Highways England in (yet another) display of sheer arrogance

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Highways England are writing to residents in the parts of Thurrock likely to be affected by the proposed Lower Thames Crossing in what appears to be the next stage of the ‘consultation’ that will fix the final route. Highways England have done this without informing Thurrock Council and residents are getting these letters completely out of the blue. We can only imagine how alarmed anyone getting one of these letters landing on their doormat is going to feel. See here for the full story: New Thames Crossing: Outrage as Highways England write to Thurrock residents over survey workhttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/02/24/new-thames-crossing-outrage-highways-england-write-thurrock-residents-survey-work/

Given the level of anger about the Lower Thames Crossing that was expressed during the ‘consultation’ process that took place this time last year, you would have thought that Highways England would have learnt some lessons about open and honest communication involving everyone affected by their proposals. That includes letting Thurrock Council know you’re initiating what appears to be another level of consultation on a road and crossing scheme that will have a major impact on anyone living near the route. Now it’s very rarely that we’ll express any sympathy for Thurrock Council but in this instance, we can understand why they’re angered by Highways England effectively going behind their backs.

The issue of the Lower Thames Crossing and the way Highways England have handled the ‘consultation’ so far is about the only one we can think of that has united people in Thurrock right across the political spectrum from us as anarchist inclined community activists all the way round to UKIP. Given the fractious and sometimes bitter nature of local politics, that is some achievement for Highways England! Well, if this latest high handed, arrogant action from them is anything to go by, it looks as though we’re in for another bout of holding their feet over the fire…

‘CONsultation’ on the proposed Port of Tilbury expansion

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On March 6th, the Port of Tilbury will start a pre-planning community consultation into its plans to expand the port using land adjacent to the defunct power station: Port of Tilbury seek views on expansionhttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/02/23/port-tilbury-seek-views-expansion/ As you can see from our treatment of the heading to this post, from our experience of the ‘consultation’ into the Lower Thames Crossing that was taking place this time last year, to say we’re cynical about the process is an understatement…

However, the consultation will be going ahead regardless so we would advise everyone to temporarily set aside their cynicism and take part, even if it is just for the experience of having your views about the process confirmed! Looking at the image above, the first question that springs to mind is how the heck will all of the goods and materials coming through the port be transported? Presumably as a bulk materials handling facility appears to be part of the expansion plans, a railhead will be part of the plans. However, it’s inevitable that a considerable chunk of what comes through the port will be transported by road.

As this site is to the east of Tilbury, a new road seems to be pretty much inevitable. That means more noise and air pollution, not to mention the loss of some wildlife habitat. So, if you’re taking part in the consultation, we would strongly advise asking some searching questions about transport links and what plans will be in place to reduce the impact of the extra noise and pollution that the new road links will bring.

This proposal needs to be put into the context of the high levels of air pollution that are affecting large areas of Thurrock: Stanford-le-Hope named as one of ten worst in UK in latest WHO pollution statshttp://www.echo-news.co.uk/news/14489019.Stanford_le_Hope_named_as_one_of_ten_worst_in_UK_in_latest_WHO_pollution_stats/ Are the economic ‘benefits’ supposedly promised by the proposed port expansion worth the price of worsening health for the residents of Thurrock living near to any of the major roads in the area?

Getting away from what can be the mind numbing details of a planning proposal, a more fundamental debate about priorities is needed. Are people really willing to pay the price of more traffic noise, more air pollution and the stress of living with these as well as habitat destruction on the marshes for the supposed economic ‘benefits’ of what will be a largely automated port sucking in imports? Let the debate begin…

Allotments going begging – get one while you can!

