No sense of what community means…

The above image from the Basildon Memories Facebook page is of the car park next to the Range store in Pitsea. As you can see, it’s being treated as a tip by an anti-social minority. As usual with these situations in land that’s not public space, no-one knows who’s responsible for clearing away the litter, so nothing happens. When nothing happens to clear the trash away, it sends out a signal that anti-social behaviour is implicitly tolerated in this location and the situation continues to deteriorate. As we’ve written more times than we care to remember, it only takes a few anti-social people to drag a neighbourhood down, particularly if their behaviour isn’t challenged or dealt with.

Reading through the comments on the thread about this image on the Basildon Memories Facebook page was an interesting exercise. A lot of them acknowledge that the solution to this kind of anti-social behaviour will only come from a change in people’s mindsets and a sense they have a community they belong to and have a responsibility towards. Before anyone else mentions it, we realise that some of those comments may have a narrow, somewhat reactionary sense of what makes for a successful community. When we encounter people like this, we do our level best to educate them about our progressive vision of what a community should be. What’s important is the desire of people to feel they’re part of neighbourhood where there’s mutual respect and people care for each other and the environment they live in. That’s something that we at South Essex Working Class Action are striving to achieve with our work on the estates.

Understandably, people get angry at the minority who are responsible for treating their neighbourhoods and town centre as a tip with no regard for the consequences. While it’s not a long term workable solution, we can understand why people are so fed up they’re calling for the culprits to be caught and punished in a way that will humiliate them. Placing hope in a proactive councillor who will react as soon as instances like this are reported is also understandable but they’re at the mercy of the council officers who if it’s not council land, will say it’s not their problem and bat it over to someone else to deal with or ignore. It has been said that locals fed up with such littering could band together and organise a community clean up – we did the same for a car park in Stanford-le-Hope a few years back. Three weeks later, the litter was back and no one would have known there had been a clean up. While we understand these solutions can seem attractive, they merely tackle the symptoms of the problem while leaving the root cause of it untouched.

Why are we getting exercised by litter when there’s a world out there to change? Good question. We get exercised by this because it’s about individual and collective responsibility to a neighbourhood – or in this instance, the complete lack of it from a minority of people. This littering is symptomatic of an atomised society where a growing number of people look after number one and refuse to acknowledge they’re part of a community, let alone that they have any responsibility towards it. It can also be argued it’s a sign that the culprits have little in the way of self respect. This selfish individualistic attitude from a minority and a sense they don’t have any real attachment to their neighbourhood is one of the major barriers we face in trying to build a sense of community pride, spirit and solidarity. Without this, there’s no base that can be built on in the quest for more sustainable, fundamental change.

The heart of what South Essex Working Class Action does is facilitating the efforts of residents on the estates to build a sense of community pride, spirit and solidarity. A strong community will do what it can to look after its neighbourhood. Looking at the state of this car park and also of too many estates in the region, it’s all too clear we have a massive task in front of us.

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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.

A transformation is underway in Vange Hill:)


This patch of land on Swanstead had been left as a neglected fly tip until Basildon Council finally cleared it up back in February


This is what residents facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action did on Sunday 8th April to start transforming this patch of land into a community pocket garden

In a previous 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. As you can see from the above images, residents from the Vange Hill Community Group facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action are making a start on bringing that plan to fruition.

Spring is a time for new beginnings and the opportunity this recently cleared patch of land offered as a symbol of a new beginning on the estate had to be taken. As you can see from the image below, there’s already an area of enhancement on Oldwyk with a small pocket garden. Over in Gambleside, there’s another area that’s getting close attention from residents and has been planted out with bulbs. This patch in Swanstead is between these two locations. If all goes to plan, there will be three areas of enhancement which will hopefully inspire other residents across the estate to start doing the same.

A small pocket garden in and of itself isn’t the revolution. However, the gradual emergence of pocket gardens on an estate that has more than its fair share of problems and which has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years is a sign that change is coming. It’s small, doable low cost projects like this which give people a bit of pride in their community and empower residents that will lay the foundations for more ambitious projects in the future. Projects that will not just change the way the estate looks but also how people interact with each other as a sense of community pride and solidarity is built up.


