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.


Expropriation of land

In the discussion after the presentation at the Anarchist Communist Group hosted Land and Liberty meeting at the London Radical Bookfair on Saturday 2nd June, a question was raised by one of the attendees about the expropriation of land. Essentially, their concern was – would it be a violent process and if so, would it just end up replacing one hierarchy with another? I made a contribution in response to this, highlighting three different examples of land appropriation, all non-violent and each in their own way playing their part in starting to build a new world in the decaying shell of the dystopian one we currently endure.

Two of the examples are on the estates Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) respectively have a presence on. BASHA have a long established kitchen garden on an estate in Laindon up by the A127 where one of their activists lives. This garden provides a supply of vegetables for a number of households in one of the blocks. On a deprived estate that’s a long walk from even a basic, bog standard convenience store let alone a decent greengrocers, a kitchen garden like this makes a difference. Okay, it doesn’t guarantee anything like self sufficiency but it’s a welcome supplement to the diet. Basildon Council, failing to see the good a community run kitchen garden could do on a deprived estate, threatened to dismantle the garden a couple of years ago. Well after a fair amount of adverse publicity, the council were persuaded to see the errors of their ways and took the sensible decision to allow the kitchen garden to continue.

The Vange Hill estate on the southern fringes of Basildon had up until last summer been suffering years of neglect. After an estate walkabout last summer, with some facilitation from BASHA, the VHCG was formed. This year on three different sites across the estate, residents have taken it upon themselves to start tidying up neglected public areas with some guerilla gardening. The idea is that these three sites will serve as an inspiration to residents in other areas of the estate to start doing the same. Eventually the idea is link up these ‘areas of enhancement’ and present Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the housing associations who operate on the estate with resident controlled and run public spaces. There is actually a long term vision for the estate we’ve worked on which VHCG have brought into: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange.

Both of the above examples involve using public space on the estates. Space which is technically owned by either Basildon Council or Essex County Council. Space which due to ongoing austerity, receives minimal maintenance from either authority. This is public space surrounding people’s homes and as such is a community asset. If land is used as a community asset, then the technical and legal issues of actual ownership can be set aside because morally, that land belongs to the community. With both the examples cited above, the residents concerned, seeing the years of neglect from the authorities concerned, didn’t trouble themselves with legal issues of ownership – they simply got on with doing what they saw fit to the land to enhance the conditions on their estates. In the process of doing this, residents are slowly becoming more empowered and more ambitious in their ideas for what they can do to not only improve but also get more control over their estates.

There’s another example which unlike the informal, below the radar expropriation dealt with above, turned into an officially sanctioned project where residents were given control. The example in question is Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope. Back in 2007 and 2008 when I contested the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward for the Independent Working Class Association, the then dire state of Hardie Park was frequently raised on the doorstep. Back then, it was a bleak, litter strewn no go area that few people visited. Fast forward a few years and a few local residents, fed up with the neglect of the park by Thurrock Council, took it upon themselves to do something about it.

They started out with some simple, doable tasks such as litter picking. Basically, it snowballed from there and eventually, the residents formed Friends of Hardie Park and were organising community activities in the park. Things really started to gain momentum when they obtained a portable building, dug the foundations, started to erect it, got round to asking the council for permission and ended up with a building that now functions as a cafe, meeting place and community hub. There’s a gardening group we volunteer with who develop and maintain the gardens in the park. What was a no go area ten years ago is now a well used and much loved community asset run by volunteers from the community.

Obviously, with all of the physical infrastructure of the community hub, the gardens and the park, and the maintenance they all need, this costs money. While local authorities may be strapped for cash as a result of central government imposed austerity, as the Friends of Hardie Park are registered as a charity, they can access pots of money in the form of grants. Also, local companies have been willing to donate materials that are needed for gardening and building projects in the park. Yes, all of this is working in and with the system. Some anarchists purists might choose to turn their nose up at this. The point is that at the end of the day, a group of residents have worked the system to their advantage to create a community asset that the town has enthusiastically embraced. As far as we’re concerned, this is a quiet revolution that has empowered and inspired a lot of people and has made a real difference to life in Stanford-le-Hope.

The examples cited above are all ways of expropriating pieces of land and re-purposing them as community assets. They’re ways of doing it under the radar or exploiting the system from within. In all three cases, residents are in the process of or have expropriated land in creative, non-violent ways. They’re filling or have filled the vacuums left behind by local authorities crippled by austerity. Filling these vacuums means that one way or another, residents are taking or have taken control. What is significant is that this is happening in the here and now. People aren’t waiting for the big day to seize control – in a quiet way, they’re already doing that. They most likely don’t realise it but they are already anarchists…

Dave (the editor)

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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What does it take to get a blocked drain cleared?

Residents doing it for themselves, that’s what it takes! Two women, both with disabilities to be precise. Using improvised equipment to do the job. This happened on the ¾ estate in Vange which is on the southern fringes of Basildon.

