A new dawn?

Basildon Council have announced a series of community clean up roadshows in a number of wards across the borough: Community Clean-Up Roadshows. At these events, there will be information on dealing with these issues:

– Top recycling tips including recycling rules.
– Information about recyclable materials – with a focus on plastics.
– Help with setting up community recycling programmes.
– Information about flytipping and the correct ways to dispose of rubbish.

This all sounds good but, hang on a minute – isn’t educating residents on these issues what the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) and Basildon & Housing Action (BASHA) have already been doing their level best to do? Both of these groups have been banging their respective heads against the wall to get a hearing from Basildon Council and to get some degree of support and co-operation for what they do on the ground. In return, all too often they’ve been treated with disdain and rudeness and any concessions that have been squeezed out of the council have come after unnecessarily long battles.

After all VHCG and BASHA have been through in trying to educate residents on the estates while battling against the council, the powers that be announce a series of roadshows to educate residents on rubbish collection protocol and recycling. You know what – VHCG and BASHA are both fully entitled to take the announcement of these roadshows as a resounding victory for all of the pressure they’ve had to put on the council! Let’s hope that from this point, it will be onwards and upwards in getting support and co-operation from Basildon Council for what residents are already doing for themselves on the ground.

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Resistance isn’t futile – don’t get sucked into the system!

A community group we’ve been working alongside in Basildon for the last nine months has been told by Basildon Council that if they want to liaise with their officers and councillors, they need to form a properly constituted resident’s association. They have been advised to speak to the Community Involvement Team at the council for advice on how to do this. We’ve spoken to our partners at Basildon & Southend Housing Action to ask them what they think of the Community Involvement Team and to be honest, while we do have a bit of swearing on this blog, for the sake of decency, we don’t think we could reproduce their response!

Getting away from this particular situation in Basildon, when councils want informally run but nimble community groups to constitute themselves as formal residents associations, it’s about co-opting and ultimately neutering them. Forming a residents association that’s acceptable to a council means adhering to codes of conduct that make it considerably harder for them to act as an independent pressure and direct action group. It also sends out a signal to the community they’re representing that they’re effectively getting into bed with the council. The end result of this is a residents association that’s so constrained by codes of conduct they effectively do the bidding of the council. As a consequence of this, the residents they’re supposed to represent become cynical, disillusioned and start to drop out of the association.

As a point of principle, councils, councillors and council officers are supposed to be the servants of the people. It’s not for them to start dictating terms and conditions to residents as to how they communicate and interact with the council. Residents pay their council tax and rightly expect that the council does the job they’re paid to do. In our view, it’s down to residents to decide how to communicate and interact with the council as they see fit. In an ideal world, this would happen – however, we do not live in an ideal world.

Councils, councillors and council officers do not want to deal with pressure group and direct action tactics from nimble, pushy resident groups. To do so means surrendering control and all too often, councils will do whatever they can to hang onto the power to control us. This is where the flaws of the system of local governance reveal themselves. A system of local governance that has been getting stripped of its powers for decades and has now been co-opted to deliver the government’s austerity agenda is not going to tolerate uppity residents holding them to account. This is why councils think they have the right to dictate the terms of engagement to residents in a bid to control them.

The system of local governance we have is broken. Turnouts of forty percent and often considerably less, are a clear signal that most people can see local government for the sham that it is. Why would any self respecting community group want to accept the terms and conditions of engagement from a council that’s part of this dysfunctional system? Resistance to being sucked into this farce is far from futile and any community group resisting this will get one hundred percent backing from us.

Building the base for radical change

Some in depth thoughts on our ultimate goals and how we hope the way we operate at the grassroots will eventually lead to them being realised…

Our long term aim is to achieve a revolution that will bring about an equitable, sane and sustainable society free from hierarchies and oppression. The question is – how do we get to that point? What this piece will attempt to do is explain the grassroots, community based approach to achieving this we take out here on the ground in southern Essex. This isn’t intended to be a definitive guide let alone a grandiose statement that our way is the best – all we’re trying to do is put some ideas and experiences into the mix and see what people think of them.