A volunteer maintaining an existing pocket garden on Oldwyk

The fightback starts now

Just under a month ago, we undertook a distribution of a Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) flyer on the ¾ estate in Vange on the southern fringes of Basildon – this was our write up of what we found: Where the new town dream has died…https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/where-the-new-town-dream-has-died/ Since that low point, there have been a number of encouraging developments: Positive developments in Vangehttps://theestuaryalternative.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/positive-developments-in-vange/

On the evening of Wednesday 2nd August, along with our comrades from BASHA, we met up with representatives from the Vange Hill Community Group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/180311358699122/ – and two of the ward councillors for a walk around the estate to get a fuller picture of what the issues were and start to work out an action strategy to deal with them.

One of the problems on the ¾ estate is tenure… A lot of houses were brought by their tenants when the right to buy came in. Many of these properties have since been brought up by buy to let landlords…some of who are total scumbags. Anecdotal evidence suggests that tenancies on a fair number of the buy to let homes are on short leases. Many of these are ‘houses of multiple occupation’ that are seriously overcrowded. It feels that the sense of community that used to be found on the estate disappeared long ago as the number of people moving in and out on short term leases increased. Instead of neighbourliness and solidarity, there’s fear, suspicion and a collapse of morale…

Then there’s the neglect by Basildon Council, Circle Housing and Swan Housing – all have some responsibility for various parts of the estate but none seem to want to talk or co-operate with each other! There are issues with rubbish collection which have been going on for years and show no sign of ever being resolved. There are broken kerbs and potholes everywhere. As for the walkways and steps, apart from the fact that they appear to be going back to nature as the grass and weeds take over, there are numerous uneven and broken paving slabs that mean you need to keep your eye on where you’re walking to avoid tripping over…

Despite the teeming rain, the walkabout was a positive experience. Vange Hill Community Group are passionate about turning round the fortunes of the estate and members have already started clean ups in the immediate vicinity of their homes. We spent a long time talking to them about how we can support and facilitate what they’re doing and getting the outline of an action plan in place.

One aim is to lead by example… This will be when a small group of neighbours get together to clear up rubbish, strim out unwanted weeds, clear unsafe steps of leaves and weeds and where appropriate, set up a community flower bed. As well as making a physical difference, the process of doing this will start to rebuild the community solidarity and pride that the ¾ estate desperately needs. If this can start to happen at a few points on the estate and can be sustained, then it will hopefully set an example that others will want to emulate it so that the ‘reclaimed’ bits of the estate physically link up with each other.

However, as you can see from the images taken on the walkabout, we and Vange Hill Community Group are under no illusions about the scale of the task…it’s a good job we like a challenge!


A ‘house of multiple occupation’ with a front garden turned into a rubbish tip


Electricity and flood water are not a good mix!


One of the neglected paths and open areas on the estate


One of many flights of steps that appear to be getting left to go back to nature, making them hazardous for pedestrian use


Looks like someone’s had a clear out…

Get digging!

Type ‘Brexit and food security’ into a search engine and you’ll come up with a slew of articles warning about significantly higher food prices, crops not being harvested because there isn’t the labour to undertake the task and last but by no means least, the distinct possibility of food production standards being lowered. This piece is just one example of what we found: Brexit about to trigger sky-high costs for British food industryhttp://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/05/02/brexit-about-to-trigger-sky-high-costs-for-british-food

Now we don’t want to come across as ‘Remoaners’ complaining about the impact of Brexit – as anarchists, we’re on record as having a pox on all your houses attitude towards the issue: A few thoughts on Brexit…https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/a-few-thoughts-on-brexit/ However, if those eager to pull the UK out of the EU had undertaken some planning for life outside rather than relying on blind faith that things will work out okay in the end, we may not be facing a future of soaring food prices and disruptions to supply…

A tanking sterling has already started to force food prices to go up. If the UK ends up crashing out of the EU without any deal, tariffs on imported food from the EU will send prices soaring. Then there’s the question of the labour needed to get the food from the field to our plates. The stark fact is that much of this is undertaken by migrant labour from the EU. Already, there has been a decline in migration from the EU as potential migrants are being put off by what they feel will be a hostile welcome. If inward migration is cut to the levels the likes of UKIP and hard right Tories have been screaming for, we could face a situation where crops will be left to rot in the fields because there will be no-one to pick them. The jury is still out on this one but in a post Brexit UK where food prices are going through the roof, there may be a temptation to ease up on some hygiene and safety regulations relating to home produced and imported foodstuffs in a bid to keep prices down and stave off domestic discontent.

