Local authorities wanting to control the narrative

We’ve merged and enhanced a couple of previous posts to come up with this initial analysis of how councils want to control the narrative when dealing with journalists just trying to do their job or residents putting on the pressure to get the services they deserve – the conclusion is that the system of local governance we have is not fit for purpose…

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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.

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.

Basildon Council couldn’t organise a committee meeting in a theatre…

So…they’re now having to organise the meeting of the Infrastructure, Growth and Development Committee at the Basildon Sporting Village, the largest available venue in the borough – Local Plan meeting will now take place at Basildon Sporting Village. The meeting, whose purpose is to recommend the Local Plan, will take place on Monday March 19th starting at 7pm. A decision on this plan will be made at a full council meeting to be held on Thursday March 22nd starting at 7.30pm. This meeting will also be held at the Basildon Sporting Village.

As we mentioned in our previous post – Interesting developments in Basildon – the council were well and truly caught on the hop on Tuesday March 13th by the sheer number of people who turned up at the Towngate Theatre wanting to hear what the committee was going to decide about the future growth of Basildon. It looks as though the council have taken note of this display of people power and realised that, very late in the day, they need to open up their proceedings to as many of their residents as possible, hence the change of venue to the Basildon Sporting Village.

This sudden desire by Basildon Council to open up their deliberations on a Local Plan that will have an impact on everyone living and working in the borough will make them look like they have listened to the people but, apart from some hassle in switching venues, it’s not going to cost them. There may be a few tweaks made here and there but we suspect that the Local Plan will end up being rubber stamped before going to the full council meeting on the 22nd. Failure by Basildon Council to approve this plan means that central government could well intervene to impose their targets for housebuilding on the area. Being blunt, what people are now being invited to witness is little more than a rubber stamping exercise on plans that have pretty much been finalised.

Such is the nature of our ‘democracy’. Plans are drawn up with the aid of a few ‘consultation’ exercises along the way where variations of an option are presented for residents to comment on before the process goes to the next stage. Discussions about who the new housing is for, what infrastructure will be put in place to support the extra population and the numerous other legitimate concerns that residents have, are superficial at best. If this process was fully inclusive of the residents, it’s safe to say that there would be a much higher proportion of genuinely affordable homes for the next generation of residents planned than is currently being proposed. At the end of the day, if Basildon Council can’t agree on this plan, then central government will wade in to impose what they deem to be an appropriate target for housebuilding. Democracy in action? We think not…

Yes, we should welcome the decision by Basildon Council to open up their deliberations to residents, even if it is a late in the day token gesture. We welcome it because it shows that even Basildon Council can, with enough pressure, be persuaded to change their minds about how they’re seen to come to make important decisions. However, as mentioned in our previous post, it has to be born in mind that the people who turned up at the Towngate on March 13th and those who will turn up at the Basildon Sporting Village on the 19th and 22nd will have a number of varying agendas.

Obviously, there will be many with legitimate concerns, particularly about provision of the physical and social infrastructure that will be needed to support the extra population. However, there will be a NIMBY element there as well, some with not just parochial but also reactionary assumptions. If this element with their prejudices are allowed to dominate the proceedings on the 19th and 22nd, then an opportunity to exercise some genuine, progressive grassroots pressure will have been lost. We will be following developments closely and hope to have contacts at these meetings to report back and help us comment and reflect on the proceedings and their consequences. Watch this space for future updates…

Interesting developments in Basildon

On the evening of Tuesday 13th March, the Infrastructure, Growth and Development Committee of Basildon Council was due to meet at the Towngate Theatre to discuss the borough’s local plan and potentially approve the plan so it could be presented to the full council on March 22nd. Normally, council committee meetings will only attract a scattering of those willing to spend an evening listening to councillors and officers talking about what may seem to be quite arcane issues. That was not the case on Tuesday 13th March when queues stretched around the Towngate ahead of the meeting with the venue reaching its 200 capacity leaving 350 people standing outside. See here for the full story in the Echo: Vital meeting on Basildon’s housing plan postponed as 350 left out in the cold