With Basildon not being a unitary authority, the responsibility for paths and roads on estates is split between Basildon Council and Essex County Council. Which means that on an isolated estate on the southern fringes of Basildon, it’s easy for authorities to a) ignore problems or b) try to fob them off onto someone else. We all know that in the 21st century with the information systems that are potentially to hand, it shouldn’t be possible for a drain in a close to be blocked for seven years. However, we don’t live in an ideal world and both Basildon Council and Essex County Council have a long record of ignoring or failing to deal with numerous problems on the ¾ estate.

Which is why two residents who’d had enough of banging their heads against a brick wall decided to take matter into their own hands and do the job themselves. Even though they pay Essex County Council through their council tax to supposedly do the job. We suggest that both residents bill them for the work done – we’d be more than happy to publish the bill on here.

This is the way things are going though. Residents starting to take on more maintenance jobs because the authorities can’t be bothered. While it’s a pain to do a maintenance job you’ve already paid someone else to do, it’s also the start of the growth of people power as residents start to take on more of the maintenance and running of their estates.

It’s that time of year…

On May 3rd, local authority elections will be taking place. You may well have noticed the flyers coming through your door. You may even have been doorstepped by enthusiastic candidates promising to do all they can for you while somehow forgetting the constraints they’ll be operating under. If your local councillor is up for re-election, you may have noticed they’re being more solicitous and efficient than is normally the case. Your local news websites and papers will be featuring ward by ward analysis of the state of play between the contestants and how that will affect the balance of power on the council.

Here are some hard truths. The role of local authorities in an age of seemingly permanent austerity is to implement the government’s agenda by making painful decisions about which services to cut or scrap. No matter how enthusiastic and committed your local councillor is, even if they belong to the party that’s in power on the council, they’re obliged to deliver the government’s austerity agenda. There’s no getting away from it – your local councillor is the one who has a role in deciding where the axe is going to fall.

If you recognise the constraints your local councillor operates under but still want to vote, that’s fine. As anarchists, we’re supposed to hold a strict line on voting not changing anything. Voting under the system we have will never deliver the radical change we desire. However, we recognise that there are merits in voting for the least worst option or for a councillor who is acutely aware of the constraints they’ll be working under but who will still pull out the stops for you. Obviously, if there’s a candidate from the far right standing in your ward, then getting out to vote to stop them making gains is imperative. Supporters of reactionary and far right parties tend to be more motivated when it comes to voting so that has to be countered.

Whether you vote or not, bear in mind that real change will only come from grassroots community action by residents committed to making a difference in their neighbourhoods. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, that change has come from work by the Vange Hill Community Group facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action. This has involved community clean ups, guerilla gardening and constant lobbying of the council officers involved in providing the services the estate relies upon. The two ward councillors have proved themselves to be less than effective and they’re simply bypassed.

In the case of Brooke House Residents (Brooke House is the iconic block in the middle of Basildon town centre) they do have a ward councillor who is pro-active and fully in support of their efforts. He’ll do what he can to lobby for improvements in the block but is also acutely aware of the constraints he faces. One being the long term aim of the council using a policy of managed decline to force residents to seek alternative accommodation so the block can be flogged off to a developer.

Vote if you want to but bear in mind that bringing about real, radical change doesn’t come from putting a voting slip in a ballot box every now and again. It comes from residents recognising that it’s only through their collective efforts that things will start to change and then getting together to start to bring that about. We at South Essex Working Class Action (the Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) are there to help facilitate the work of any residents who want to bring about change at the grassroots in their neighbourhoods.

A transformation is underway in Gambleside as well:)

In an earlier post – A different way of thinking about community activism – we presented what some may see as a rather ambitious plan to transform the ¾ estate on Vange Hill, located on the southern fringes of Basildon. In a subsequent post – A transformation is underway in Vange Hill:) – we wrote about how this transformation is starting. As you can see from the above image from the Gambleside area of the estate, things are happening there as well.

It’s a simple act of a resident taking a wooden pallet, breaking it down and using its component parts to construct a border around a small patch of land surrounding a tree, making it look tidier. What’s great about this is its symbolic value – it’s sending out a signal that residents care about their close and will put in the time and effort in improving it themselves. This is exactly the kind of autonomous, unilateral action we love! With this and the newly established pocket garden on nearby Swanstead, there are two examples of what DIY guerilla gardening can achieve in making the estate look better.

As we’ve mentioned before, it’s work like this in existing areas of enhancement on the estate that we hope will act as an inspiration to residents elsewhere on Vange Hill. Momentum in achieving this aim is slowly starting to grow. As the weather starts to improve over the spring and into the summer, we look forward to seeing more autonomous, unilateral actions like this springing up across the estate.

What’s really good about this is that the first we knew about it was when we checked the Facebook page of the Vange Hill Community Group and saw the images of the finished job. Basildon & Southend Housing Action had no involvement in this at all in terms of providing materials or facilitating the work. This is exactly what we’re after – independent action by a resident feeling empowered to go out and make a difference to their community.