As the title of this piece suggests, there’s a solution…get digging! We’re not suggesting a patriotic ‘dig for victory’ drive – we’re anarchists and we don’t do patriotism or nationalism. What we are suggesting is making a start on building community resilience to deal with the shite that’s likely to come if we continue to rely on clueless politicians to negotiate the complexities of a Brexit no one seems to have any plans for or idea of how it’s going to pan out. One aspect of community resilience is localising as much food production as possible down to neighbourhood level.

We’re talking about things like turning your back garden over to growing your own. If you can get hold of an allotment, do so: Allotments going begging – get one while you can!https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/allotments-going-begging-get-one-while-you-can/ If you feel a plot may be too big to handle on your own, team up with friends and neighbours to work it and share the produce equitably. If you can, find a plot to start a community garden. It’s not always necessary to ask permission – we’ve seen guerilla gardened plots that have been going for a good few years without any unwanted attention from the authorities!

Obviously, it’s better if food growing can be done as a neighbourhood project. Working together growing food and sharing the produce helps to build friendships and goes a long way to generating the community solidarity that will be vital in the troubled times ahead. Localising food production in this way with the solidarity it generates, not only gives you more control over where your food comes from, it’s empowering people to start taking more responsibility for, and control over, the neighbourhoods they live in. Also, growing food in this way is healthier, not just because of the fresh air and exercise involved but also because you have complete control over the inputs. Once a community feels empowered enough to start taking control of their food supply, that could lead to some interesting developments in the fight for a more just, equitable, sane and sustainable world…

Unsure how to make a start? Below is a list of resources which have loads of useful information on community gardening that can be done in a healthy and sustainable way – get reading!

Resources

Billericay Community Garden – https://www.facebook.com/billericaycommunitygarden/
Empty Cages Design – http://www.emptycagesdesign.org/
South East Essex Organic Gardeners – http://seeog.org.uk/
Southend In Transition Community Allotment – https://www.facebook.com/SiTcommunityAllotment/
Spiralseed – http://spiralseed.co.uk/

Show some pride and have some respect for your neighbours!

When we used to do door to door distribution of the (now defunct) South Essex Heckler and also when we’ve worked on neighbourhood clean ups, it has to be said that we’ve seen some sights. Some of those sights involving overgrown, rubbish strewn gardens are an indicator of dysfunctional households in a neighbourhood who are dragging it right down. The kind of places where if (for whatever reason) you do decide to venture to the front door, you really do need to watch where you put your feet in case there’s a festering pile of dog shit lurking in wait!

We’re not sociologists but we do recognise there are a variety of reasons why some households become dysfunctional and why there are obvious physical manifestations of that in the form of neglected gardens strewn with rubbish. Sometimes it may be that the residents have difficulties in coping which need professional intervention but sadly have fallen through the net…

In cases like this, while it’s not providing the full solution that’s needed, could it be the case that neighbours rallying round to help with keeping the garden under control will be a start in turning things round? In an age of permanent austerity, more and more people are going to fall through the net and like it or not, it’s down to us to recognise that and offer what help we can. As neighbours, we’re likely to have a fair inkling as to whether it’s a case of people who simply can’t cope on the one hand or scumbags on the other hand…

Then there are the scumbags – the renegades within that we’ve already written about. People who don’t have any issues other than they don’t have any self respect or consideration for their neighbours. In cases like this, it’s only varying forms of community devised and implemented sanctions that are going to have any chance of getting the message across that the household in question needs to get its act together pronto…

The saddest sights of all are the gardens of the elderly and infirm where there are indications that in happier, healthier days, the garden was their pride and joy. Again, could it be the case that neighbours rally round to offer an hour every week or so to help get the garden back under control, helping to boost the morale of the elderly and infirm residents?

Basically, what we’re talking about are some small steps that can be taken to maintain morale and start to build a sense of community solidarity. It only takes a few households where there are problems that have a physical manifestation such as neglected gardens to drag the morale of a neighbourhood right down. What we’ve tried to do above is very briefly outline what we think the problems may be and offer some suggestions for solutions appropriate to the circumstances.

It’s about looking out for each other but also holding each other to account. Both of which are vital in building the community solidarity we so desperately need in the face of grinding austerity. It’s the building of community solidarity that’s needed as the first step to bringing about real, fundamental change from the grassroots upwards.

How do we deal with the wreckers?