Fractured communities

In an age of rampant neo-liberalism, society is becoming ever more fractured, atomised and polarised. With increasingly precarious employment conditions that are dumping more and more people on zero hours and short term contracts, solidarity in the workplace is under attack. With the housing crisis…

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People power vs the ‘beast from the east’

For those who know the ¾ estate in Vange on the southern fringes of Basildon, they’ll be aware that it’s built onto a steep (by Essex standards!) hill. With the ‘beast from the east’ doing it’s worst over the last few days, many of the steeper roads on the estate were becoming difficult and dangerous to drive up and down. As regular readers of this blog will know, it’s been well documented that Basildon Council have been less than co-operative when it comes to helping residents on the estate in their efforts to make it a better place to live. So no one was really surprised at the lack of any effort from the council to sort out snowed and iced over roads that had become treacherous.

This is where people power kicked in… The Essex County Councillor for the division, Stephen Hillier had a supply of grit which he was willing to make available to local residents – many thanks to him for doing so. Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) collected the grit and took it over to the ¾ estate. There, people from Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) and a number of local residents spread the grit onto the worst affected roads to make them passable. An ad hoc grouping of people recognising what the problem was got together to take action to solve it – people power in action.

A note for the future for the relevant authorities – re-instating the grit bins and ensuring they’re filled up ahead of any forecast bad weather would make this exercise a fair bit easier. All it means is trusting local residents to do their bit – from our experience of helping out BASHA and VHCG, despite the bad reputation that the ¾ estate has, we know there are people on there who will step up to the plate in a situation like this.

This is just one of thousands of stories from across the country over the last few days of atrocious weather where people of their own will, individually and collectively, have stepped up to the plate to assist those hit by the storm. It’s people power in action… When the authorities have been overwhelmed by events (or have simply been negligent in their preparation) ordinary people have grouped together to offer a solution to the problems inflicted by the weather. There’s still a healthy instinct for collective self organisation independent of the authorities to meet the needs of a community…that’s a positive we need to take through the rest of this year and build on…

Pressure gets results:)

Earlier on this week in the aftermath of the community clean up on the ¾ estate in Vange, we put up a series of posts based on what we experienced and saw. One of those posts was this one berating Basildon Council over their lack of inaction over a ‘temporary’ fence and the accumulation of rubbish behind it: Action?https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/action/

Well, lo and behold, as you can clearly see from the image above, the rocky, dodgy ‘temporary’ fence and the rubbish behind it has been cleared! We don’t know what buttons were pressed at Basildon Council to get this issue sorted but it has to be said that pressure from the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG), facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) with some back up from us here at the Stirrer undoubtedly played a significant part. At this point, we’d like to thank all of those involved, particularly the staff on the ground who physically removed the fence and the accumulation of trash behind it – your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Okay, in the grand scheme of things, getting a fence and the rubbish removed is a small victory. It also has to be pointed out that VHCG facilitated by BASHA shouldn’t have to be busting a gut to get Basildon Council to do what should be a routine part of their job. However, a victory is a victory and collectively, we’re taking this one!

There’s a long way to go on the ¾ estate but things are starting to look up and that’s in no small part down to the effort put in by VHCG. All of this goes to show that if a community group shows the determination to stick at it, they can get results and start to turn things around in their neighbourhood. People power and putting on the pressure gets results. If VHCG and their allies stick at it, for the ¾ estate it can only be onwards and upwards…

Lastly, on our sister blog, The Estuary Alternative, here are some thoughts on what could be done with the newly cleared space: Could there be a pocket community garden here?https://theestuaryalternative.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/could-there-be-a-pocket-community-garden-here/

Action?

