Local authorities wanting to control the narrative

In an ideal world our local councils, officers and councillors alike, would see themselves as the servants of all the residents in the areas they cover. An integral part of that ethos would be a culture of transparency, accountability and a willingness to own up to and learn from mistakes. Well, we can all dream can’t we? As most of you are doubtless aware, the truth is a long way from this ideal. Here are just a couple of examples that illustrate how local councils operate on the basis of wanting to control the narrative. One concerns Thurrock Council’s media strategy that stymies local journalists wanting to ask them difficult questions, the other the refusal of Basildon Council to deal with independent resident groups.

In a recent blog post on Your Thurrock, the leader of the Thurrock Independents, Cllr. Luke Spillman, has taken Thurrock Council to task over the chilling impact of their media strategy: Blogpost: Thurrock Independents leader calls for council to “rethink press strategy”. Thurrock Council released this ‘media strategy’ document in the summer of 2017 – it pretty much demands a right of reply to any media coverage it thinks will be damaging to its reputation.

Reading between the lines, it’s as though the council just want the local media outlets to reproduce, word for word, the anodyne contents of their press releases. Given the parlous state of local journalism and the chronic under-staffing that characterises it, that’s pretty much what many local media outlets are reduced to doing anyway. What the council’s media strategy does is to reinforce that trend by discouraging the few journalists left who do ask difficult questions from doing so for fear of being all but ‘blacklisted’. In other words, the council want to control the narrative.

While we welcome the pressure the Thurrock Independents have brought upon the council to agree to editors from the local media being able to speak at the upcoming Corporate Overview & Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 4th September, with the best will in the world, this may be akin to trying to put a small sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

A community group we’ve been working alongside in Basildon for the last ten 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, 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 stated at the start of this piece, ideally as a point of principle, councils, councillors and council officers are supposed to be the servants of the people. It shouldn’t be 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. Thurrock Council attempting to influence what journalists can write about them merely reinforces the cynicism a lot of people have about their local councils. As for the way Basildon Council wants to deal with their residents, 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.

Suffice to say, things cannot go on like this. If we are ever going to have a more just, open and accountable way of running our affairs at a local level, fundamental political, economic and social change will be the only way to achieve this. The question is, how can we persuade people to overcome the inertia brought on by understandable cynicism and motivate them to start thinking about what can be done to change things?

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The Tower: Rewriting Grenfell. ASH response to Andrew O’Hagan

Architects For Social Housing rightly taking Andrew O’Hagan to task for his piece in the London Review of Books about the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire…

architectsforsocialhousing

Most of us by now are familiar with how our national press and media worked to shape public opinion immediately after both the police assault on picket lines at Orgreave Colliery in 1984 that resulted in niney-five charges of riot being made against striking miners, and the death of ninety-six football supporters in the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 that resulted in fans being accused of drunkenness and hooliganism, with neither injustice having subsequently led to a single policeman or politician being convicted of a crime. Since the Grenfell Tower fire officially left seventy-two people dead in June 2017, only six people have been convicted of criminal offences, and that for varying degrees of indecent or fraudulent behaviour in what were non-violent crimes. Reprehensible as their actions were and disrespectful to survivors and the bereaved of North Kensington, the fraudsters have been handed extraordinarily punitive sentences of between 18 months and…

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Old school methods of building events and communicating…

We live in an age of digital communications and social media and we have to accept that and use them as best we can. However, call us old school if you want, we think that social media has downsides when it comes to building support for events. Sure it’s an effective way of getting the attention of a large number of people that you’re organising something. A fair number may well click on the button to indicate they’re going. However, as anyone who’s organised an event on Facebook will tell you, there’s always a disparity between the numbers clicking the button saying they’ll be attending and those that actually do manage to turn up. There are no prizes for guessing that the numbers who physically turn up to an action always falls short of the numbers promised on Facebook…

I’m old enough to remember life as an activist before the advent of the Internet and it we managed to build events and actions by the use of printed propaganda and actually taking to people face to face for however long it took to persuade them to take part. Those old school methods worked. Sure, the Internet can be a useful tool but analogue methods still play a vital role in building and promoting events.