This is us thinking out loud about anti-social behaviour in our communities. We’re not offering definitive explanations or solutions – what we’re doing is putting out some ideas and suggestions in the hope they’ll start a constructive discussion as to how we deal with these issues…

It seems that no matter how hard you and your fellow volunteers work on a community project, there’s always a minority of wreckers who for their own instant gratification, will set out to try and destroy what you’ve worked so hard to create. You’re part of a dedicated group of volunteers working hard to turn round a park that ten years ago was a litter strewn no go area that people went out of their way to avoid… You do your level best to make it a safe, welcoming asset to the neighbourhood and yet there’s still a minority of yobs who see nothing wrong with using the park as a venue to carry out unprovoked, random assaults.

We’re not sociologists but what we can say with reasonable certainty is that glib explanations and simplistic blanket solutions to deal with delinquent behaviour don’t work. There are a range of reasons why some youths go off the rails and as such, in an ideal world, there would be a range of appropriate responses to deal with them and the consequences of their actions. What follows are not prescriptive solutions – it’s more a case of us throwing out ideas for discussion to see where things can go…

Sometimes, it may be the case that a household is being buffeted by events beyond their control and the parent/s or guardian/s simply can’t cope and need outside support to help them in dealing with their kid/s. In an age of austerity, sadly the resources to do that are diminishing and troubled households are left to fend for themselves. Could this be the kind of situation where neighbours step in to offer what help they can to get the family back on track? Granted, it’s no substitute for when professional help is needed but for a household that’s struggling to keep things together, an act of solidarity could be the morale booster they need to help steer them in the right direction.

We go from the situation described above through varying shades of grey where things aren’t so clear cut all the way through to the small but extremely disruptive minority of households and individuals whose behaviour could almost be described as pathological. What we’re talking about here has been described by the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) as the ‘renegades within’: Dealing with the renegadeshttp://www.iwca.info/?p=10134

A corrosive minority for whom the values of community solidarity, empathy and civic pride mean nothing. Brazen opportunists who apart from looking out for their immediate circle of mates and (possibly) family, are effectively at war with the community they live in but are not a part of in any way, shape or form. People who will commit the most venal of crimes to win the ‘respect’ of their mates but who actively ‘dis-respect’ the community they parasitically live in and off. A group who have taken on board the philosophy of get rich quick (by any means) and the view that the weak deserve to go to the wall. We’re talking about people who are the product of 40 years of our communities being atomised and fragmented by a corrosive, neo-liberal doctrine that places the individual above any sense of solidarity or community.

What can we do about what is effectively a fifth column sabotaging our efforts to build a sense of community and solidarity? A petition is doing the rounds in our neighbourhood asking the police to increase patrols in the area in the hope that a) a visible police presence will act as a deterrent and b) early intervention will nip problems with delinquent behaviour in the bud. We can understand why people want to put pressure on the police to have a more visible presence but sadly we have to say that with the best will in the world it’s a flawed approach on the basis that a) if crime is contained in a working class area, then from our experience of helping IWCA groups in Blackbird Leys and Islington, the cops will see it as job done, b) in an age of austerity, police resources are stretched to the limit and if containment is a lower cost option than eradication, then containment it will be and c) if crime is going to be defeated, the only effective way of doing it is through a strong, united community.

There is a slogan that says: ‘strong communities don’t need policing’. We need to start looking at ways of putting that into practice in our neighbourhoods. There’s no one size fits all solution to dealing with the problems of anti-social because the causes of it vary. To be honest, most people can tell the difference between households who mean no ill but because of the way they’re buffeted by events, need a lift up to get them back on track on the one hand, and on the other hand, the renegades who need a more robust approach to make them change their ways.

Even when it comes to the renegades, more often than not, people will know who they are and where they live. They get away with what they do because as our neighbourhoods become ever more atomised and people feel more isolated and afraid, the fear of retaliation stops people from acting. It only takes a minority of renegades to drag a neighbourhood right down – because of the fear factor, the influence they exert is out of proportion to their actual numbers. Obviously, we’re not talking about vigilante action – all that does is set up a tit for tat cycle of violence which further undermines community cohesion. What we are talking about is how a signal can be sent to the renegades within that their actions have consequences such as being ostracised by the neighbourhood. That means being refused service in shops, pubs and cafes until they show a sign of wanting to mend their ways as one possible suggestion.

To conclude, the ideas chucked out ranging from the community rallying round to help a troubled household get back on track and prevent the kids from sliding into a pattern of anti-social behaviour through to the more robust approach of ostracising the renegades all depend in one thing…a sense of solidarity. Without that sense of solidarity and knowing that if you’re sticking your neck out, people will be there to back you up, things won’t change. If we can build genuine community solidarity, we’ve got a chance of defeating this scourge…we look forward to a constructive discussion about how we can achieve this…