New Town Utopia

A review of a sympathetic, brutally honest, sometimes funny (gallows humour), sometimes tragic, film about the disparity between the original vision for Basildon New Town and the reality as we know it today…

‘New Town Utopia is a feature documentary film about utopian dreams and concrete realities… the challenging, funny, and sometimes tragic story of the British new town of Basildon, Essex. The narrative is guided by the artists, musicians and poets of Basildon – on a journey through memory, place and performance. Facing austerity, adversity and personal battles they are individuals driven by creative spirit to help their community through art, poetry, music… and some rather angry puppets.’

See here for more information about this film: http://www.newtownutopia.com/

The film is about the vision the post war Labour government had for the New Towns and how that contrasts to the stark reality of what Basildon is like today. There’s footage of tired looking estates with the inevitable cracked and broken paths with the actor, Jim Broadbent, speaking the words of the Labour MP, Lewis Silken, as he articulated his vision for what the…

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An abuse of power

A report by the Money Advice Trust as part of their ‘Stop The Knock’ campaign reveals that Thurrock Council used bailiffs over 6,000 times last year. The figures in the report were obtained by the use of a Freedom of Information Act request. See here for the full story on Your Thurrock: Report reveals Thurrock Council called the bailiffs over 6,000 times last yearhttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/11/17/report-reveals-thurrock-council-called-bailiffs-6000-times-last-year/

In a period where more and more people are getting into financial difficulties as a result of a toxic combination of stagnating or declining pay, increases in short term or zero hours employment contracts and benefits ‘reforms’ (cuts) as a result of austerity, you would have thought that a local authority such as Thurrock would be taking all of this into consideration before resorting to the use of bailiffs. Thurrock Council make a lot of noise about the need to protect their revenue streams in an age of permanent austerity yet fail to grasp that it’s austerity that’s plunging more people into financial crisis.

With Thurrock Council being a (just about) Tory controlled authority, it would be tempting to fall into the trap of treating their attitude to people in financial difficulties as an expression of their politics. When you look at the figures in the Your Thurrock piece showing which authorities resorted to using bailiffs the most, the party political breakdown falls apart completely because one of the worst offenders is none other than the Labour controlled London Borough of Barking & Dagenham! They came in with 16,281 instructions to bailiffs to collect debts in 2016/17. If you think this number of instructions is draconian, it’s actually a decrease of 52% since 2014/15.

Working with Basildon & Southend Housing Action, we’ve come to understand that each local authority develops their own operating culture which can carry on in its own way regardless of political control. Some authorities can – given the constraints imposed upon them by the government’s austerity measures – be reasonably pragmatic and fair when it comes to recovering debts. Others seem to have a penchant for getting heavy with people from the outset. As you can see from the figures showing the use of bailiffs by local authorities in the region, there’s no consistency and there are dramatic swings from one year to the next.

Despite all of this, there are too many local authorities resorting to sending in the bailiffs almost as a default option. In theory local authorities should be the servants of the people. That’s the theory…in practice, they love lording it over us and part of that involves elements of coercion. The excessive use of bailiffs to recover debts from people who’ve hit financial difficulties is an abuse of power. It shows how local authorities are losing legitimacy in the eyes of an increasing number of people and the only way they can maintain their legitimacy is through coercion. It shows that ultimately, the local authorities who are supposed to serve us but instead, lord it over us, are no longer fit for purpose…

Admit it…you need us!

In an age of seemingly never ending austerity, council services are under ever growing strain and in a growing number of instances, they’re failing. Working with groups such as Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG), it’s all too clear that services such as rubbish collection and estate maintenance are in crisis. On a fair few occasions, BASHA and VHCG have had to step into the breach to undertake activities such as neighbourhood clean ups, educating residents on rubbish disposal (nigh on impossible when Basildon Council don’t have a rubbish disposal protocol!) and setting up community gardens.