The same applies to communicating. Again, the Internet has it’s uses but the long list of unread / unanswered e-mails and messages tells it’s own story… Phone calls tend to be more productive and positive ways of communicating than sending e-mails / messages and hoping for a response. Obviously, face to face is always best but it’s not always possible for that to happen…

When it comes to discussing contentious issues such as multiculturalism, identity politics, the minefield that’s gender identity or intersectionality, the Internet has it’s uses in bringing together people who are scattered over a wide geographical area. That’s something we’re more than happy to acknowledge… However, if people are geographically quite close to each other and want to discuss a controversial issue, in our experience, face to face discussions are always more rewarding and productive way of doing things. On the Internet, there’s always the possibility of misunderstandings and subsequent pointless rows. Face to face, while there can be disagreements, it’s easier to resolve them or agree to disagree and still be on speaking terms. Although it has to be said, with gender identity, even face to face ‘discussions’ have sadly turned out to be somewhat heated…

Then there’s digital exclusion… Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) have found that building an event on an estate only works if door knocking and talking to people are involved. Social media doesn’t hack it simply because a fair number of the people BASHA want to talk to on an estate are too skint to even own a smartphone or if they do, frequently can’t afford what it takes to stay online. So, there’s no option but to resort to the hard graft of going out to knock on people’s doors and talk to them…

Lastly but by no means least, there’s the issue of security. For us tracking the antics of the far right has never been easier as the Internet has given them a stage and we can all sit back, watch and laugh… However, the malign forces of the state (and the far right) have also found it easier to track what we’re up to because we put way too much in the public domain that’s actually best kept between ourselves. That’s something to think about given that Theresa May’s government has authoritarian tendencies. Can we all get a bit smarter in how we use communications to build events, communicate and discuss contentious issues? Those of us who tend to be old school in our approach do hope so…

Dave (the editor)

It’s the end for The Estuary Alternative…or is it?

The Estuary Alternative blog was set up just over a year ago after the Southend Radical Fair. The aim of the blog was to help bring together the numerous grassroots community action groups operating in the area. We hoped there would be a sharing of experiences, a buzz of ideas and a lot of groups and people contributing to a lively blog that would give a boost to grassroots activism in the southern half of Essex.

Sadly, we’ve not achieved this aim. Not only that, the viewing figures for The Estuary Alternative blog have been consistently disappointing. There are a complex variety of reasons for this which a) we still don’t fully understand if we’re being honest and b) if we did, it would probably take ages to explain! We’re not apportioning blame to any group or individual for this project not taking off – it’s just one of those things. Sometimes you have to try, fail and then learn what you can from the experience.

We’re not going to be deleting The Estuary Alternative. Although it was part of the South Essex Radical Media family which included this blog and the South Essex Stirrer, The Estuary Alternative stands alone from them on a separate platform. Which means that if anyone who buys into the idea of a blog bringing grassroots community action groups and projects across southern Essex together wants to take over the running of The Estuary Alternative, it’s ready and waiting for you. Obviously we’ll want to meet you to check out that you genuinely want to take this project on – if you’re interested, we can be contacted here: seradicalmedia@protonmail.com

Joined up thinking on planning?

We noted this news item with some interest: Thurrock Council sign up to “common approach” for development of 90,000 homes in region. On the surface, it looks as though the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) are treating the need to look at infrastructure issues to serve the needs of the population that will come with the 90,000 new homes that are mooted to be built across the region over the next twenty years with the gravity it deserves. Within the constraints local authorities operate in and the fact these housing targets are more or less imposed upon them by central government, being charitable, they’re probably doing the best they can in difficult circumstances to deal with this.

However, there’s a massive elephant in the room – our noisy, greedy all consuming neighbour otherwise known as London. As we have written and said more times than we care to remember, what happens with the housing situation in London has a direct impact on us out here along the estuary. Again, as we have written and said more times than we care to remember, London is being turned into a welcome destination for the global super rich – and their money. An obscene amount of money has been poured into property development in the capital and a lot of that is in the form of luxury apartments. Apartments that function as a crash pad when the super rich float through London but don’t want to lower themselves to book a hotel room. Apartments that are probably empty for nine months of the year. Then there’s the apartments that are purchased and left empty as investment vehicles to be flipped for a tidy profit. Also, there are the streets of barely occupied luxury houses in boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea where there are very few lights on at night because hardly anyone’s living in them on a full time basis.