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It used to be the case that there would be a long waiting list for an allotment – well, in Thurrock it appears they’re there for the taking if you want one: Gardening fans encouraged to get an allotmenthttp://www.thurrockgazette.co.uk/news/15031251.Gardening_fans_encouraged_to_get_an_allotment/ Before we proceed, we’d like to apologise for linking to an article with a picture of a Tory councillor on it – it has to be done because there’s a serious issue at stake here…

We’re very keen on the development of neighbourhood resilience… One of the important aspects of a resilient neighbourhood is having a community garden as a source of fresh food – this also helps in bringing people together and building solidarity. Okay, an allotment isn’t quite the same as a neighbourhood community garden but it’s still a source of fresh food. Why is a source of fresh food in the form of a community garden or allotment important? Obviously, there are the health benefits in that you know what’s been put on the vegetables and other produce that you’ve been growing, the physical exercise and the psychological benefits of being out in the fresh air. As well as this, it’s a source of fresh food that you and your neighbours are in control of…

Any observer of the political, economic and social landscape will understand that we are entering a turbulent and unpredictable period. A combination of sterling being clobbered by Brexit and possible labour shortages in the agricultural sector will lead to food prices going up. Post what will most likely be a hard Brexit with tariffs going on food imports, prices will soar: The Cost Of Food After ‘Brexit’http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/fjona-krasniqi/the-cost-of-food-after-br_b_12661478.html Now we don’t want to fall into the trap of promoting a patriotic ‘dig for victory’ drive because as anarchists, that’s not our style. What we do want to promote is neighbourhoods and communities doing what they can to protect themselves from the shite that’s coming. Growing your own food is a part of that as it helps reduce dependence on a supply system that will have no choice but to pass on increasing costs, screwing us all in a period of stagnant and declining pay.

Being prepared for what’s coming will help us get through it and leave enough energy to concentrate on what really matters – fighting for a more just, sane and sustainable society. We’re pretty upfront about the need to look and plan ahead rather than panic when the shite does start to hit the fan as it inevitably will. So, it may only seem like a small thing but if a potential source of fresh food under your control in the form of an allotment is going begging, do yourself a favour and get one!

Is this the start of the gentrification of Tilbury?

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Gentrification? In Tilbury?! We never thought we’d be mentioning these two words in the same sentence – what’s going on with the proposed Gloriana Thurrock Ltd. development on St. Chads Road in Tilbury means we are now doing just that… These stories in the local media provide some background: Tilbury housing project Gloriana returns to the planning committeehttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/02/20/tilbury-housing-project-gloriana-returns-planning-committee/ and: UKIP anger over council proposal to hike rents for new Tilbury housing up to £1400 a monthhttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2016/12/20/ukip-anger-council-proposal-hike-rents-new-tilbury-housing-1400-month/

At a planning committee meeting held on December 15th, Gloriana applied for an amendment to the s106 legal agreement for planning permission to delete the obligation for the provision of on-site affordable housing. This was refused with Labour and UKIP councillors expressing deep reservations about the proposed amendment.

Gloriana have submitted a new application to be discussed at the planning committee meeting on Thursday, February 23rd. The options they’re putting on the table read as follows:

“Gloriana has re-assessed its financial model and although the return from the housing development will be lower, the company will offer to provide:

• 20% (26 units) of affordable housing and £640,000 financial contributions – based on some of the affordable housing being shared ownership; or
• 22% (28 units) of affordable housing and £300,000 financial contributions – based on some of the affordable housing being shared ownership.

“The preference being the first option (i.e. 20% affordable housing and a £640,000 financial contribution).”

Basically, with this grudging concession, Gloriana are trying to get away providing as little in the way of genuinely affordable housing as they can get away with. Which for a housing provider wholly owned by the council is as far as we’re concerned, a massive abrogation of their duty. Gloriana Thurrock Ltd. was set up towards the end of 2013 by the then Labour administration on Thurrock Council with the aim of building homes on land that commercial developers ‘wouldn’t touch’: Is Thurrock a model council house-builder?https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/23/thurrock-model-council-housebuilder Given what’s going on, the answer to the question posed in the title of the Guardian piece has to be a resounding no!