BASHA, and now VHCG, are not stepping into the breach just to cover the failings of Basildon Council – they’re doing it because they care passionately about their communities. Recent clean ups they’ve undertaken include Gambleside on the ¾ estate in Vange: Doing it for ourselves (because no one else will!)https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/doing-it-for-ourselves-because-no-one-else-will/ and the Pattocks on the Red Brick Estate: Cleaning up the Pattockshttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/cleaning-up-the-pattocks/

Interestingly, in the case of the Pattocks clean up, BASHA were invited by the estate manager to come along to offer their expertise to the clean up she initiated. If that level of co-operation between council officers who know they don’t have the resources to do the job they need to do and community groups could spread, it really would make a world of difference. This wouldn’t just be to the physical appearance of the estates but also the empowerment of community action groups who want to make a meaningful contribution to the running and maintenance of their neighbourhoods.

Sadly, as things stand at the moment, far from co-operation and a constructive working relationship, BASHA and VHCG find they’re dealing with council officers who all too often, are less than helpful. The ongoing saga of dealing with a dysfunctional rubbish collection ‘service’ on the ¾ estate is just one example of where it feels that council officers are hampering efforts to clean up the estate and educate residents on rubbish disposal protocol. BASHA’s efforts to effectively carry out clean up days have been frustrated by issues with permissions to dispose of what they’ve collected at Essex County Council waste disposal facilities.

On the surface, Basildon Council’s new Pride Teams sound like a constructive idea to start to turn round issues with the neglect of estates and public spaces: Pride Teams start transforming neighbourhoodshttp://www.basildonstandard.co.uk/news/15515108.Pride_Teams_start_transforming_neighbourhoods/ The problem is we’ve heard it on good authority that the Pride Teams know they’re overstretched and cannot do the job they’ve been set up to do with the limited resources they’ve got. This could be the perfect opportunity for them to reach out to community groups and work in partnership with them to start to turn the estates around.

However, this will mean Basildon Council admitting they can’t do the job themselves and relinquishing a degree of control. From BASHA’s previous dealings with the council, it’s abundantly clear that the one thing they hate doing is relinquishing control. So we have a bit of an impasse…for the moment… The point is that as community groups step into the breach more and more to deal with the failures of local government, it return for this, they have to be given a meaningful say in how their estates and neighbourhoods are managed and developed for the future. Nothing less than that is acceptable…

A demolition of Thurrock Council’s tenant tax

Thurrock Council are desperately trying to defend their imposition of what has been dubbed the ‘tenant tax’: You were told: Thurrock Council boss defends decision over new service chargeshttp://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/09/05/told-thurrock-council-defend-decision-new-service-charges/ Despite all of their bluster and front, it’s pretty clear the extra charges are being imposed in order to make up for the continuing and growing shortfall of money from central government. Mind you, a Tory run council is never going to admit they’re being screwed over by a Tory government so the bluster will continue.

A lot of people can see straight through the bullshit coming from Thurrock Council. A local blogger, Valen (Myles) Cook, has written what can best be a forensic demolition of Thurrock Council’s attempts to defend the tenant tax: Destroying the defence of Thurrock Council’s ‘service charges’http://valen1971.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/destroying-defence-of-thurrock-councils.html Trust us, it’s well worth reading and sharing…

Don’t let them suck you in!

Local councils hate gobby, pushy pressure groups. This is because local councils hate being held to account for their failings and having the truth about how they operate being told to all and sundry. The same applies to pretty much most housing associations who have forgotten their roots and have morphed into vast, unaccountable corporate entities.

Local councillors and housing associations will come up with any convenient excuse they can to avoid having to deal with a grassroots, community based pressure group. This is simply because they will not deal with any group they can’t exercise a degree of control over. This leaves your gobby, pushy pressure group with a dilemma. Do they continue to operate in a way that maintains their independence giving councils and housing associations an excuse to continue to ignore them or do they go down the route of forming a properly constituted residents association that will get a degree of recognition from the authorities?

A word of warning… As soon as you have started to move your gobby, pushy pressure group towards a properly constituted residents association, you’re being sucked into their system. Why else would a local authority freely publish a template constitution for a residents association if they didn’t think they are the kind of groups they can co-opt? Take a look at this example and see what you think – www.highland.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/3145/sample_constitution.pdf Think of the amount of time that will have have be spent on discussing procedural points in a formally constituted residents association instead of what could be done to challenge the authorities by a more nimble, flexible and responsive pressure group.

