Resident direct action getting the job done on Vange Hill

Yet again, local residents facilitated by the Vange Hill Community Group are getting the job done where the authorities have failed. In this case, it was one of those corner plots on the Vange Hill estate in Basildon that was getting the attention. Corner plots designed into the estate with the best of intentions back in the day when there were the resources to maintain them. Corner plots that for years, have been neglected through a combination of the impact of austerity and the incompetence of the authorities. Corner plots where the shrubs have been allowed to grow out and obstruct the path while acquiring a layer of litter (and more dubious items) that never gets cleared because it’s impossible to reach.

Well, that all changed yesterday (Tuesday 19th June) when residents at the foot of Dewsgreen got to work cutting back and trimming shrubs and trees, and clearing a pretty disgusting smelling accumulation of rubbish from underneath them. This is just a start – more work is scheduled to enhance this plot and make it attractive to look at. Something that will boost morale on an estate that has more than its fair share of issues to deal with. What was also pointed out by the volunteers from the Vange Hill Community Group was the role these work parties pay in getting people out of their homes, talking to each other while working together to make their estate a better place to live.


Treating Vange Hill with contempt

A little vignette of life on the estates, way beyond the M25 and far, far away from some increasingly self obsessed activists in their own little bubble in London. Here’s one small but potentially dangerous example of how the various authorities supposedly responsible for the Vange Hill Estate in Basildon are negligent. This is an open drain covered by a wooden pallet – not exactly safety compliant is it? Fortunately, a resident has done what they can to stop the pallet from moving by placing a heavy paving slab over it. Investigations by the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) are underway to track down who’s responsible for this and get them to sort it out before there’s an accident. Knowing how tenacious VHCG are (think the Canadian Mounties always ‘getting their man’), we’re sure someone will be getting a rocket up their posterior at some point!

Vange Hill – resident action gets the job done!

Before and after residents action in the Dewsgreen area of the Vange Hill estate in Basildon

You what it’s like when you walk down a poorly maintained path and you’re having to dodge and duck overhanging branches because the council seem to have forgotten about its existence – it’s bloody annoying! You think – is it worth going through all of the hassle involved in reporting the job to the council and then having to chase them up to make sure they send someone round to cut back the branches? If maintenance of roads and paths is split between Basildon Council and Essex County Council as it is on the Vange Hill estate, who the heck do you report the overhanging branches to in the first place? If you report it to one authority, will they try to say it’s the responsibility of another authority?

You know what – it’s easier for residents to do the job themselves! Which is exactly what the Vange Hill Community Group did with clearing the path shown above. Granted, through their council tax they’ve already paid for the job to be done and they’re entitled to tot up the time spent on the work and bill the council accordingly. Having said that, they saved themselves the hassle of dealing with the bureaucracy of reporting the job to the council and in the process, empowered themselves. Which is exactly what we want – empowered residents working collectively to make their estates better places to live by taking power from the council and doing the job themselves on their terms.

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)

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.