The small town upended by Europe’s biggest construction site

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On the Somerset coast, Hinkley Point C is taking shape.

EDF Energy, the French company building the nuclear power station, likes to reel off dizzying numbers: 8,000 people have already worked there and at the peak there will be 50 tower cranes on site. The final pour of concrete for the base of the first of two reactors was the largest in the UK, beating the Shard in London – and the cake baked to celebrate that moment included more than 2,000 eggs and 2kg of jam.

Ten miles inland, most residents in the nearest town, Bridgwater, are not bothered about this game of construction site Top Trumps. They would just like their town back.

The base of the first reactor at Hinkley Point C is prepared for the UK’s biggest ever concrete pour.

Many argue that the place is blighted by the noise of lorries carrying materials and equipment and coaches transporting workers. They say the influx of employees needing somewhere to stay – there are more than 2,000 workers in digs – has led to rising rents.

The food bank is witnessing an increase in numbers of users that it puts down to soaring property prices. Some people say they are frightened to go into town at night because they worry there will be fights, and complain there has been an increase in the number of sex workers.

“They told us Hinkley would be for the locals but they have brought in labour from all over and there has been no trickle-down effect,” said Matthew Brock, a building maintenance worker.

Brock chatted as he worked on a house being converted into bedrooms for Hinkley workers. Though the project is giving him work, he remains sceptical. “I have’t heard anything positive about it.”

A shuttle bus to Hinckley Point C travels through Bridgwater.

In the 19th century, Bridgwater was a major centre for the manufacture of clay tiles and bricks and more recently it was the home of British Cellophane. Production of the wrapping notoriously gave the town an eggy smell, but also jobs, until the factory closed down in 2005.

For more than half a century the area has been a base for nuclear energy. Work on Hinkley A power station began in 1957 and most locals have grown up with the idea of nuclear.

But the construction of Hinkley Point C has brought misery for many residents. Spend a few minutes next to one of the traffic-choked roads in the town centre and it is easy to understand their frustration.

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A jetty is due to open in the autumn and a wharf is being improved that will allow more deliveries by sea, but until then EDF has permission for an average of 750 lorry movements a day – 375 in and 375 out. In the week ending 19 July, there were 550 a day.

In addition to the lorries, there are 400 bus journeys a day through Bridgwater. EDF says it is a good thing that 94% of the workforce use the bus to get to work but locals are frustrated when they see buses that are empty or carrying just one or two workers, which is a common sight.

Some local politicians and many residents pleaded for a bypass for construction traffic and workers. It would have cost about £100m, a fraction of the £20bn cost of the project, but EDF has adapted existing junctions.

The leader of the Labour group on Sedgemoor district council, Brian Smedley, said: “EDF told us: ‘No, it’s too expensive. We can deal with the extra traffic by tweaking some of the junctions.”

Brian Smedley.

Local people say some journeys are taking double the time or more, and drivers are finding ever more ingenious rat runs.

Father and daughter Malcolm and Sue Calladine say they almost lost their business, Bedrock Furniture, because of roadworks to accommodate Hinkley traffic.

“I had to let all my employees go and we just went down to my dad and I,” said Sue. “There’s no compensation for us. Their attitude was ‘Bugger everyone else.’ They knew it would impact heavily. They should have put a bypass in.”

Malcolm Calladine.

There are 4,300 workers on site at the moment. Half of them live within the town or at a commutable distance. That leaves 2,150 needing somewhere to stay.

Two large campuses provide workers’ accommodation, one near the gates of the site on the coast (the Hinkley campus), the other in the town centre on the old Cellophane site (the Sedgemoor campus). They have a total of 1,500 beds, making the combined facility the second biggest hotel in the UK.

The Sedgemoor campus in Bridgwater.

The accommodation, which caters for men and women, is relatively cheap (£20-£25 a night) and spotlessly clean. There are canteens, bars, laundries, gyms and sports pitches.

Some locals have dubbed the Sedgemoor campus Cell Block H because the pods squat behind wire fences, or “50 shades of grey” – reflecting their sombre colour (not what goes on in them – they are single occupancy only).