On the evening of Wednesday 2nd August, activists from the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) and Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) plus the ward councillors took part in a walk about on the ¾ estate to get a fuller picture of the problems afflicting the area. This is what we wrote about it pretty much as soon as we got home: The fightback starts nowhttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/the-fightback-starts-now/ On the walk, we stopped by the broken ‘temporary’ fence just off Swanstead shown above where concerns were expressed about its visual impact and safety. We distinctly remember one of the ward councillors, Cllr. Block, taking a picture of the offending fence on her phone and telling us she would be contacting the relevant departments at Basildon Council to get it sorted out.

We have to assume that Cllr. Block did inform the relevant people at the council the next day. If that’s the case, can someone please explain to VHCG, BASHA and all of the residents on the ¾ estate who feel they’ve been forgotten about, why is it that five and a half months after being told that action would be taken to fix this fence, sod all appears to have been done about it? Can they also explain why there appears to have been no liaison between the ward councillor and the council officers on the one hand and VHCG, BASHA and the residents on the other on what should be the simple matter of getting this fence sorted out?

BASHA, this blog and VHCG have acquired a bit of a reputation for putting the boot into Basildon Council. We don’t do this because we’re vindictive or we like bullying people. We do this because the council are supposed to be the servants of the people and when it comes to the ¾ estate in Vange (and many other estates across Basildon), people feel like they’re being let down, ignored and belittled by them every time they raise legitimate concerns. We have to put the pressure on Basildon Council simply to get them to do their sodding job!

When turnouts at local elections hover around the thirty percent mark, you would have thought that councillors and council officers would have the humility to take a hard look at themselves and ask why people have little or no faith in them. It’s constant shite like the five and a half months of inaction over a dodgy fence that leads people to rightly conclude that the council doesn’t give a toss about them so they don’t bother to go out and vote. A little word of advice to councillors and council officers alike from those on the estates who have their fingers on the pulse – people are not just fed up, they’re getting angry now!

We got our hands dirty…

Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and supported by a number of residents got their teeth into the community clean up on the ¾ estate today (Saturday 17.2). The main areas of focus were Oldwyk and the top end of Dewsgreen at the top end of the estate and Gambleside and Sturrocks at the bottom end.

These are areas where VHCG and BASHA have an active presence and are working to establish what are effectively ‘zones of control’ where we can move forwards from fire fighting with rubbish clearance onto enhancements such as pocket community gardens. The idea of establishing these zones is to set an example of what can be achieved by residents working together which will hopefully inspire other people across the estate to do the same. This is already working as we were able to expand operations down into Sturrocks with residents coming out to clean up their close. The long term aim is to start linking these zones up and to start really transforming the estate.


The pocket community garden on Oldwyk


Gambleside looking a lot better as a result of active resident involvement

More work was undertaken on the small community garden that’s been created at the top of Oldwyk and there was bulb planting, strimming and tidying undertaken on Gambleside and Sturrocks. As you can see from the images below, a lot of rubbish was collected. A heck of a lot of rubbish considering the small area we were operating in…

There was an agreement with Basildon Council to pick up the rubbish we had collected. The Oldwyk pile was eventually collected. At the time of writing, the pile at the end of Gambleside hadn’t been collected. To say this is disappointing is an understatement as it makes a mockery of all the hard graft that was put in today. VHCG are already chasing up Basildon Council to ensure that the pile at Gambleside is collected as early as possible on Monday.


The rubbish collected from Oldwyk and Dewsgreen


The rubbish collected from Gambleside and Sturrocks

All in all, it was a reasonably successful day. However, it was just one day in a long campaign to start to turn round the fortunes of an estate that has more than its fair share of problems. A campaign that will only succeed when residents really start to turn out in numbers on clean up days and in between, do what they can to keep the estate maintained. That means a combination of doing it themselves and working with VHCG to put pressure on Basildon Council to do their job. We will be back to support the work of VHCG and BASHA as and when required in the months to come.