A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls

This piece was originally posted on our sister blog, the South Essex Stirrerhttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/ We’re posting it up here because we think it illustrates the issues we face working with community groups on estates facing problems arising from neglect and deprivation. Problems that if ignored and dismissed, will eventually be picked up and acted on by elements from the far right. Suffice to say that engagement with estate based, mainly apolitical community groups can be a messy and complex business but is necessary if we’re going to defeat the forces of reaction…

We’ve been made aware of parking issues occurring on the ¾ estate in Vange on Fridays around the community hall on Vange Hill Drive – this is a day the building is used for a religious gathering. This isn’t the only example of a community hall being used for a religious gathering with attendant parking and traffic problems. This is an issue with a number of religious denominations across the region we cover…

Community halls on estates were planned and built with the intention that they were for neighbourhood use. Use for anyone in the neighbourhood regardless of who they are, where they originated from and what deity they may or may not choose to worship. Catering for a neighbourhood, the assumption was that a fair proportion of the people attending events at their community hall would walk to and from events and only those living a bit of a distance away or with mobility problems would drive or be driven to them. Car parking for the community halls was generally provided based on these assumptions.

For a variety of reasons, a number of community halls are being used for events, some of them religious gatherings, that will attract people from across the borough and not just the neighbourhood. If such a community hall is on an isolated estate with poor public transport, then people travelling there from a distance will be coming by car because there is no other option. Even if there are reasonable public transport links, it may well be the case that sadly, in the increasingly divided and polarised society we live in, worshippers of some denominations might not feel safe travelling in by bus or train and choose to drive simply because it’s the safest option. This is where a car park in a community hall designed for neighbourhood use is overwhelmed and vehicles are parked in neighbouring streets that more often than not, were not designed to accommodate them. Understandably with parking in less than ideal conditions plus attendant traffic issues before and after large scale events, residents do have legitimate concerns about safety that need to be addressed.

What we are talking about should in an ideal world be seen as a planning problem that with goodwill on all sides, can be resolved by constructive negotiation and rational decision making by council planners and the relevant councillors. The problem is that with some of the religious gatherings we’re talking about, prejudice from those opposed to them can get in the way of any rational planning solution. A solution that would allow the worshippers concerned to identify a suitable site that can provide sufficient parking, would ideally would be reasonably well served by public transport and lastly, doesn’t cause any disturbance to neighbouring residents.

We’re in a bit of a bind here… Firstly, residents are afraid to raise legitimate concerns about safety regarding parking and traffic issues for fear of being branded racist. Secondly, because some councillors do, through the use of winks and nods, court an element of the electorate who could be regarded as racist, they will block solutions involving the siting of places of worship in appropriate locations in a bid to hang onto that support. With residents feeling they can’t voice their concerns for fear of being branded racist and some councillors doing their level best to block the construction of places of worship in a bid to pander to the prejudices of some of their supporters, solutions to the problems are not forthcoming. As a result, tensions and resentment can start to grow, particularly if the knuckle-draggers from the far right sense an opportunity to stick their oar in and twist the legitimate concerns of residents to suit their own nefarious, divisive and hateful ends.

Let’s get a bit specific and discuss the issue of the community hall on Vange Hill Drive, it’s use by the Muslim community and a solution that was proposed but for various reasons, was not allowed to come to fruition. Back in 2014, the Islamic group using the community hall on Vange Hill Drive wanted to set up a new centre on the Burnt Mills Industrial Estate: Faith leader defends Islamic centre planhttp://www.echo-news.co.uk/news/11441496.Faith_leader_defends_Islamic_centre_plan/ They favoured this site because it wasn’t near any residential areas and wouldn’t cause any disturbance. The move never came to fruition. One of the objections was raised by Cllr. Kerry Smith who back in 2014 was still a member of UKIP. Smith is now an independent and is currently the ward councillor for Nethermayne on Basildon Council and the Basildon Westley Heights division on Essex County Council. Smith’s objections were based on traffic issues. Issues that with some goodwill on all sides and some rational decision making could have been resolved. Industrial estates by their very nature are designed to cope with high levels of traffic and have a pretty good level of parking as most people working on them drive to and from them. On that basis alone, in our opinion, we have to conclude that Smith’s objections were spurious to say the least…

Having worked alongside our friends from Basildon & Southend Housing Action and Vange Hill Community Group on clean ups and community gardening on the ¾ estate, we can see how a large influx of vehicles parking up in the Vange Hill Drive area, for whatever reason, will lead to safety issues. We understand the concerns of the residents and want to see a solution that will suit them and the worshippers that come in on Friday (and any other worshippers from other denominations on other days). What has to be done is to challenge those councillors who put a block on any reasonable solution because of where they draw their support from. We would like to suggest to residents in the Vange Hill Drive area that they ask Cllr. Kerry Smith why, back in 2014, he was one of those who stood in the way of a solution that would have been of mutual benefit to them and the worshippers using the community hall. Until councillors like this are challenged as to what their agenda really is, there never will be a solution to the issue and unwanted and divisive tensions will rise…tensions which will hurt all of us who want to build cohesive, friendly neighbourhoods where everyone looks out for and cares for each other…

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