We have the obscene situation where property in London is seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing a decent place to live for the workers needed to keep the capital and its economy functioning. Workers who in order to find a place to live are forced to move further and further away from London and endure long and arduous commutes. A combination of work and commuting that leaves them exhausted and having no meaningful life outside of the weekend. The southern half of Essex has been lined up to become what will to all intents and purposes, be a dormitory for workers who have been priced out of London. Sure, we know that there will be an effort to create employment opportunities in the region such as the port at London Gateway and the expansion of logistics facilities along the estuary. Not everyone living in the region will be travelling into London for work but a substantial proportion will.

The point we want to make is that despite all of the fancy verbiage coming from ASELA, they will not make any reference to the obscenely distorted housing situation in London where property is seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing homes for people. ASELA are dutifully doing the bidding of a government that is actively supporting the project of making London a welcome home for the global super rich. Basically, they’ve been tasked with attempting to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with both hands tied behind their backs. Whatever they do, they cannot even contemplate asking a few pertinent questions as to what the heck is going on with the housing situation in London.

When you have the prospect of 90,000 homes being built across the region in the next twenty years which with the best will in the world from the planners tasked to deliver this, will result in an urban sprawl that will make the southern part of Essex resemble Middlesex, understandably, existing residents are going to be concerned. It’s not NIMBYism to be concerned that the physical and social infrastructure will be there to support the extra population. It’s not NIMBYism to fear that the open spaces and countryside that we escape to in order to get away from the stress of modern life will be obliterated. It’s not NIMBYism to conclude that the grandiose planning involved in delivering an extra 90,000 homes in the south of Essex is something that’s imposed upon us with little or no consultation. When large scale planning like this is imposed from above, it’s hardly surprising that not only are people concerned about the impact on their quality of life, they get pretty resentful as well.

Again, as we’ve written before, it’s the reactionary political elements who will pick up on this concern and resentment and exploit it for their own divisive, nefarious and hateful purposes. With our very limited resources, we do our level best to explain what’s going on and put it into some kind of context. One that highlights the impact of property in London being seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing vital housing. One that draws attention to the fact that the planning ‘process’ we have and the system of local and national governance that informs it is simply unfit for purpose. One that draws all of this together to make the case that the political, economic and social system we have which forces all of this upon us is unsustainable, unfit for purpose and ultimately, needs to be swept away. One that starts to offer a vision of a society where people’s needs can be met in a just, sane and sustainable way instead of one in thrall to the profit motive.

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)

50 Years of Resistance

We’re sharing this because it marks 50 years since the police set up a Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) after the protest against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square, London, that took place in July 1968. Setting up the SDS marked a new turn in the efforts of the state to disrupt protest and revolutionary movements. With the Undercover Policing Inquiry underway, this commemoration is important. This commemoration shouldn’t be seen as drawing a line under state infiltration and disruption of protest and revolutionary movements. The strategy and tactics of the state change according to the circumstances they find themselves in and how much of a spotlight is being placed on their attempts to disrupt us. This is an indication of one way they’re operating now: How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations. With the Undercover Policing Inquiry, despite the efforts that are being made to frustrate the proceedings, state disruption of our movements is coming into the spotlight. Understandably the state would rather that wasn’t the case. Now think about the splits over various aspects of identity politics that are damaging the anarchist and other radical movements. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of us think that it’s more than a coincidence that the (unwanted from the state’s point of view) focus on state disruption of radicalism and the splits we’re witnessing are somehow connected.

Join hundreds of people in London on the 7th and 8th of July to celebrate 50 years of campaigns, struggles, resilience and success.

On the 7th of July we will be gathering from 12.30 pm at Grosvenor Square for a roll call of groups spied on.

On the 8th of July there will be a conference exploring five decades of movements for change, exhibitions, food, videos and talks at the Conway Hall. More information here.

WHY 50 YEARS OF RESISTANCE?

In 1968, following demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London’s Grosvenor Square, the police set up a Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Since that time, 50 years ago, over 1,000 groups campaigning in the UK for a better world have been spied on, infiltrated and targeted by political policing. Their protests and demonstrations are also subjected to ongoing police opposition and control to try to limit their effectiveness.

See here for the rest of this piece…