When your ward councillor suggests that forming a residents association is the only way that the authorities will listen to and work with you, alarm bells need to start ringing very loudly. When a councillor suggests such a format, what they’re trying to do is nudge you towards forming something they can put constraints upon and exercise a degree of influence over. What they’re also trying to do is get you to work with a system of local governance that exists to deliver the government’s austerity agenda. Not only that, they’re trying to get you to work with a system that we all know from bitter experience is dysfunctional and broken. Read the latest print edition of the Stirrer to see what we mean – https://www.dropbox.com/s/x5ixljqiomcwkx5/STIRRER_No_2.pdf?dl=0

Obviously, even a gobby, pushy pressure group has to have some kind of structure in place to ensure that decision making is based on consensus and that it’s not dominated by a small cabal of activists. The point is, there are many ways of achieving this that fall outside the template of a residents association that’s favoured by the authorities. Seeds for Change has a lot of useful information on setting up and running grassroots groups that can offer them the autonomy they need to offer the alternatives / resistance to the shite that comes from local councils and housing associations – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/

So, if you’re a gobby, pushy grassroots group that’s finding itself getting nudged by your local councillors into forming a formally constituted residents association, resist that pressure. If your group is about empowering your local community to start running its own affairs, why would you want to be sucked into to working with a system of local governance that’s dysfunctional and broken and whose agenda is about control rather than serving the people?

Keeping up appearances

We noted with interest this piece on Your Thurrock on how Thurrock Council are preparing themselves for the future as funding from central government continues to be slashed year on year: Thurrock Council finance boss looks to a future of “not a penny from the government”http://www.yourthurrock.com/2017/07/14/thurrock-council-finance-boss-looks-future-not-penny-government/ Obviously a Tory run council isn’t going to be challenging the narrative from a Tory government about continuing austerity and will be more than happy to implement an agenda of cuts…

In a period where Thurrock Council make no secret of the measures they’re having to take to bring expenditure down while building up their cash reserves, it’s not surprising that people are starting to ask some searching questions about spending priorities. Where we live in Stanford-le-Hope, we can’t help noticing that the council appear to have gone into overdrive (resources permitting) on their cleaning and greening agenda with verges getting regularly cut and Ruskin Road Park looking better than it has done for a long time. The people we know in the area have picked up on this and half jokingly have been asking ‘when is the royal visit happening?’

When the talk a couple of years back was about handing over pretty much every public space for resident led groups to run (as has happened at Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope) in a bid to save as much money as possible, it now seems that the money is there for them to be maintained to a reasonable standard. The answer to that is that it’s about surface appearances. What residents and visitors to the area see are the pavements, verges and parks and that goes a fair way to forming their impression of what Thurrock is like as a place to live and work. Hence the effort and money that’s being spent on what to all intents and purposes, is keeping up appearances.

Unless you have an ill or elderly resident in need of a care package from social services, what is provided in this sector is hidden from a large section of the public. These are services that most people don’t pay much attention to until they’re in the unfortunate situation where they have to turn to them. When they do turn to what are increasingly outsourced social services, all too often they’re found to be inadequate. As most of this suffering takes place in private away from the public eye, it’s one area where cuts can be made and corners cut because by and large, the council can get away with it.

In a political, economic and social climate where people are judged by the contribution they make to the bottom line through work, anyone who for whatever reason isn’t working, is seen as a burden on society. When those out of work are forced to turn to social services for support, they are demonised as ‘scroungers’. With these attitudes, it’s not hard to see that the axe will fall on services being provided to people that elite elements in our dysfunctional, dystopian society see as ‘undeserving’. So when you see the trimmed verges and cleaner parks across Thurrock, don’t be deceived by appearances because there is a lot of hidden suffering under the surface…

What’s the future for our parks?

ruskin

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.

hardie

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…