Let’s take a step back for a minute and look at the area where this proposed development is going to be sited. We’re talking about Tilbury, probably the most solidly working class town in the region. One where those people who are working are mainly on low incomes. Although there are some massive new warehouse developments going up to the west of Tilbury, it’s likely that a lot of the jobs there will be low income with a fair number quite possibly being on zero hours contracts. Given all of this, any rational person would have thought that a priority would be the provision of homes with genuinely affordable rents that locals on low incomes can pay without having to skimp on food, heating, clothing and other essentials. It would appear that these are not Gloriana’s priorities…

So, what’s going on here? The only conclusion we can come to is that this development is aimed at commuters. It’s aimed at people who are probably on fairly reasonable incomes but cannot afford to live in London because house prices and rents are obscenely high – this is a direct consequence of the project of making the capital a welcome home for the global super rich. One of the consequences of this is a ripple effect which is being felt way beyond London as commuters struggle to find somewhere they can afford to live. Hence, we have Gloriana pitching a new development on the fringes of Tilbury at this demographic where they can see themselves making a hefty wedge of dosh while ignoring the locals on low incomes who are desperate for any kind of secure roof over their head.

The logic of the market has deemed that Tilbury is now ripe for gentrification which is just the polite term for social cleansing. This is what happens when housing is seen as a financial asset class instead of what it should be in an ideal world – a basic human right. Do we roll over and accept this situation or do we start to challenge this perverted view of what housing is and fight back against the system that perpetuates it?

Building the slums of the future

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The Orchard Village estate in South Hornchurch, built to replace the Mardyke estate which allegedly had acquired a certain degree of notoriety, was supposed to be a flagship example of regeneration. It’s anything but, with residents experiencing numerous problems due to sloppy construction. Here are just two out of many articles focusing on the problems on the estate and how the residents feel betrayed: Leaking sewage and rotten floorboards: life on a ‘flagship’ housing estatehttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/06/life-flagship-housing-estate-orchard-village-east-london and: Ultimatum for Circle Housing to fix host of problems at Orchard Village, Rainhamhttp://www.romfordrecorder.co.uk/news/ultimatum_for_circle_housing_to_fix_host_of_problems_at_orchard_village_rainham_1_4513721

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For a complex variety of reasons, the Mardyke estate which was built in the 1960s to house workers at the nearby Ford car plant, was allowed to slide into a dilapidated condition which was used as justification for its demolition and replacement with Orchard Village. The new development was built by the Circle Housing Group which is now part of the Clarion Housing Group, the largest housing association in the UK: Clarion Group formed as mega-merger completeshttp://www.insidehousing.co.uk/clarion-group-plans-11bn-land-buying-drive/7017724.article A few decades back, housing associations were seen as community based alternatives to what were then perceived as faceless and impersonal councils. Encouraged by government deregulation, they have grown and morphed beyond recognition into powerful players in the provision of ‘affordable’ housing.

This growth of housing associations into ‘mega associations’ has led to a situation where they have forgotten the people they are meant to serve. The proof of this is the long list of complaints from residents at Orchard Village ranging from a lack of insulation in walls and ceilings and mould on the walls through to an erratic heating system and issues with sewage. These are the kind of complaints that used to be made about some of the council estates that were thrown up in the 1960s and which experienced problems pretty much from the off as a result of shoddy construction methods. Fifty years on and it would appear that lessons have not been learned and that Orchard Village is destined to be a slum of the (near) future because of slipshod, cheapskate construction. Sure, the exterior appearance of the buildings on Orchard Village may look considerably sleeker than its clunky predecessor, the Mardyke estate but what use is a sleek exterior when the insides are already starting to drastically fail? Failing to the extent that while some residents are lobbying for effective repairs and compensation, others are saying the only solution is to knock the place down and start again.

