or disabled people.
The site was flat, near the Open Market and shops, chemists, cafés and bus routes, as well as The Level and community groups. That prime site went for student housing.
Some years later, even more student housing has been built in London Road at the old Boots and Somerfield site.
So it is able-bodied young people, not the elderly, who sunbathe on The Level and stumble happily into the Co-op Food Hall on the ground floor. It is they who benefit from the Aldi across the road, the Sainsbury’s up the street, local cafés and two pharmacies.
Once again, the disabled, sick and elderly have been forced to the margins by blameless students who almost certainly would be prepared and able to live further afield and walk greater distances. The pattern is repeated across the city.
Mary is an east Brighton woman but if there’s another place she knows well, it’s London Road’s Open Market. Mary’s family ran a greengrocer’s there and even after she was elected, she worked on the stall. It is how I first met her.
Stall holders there remember Mary and speak about her. When I shop there, as I often do, I think how nice it would be, if Mary lived close by, for her to visit the Market for a cup of tea. Or have an ice cream on The Level or a light lunch at Nova.
It reminds me of the days when my mother was in a nursing home and I longed to take her out for a simple cup of tea.
It’s a cruel injustice to force someone out of familiar places because they are ill. Sometimes it can’t be avoided but in our supposedly inclusive city it has become common practice.
We condemn cities which reject homeless people yet we routinely banish our disabled elders and turn a blind eye to their suffering.
As a community we should be ashamed.
Jean Calder is a campaigner and journalist. For more of her work, click here.