Suffice to say the meeting was adjourned and has been rescheduled for the 19th March in what the council think will be a larger venue. Is this surge of interest in the future development of Basildon a positive development? An initial analysis suggests that the answer is yes…and no… Yes because any indication that people care about the future of the town they live in and want a say in how that’s planned is a healthy sign they’re not prepared to leave matters to councillors and council officers any longer and want a genuine say. Yes because Basildon Council got a shock on Tuesday 13th March as they did not expect such a high level of interest in their deliberations and were totally overwhelmed by what happened. Hopefully, this may cause some of them to reflect on how they have failed to fully engage residents in the process and that they need to completely rethink how they go about this. Although to be honest, given the way local governance is structured at the moment, we’re not going to be holding our breath waiting for this to happen…

While more homes are needed, people are rightly asking questions as to who they are for? From what we’ve seen of the plans so far, what has been planned will make scant impact on the waiting list for social housing on Basildon. A waiting list that has been rigged so that the numbers on it have been substantially reduced. Most of what is planned is private housing, a fair chunk of which is being pitched towards those working in London but have been forced to look further afield to buy somewhere as a result of the skewed property market in the capital. Understandably there are concerns about provision of the necessary infrastructure needed to support an increased population. We’re talking about roads, public transport provision, schools, doctors, dentists…the list goes on. It always seems to be the case that the housing gets built first and the infrastructure always struggles to catch up afterwards. While many people recognise there is a housing crisis that needs to be resolved, they’re not at all convinced that local authorities and government have the answers to it.

While we broadly welcome the display of people power that manifested itself at the Towngate on Tuesday March 13th there is a potential downside to this… Namely the NIMBY element who refuse to look at the bigger picture which includes the distortion of the property market in London as a result of the global super rich parking their ill gotten gains in block after block of empty apartments to be flipped for a profit while ordinary Londoners are forced out of the capital. A NIMBY element that so long as developments are banished from their areas, have no qualms about them taking place elsewhere. The talk of a larger number of people from Billericay coming down to the rescheduled meeting on March 19th suggests that the NIMBY element is mobilising to secure their interests without any regard for the bigger picture. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this situation and doing what we can to influence it so it is a genuine display of people power as opposed to a smaller group of NIMBYs.

Ever feel like you’ve been had?

Well the young people of Basildon who were led to believe that the sale of the existing campus of South Essex College at the top of Nethermayne to a housing developer in return for a state of the art town centre campus have certainly been had! According to the latest in a series of investigative reports from the Yellow Advertiser, part of what was supposed to be the new college is actually going to be a minor injuries unit: EXCLUSIVE: Campaigners’ anger as Basildon Council says part of town centre college will now be ‘minor injuries unit’ instead.

The complex chain of developments from the executive housing development at Dry Street, the sale of the existing college site to the housing developers, the ‘re-location’ of the college to where the market is and the relocation of the market to St. Martin’s Square has long been a source of controversy. Controversy over an executive housing development at Dry Street which does nothing to reduce the waiting list for social housing in Basildon. An executive housing development which has destroyed an important local site for wildlife. Controversy over £3million of our money being used by both Basildon and Essex County Councils to plug a ‘funding gap’ in the relocation of the market to St. Martin’s Square. Controversy over the destruction of what used to be an oasis of greenery and calm in St. Martin’s Square to make way for the market. Last but by no means least, controversy over the downsizing of what will be on offer to potential students in Basildon at the new mini-campus in the town centre.

With South Essex College operating as a business instead of an educational institution plus a local authority that dismisses the concerns of its residents over the future of the town, we have a classic example of what’s wrong with not just with a top down planning system but the political, economic and social order that system serves. At every step of the way in this sorry development saga, the residents of Basildon have been denied a meaningful say. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of residents don’t bother to vote at local elections when regardless of where they put their cross, it makes no difference as their hopes and fears over the future direction of Basildon are routinely ignored?

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…