What’s happened at Orchard Village are basic procedural failures in the construction process that in the 21st century should have been consigned to history. Seriously, how is it possible to leave out insulation in the walls and ceilings? Mould on walls? There has to be a wealth of literature dealing with the issue of mould on walls in public housing with conclusions on how to deal with it and construction standards laid down to avoid the problem happening in new buildings? So why, in a supposedly advanced society in the 21st century are housing associations throwing up building that experience issues with mould pretty much from the outset? When a resident says that the “whole story is a ticking time-bomb”, it’s pretty clear that the only viable solution is to knock the estate down and start again. Take a deep breath – we’re agreeing with one of the local UKIP councillors, Philip Martin who put this proposal to Havering’s housing chiefs: “Residents’ lives have been blighted by the substandard building work that has taken place. The only solution is its demolition and complete reconstruction.”

Seriously, the situation at Orchard Village is a fucking disgrace and heads need to start rolling pretty damn soon. What this shows is that the model for delivering housing, particularly ‘affordable’ housing is broken and beyond any form of redemption if the result is the slums of the (near) future that have been thrown up at Orchard Village. Until residents are fully involved in the development of new housing, we’re going to see this crap happening time and time again. Full resident involvement in their housing provision is only going to happen after some considerable social and political upheaval. Given that housing is a basic necessity, perhaps it’s time we started to bring that upheaval about…

What’s the future for our parks?

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As we’re involved as volunteer gardeners at Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope, probably the least surprising piece of news we’ve read today is this: UK’s cash-starved parks at tipping point of decline, MPs warnhttps://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/11/uks-cash-starved-parks-at-tipping-point-of-decline-mps-warn Hardie Park, run and maintained by volunteers (with Thurrock Council just collecting the rubbish) stands in stark contrast to many parks across southern Essex that are visibly showing the signs of slashed budgets and severely reduced maintenance schedules.

Despite research showing that well maintained and well used public parks make a contribution to social welfare and public health, when local authorities are implementing the government’s ongoing austerity agenda, cutting expenditure in this area seems like an easy option. After all, when presented with a choice of making further cuts to already abysmally funded adult social care services or letting the weeds grow in the local parks, the vast majority of people will say no to any more cuts in the former, so councils slash expenditure on the latter. Obviously, if the narrative underpinning the government’s continuing austerity drive was being effectively challenged, we wouldn’t be forced into making these choices would we?

We remember what Hardie Park was like back in 2007 and 2008 when we contested the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward for the Independent Class Association. It was a litter strewn, unloved no go area that most local people tried to avoid. Now, it’s a much loved, well used community asset although as the volunteers will admit, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done to bring the park up to the standard we’d like. The point is that now the park is being well maintained, more people are using it and with the volunteer run cafe, it’s becoming a hub for the local community. The benefits of this in health and wellbeing are plain for all to see.

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If there aren’t volunteers stepping up from the local community to pitch in with park maintenance, they will decline and start to turn into unwelcoming, litter strewn no go areas. When that happens, local authorities looking to boost their coffers will use the neglected state of the parks as justification for selling them off to developers for housing. We’ve already seen this happen in Basildon with the council taking a significant chunk out of Gloucester Park and casting their beady eyes over other parks and open spaces in the area.

What does the future hold? Well, with the political situation as it stands, there’s little chance of an effective challenge to the government’s doctrine of permanent austerity succeeding. This leaves the people power solution that has worked wonders for Hardie Park. A word of warning…it’s bloody hard work! Although, it has to be said that it’s running the cafe and associated meeting rooms that comprises a significant chink of the work. The one thing all the volunteers will agree on is how empowering it is to be actively involved in running and maintaining a local community asset.

It could be said that the volunteers at Hardie Park are letting both Thurrock Council and the government off the hook for austerity. However, we prefer to see it as an empowering form of people power where we start to have a say in what happens in our community. Some of us are starting to think beyond what happens at the park at other ways power can be brought down to the grassroots…watch this space for developments…