But the campuses are by no means full. “You can find cheaper accommodation elsewhere,” said one scaffolder, who is staying in a converted nursing home. “And you have more freedom to come and go without being monitored.”

It also suits owners of houses and other buildings in the town who are making good money out of Hinkley. What were family homes have been converted into homes of multiple occupancy (HMOs). HMOs are easy to spot – many have code keypads on the front door and a handwritten notice in the window advertising cheap rooms to rent.

Flats in Bridgwater.

The lure of profit from the Hinkley workforce has led to buildings all over the town being converted into flats and HMOs, including a former tax office and the historic Mansion House Inn on the High Street.

Mark Bevington, 33, who works at the bed shop, said he would like to move with his family to a larger house but cannot afford to. “I feel Hinkley is nothing but negative,” he said.

Mark Bevington.

House prices are rising sharply. According to the online property site Zoopla, the average price for property in Bridgwater stood at £236,055 in July 2019, a rise of almost 3% in just three months. Property prices have risen 25% in five years.

Phil Jarman, who runs the food bank, is a fan of Hinkley Point but said he was seeing an increase in the number of clients.

“Landlords are putting rents up and the situation is either pay the rent or the food. Hinkley Point is wonderful. We lost British Cellophane so Hinkley C was fantastic news. But the downside is this increase in rents because of the influx of people into the town. It’s driving people into the food bank.”

EDF says there is no evidence that it is driving up rents and points out that its lorries make up only a small fraction of the total traffic.

Still, Bridgwater people reel off Hinkley complaints – from struggling to get a doctor’s appointment to the notion that the project may lead to an increase in marriage breakdowns if local people run off with incomers.

One of the most common complaints is that the town has become a no-go area at night because of fights and antisocial behaviour.

The statistics do not bear this out. Construction began in the second half of 2016. In May 2016 in Bridgwater town centre, there were 32 antisocial behaviour crimes. In April 2017, that rose to 110 then dropped back to 38 in April 2018. It was at 58 in April 2019. Public order offences were steady over the same period and drugs offences up slightly.

Kady Finka, a mother of four who works at the Sedgemoor campus, laughs at the notion the place has become dangerous. “That’s nonsense,” she said.

Kady Finka.

People often ask her if she is frightened of the male guests. “But they are mainly family men just here to work. It’s prestigious to work on a nuclear site. They don’t want to mess that up.”

Finka and some of her neighbours from the Sydenham estate are doing well out of Hinkley Point. She is one of 85 people from the estate, which is opposite the Sedgemoor campus and one of the most deprived in Somerset, who work for Host, the company that runs the campuses. They make up a quarter of the Host workforce over the two campuses.

“When Hinkley Point C came along people said we would be inundated and there would be nothing for the local people. I believe the impact has been positive.”

She says a 22-year-old who lives opposite her has managed to get on the property ladder because of Hinkley wages; a friend got a job there driving a van, then a truck and has now been trained to pilot a crane. EDF points out that people are learning skills from fixing steel to welding, from hospitality to hi-tech engineering.

Alcohol and drug testing at Hinkley Point is stringent. “We just don’t take the risk,” said one worker. “It isn’t worth it. We’re on good money. Go in pissed or on drugs and you’re out. Simple as that.”

EDF funds a four-strong “Hinkley Point police beat team” – a sergeant, two constables and a community support officer. EDF has also provided money for a street pastors’ scheme. “The workforce is not causing a spike in any activity we should worry about,” said Andrew Goodchild, Hinkley Point’s lead planner.

There are signs of prosperity in Bridgwater. The new Mercure hotel is a glitzy addition, featuring a Marco Pierre White steakhouse bar and grill. Some businesses have boomed, including barber shops.

EDF says it has made £100m available for transport schemes, to fund the police officers and to help tourism. EDF cash has also been used to boost sports and leisure facilities and community spaces.

But many fear the town will suffer the same fate as US gold rush towns – a few good years followed by abandonment. The worry is that the local people being squeezed out will not return.

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