Tag: Basildon & Southend Housing Action

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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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

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, an increase in buy to let and homes of multiple occupation, our neighbourhoods are becoming more atomised with community solidarity crumbling as a result of people moving in and out on short term lets and not staying long enough to generate a sense of belonging.

This is exactly what the neo-liberal elite want, fractured workplaces and neighbourhoods where people are focused on just surviving in a dog eat dog world and becoming ever more individualistic in their approach to life. People who take this approach to dealing with what life throws at them are less inclined to favour collective solutions in either the workplace or their neighbourhoods. It’s these people who are unwittingly doing the bidding of the neo-liberal elite.

Where we operate, we’re dealing with the consequences of forty years of neo-liberal doctrine which has led to a growing number of estates becoming marginalised, fractured and all too often, fearful places to live. We’re dealing with an unprecedented level of demoralisation on the estates that has led to many people giving up hope for a better life as they struggle to get by from day to day.

People on the estates feel they’ve been thrown under the bus and have lost faith in the political system – this is reflected in low voter registration and turn outs at local and national elections. This creates a political vacuum which the far right, when they periodically manage to get their act together, are only too happy to try and fill. This is why we see having a presence at the grassroots on the estates as one part of the strategy needed to fend off the threat from the far right.

Radical change has to have a base

Radical change will not happen without the willing participation of the working class. To build that participation, there has to be a base at the grassroots in our neighbourhoods as well as in our workplaces and colleges. The challenge of re-building solidarity in the workplace is starting to be met by the rise of militant so called ‘fringe unions’ such as the United Voices of the World Union who we offer our unconditional solidarity to. As community activists, our focus of operation in building the base needed for radical change has to be the neighbourhoods we live in.

Working at the level of the neighbourhood, our task is to do whatever is needed to empower people living on the estates. The ultimate aim of this empowerment is to give life to the old Independent Working Class Association slogan: Working Class Rule In Working Class Areas. This is very easy to say – putting it into practice is a hard slog where we’re constantly learning lessons from our experiences and using them to alter and refine our approach. To achieve results in doing what we do, we can’t afford to stick to a rigid dogma – we have to be flexible and pragmatic while at the same time, bearing in mind our ultimate objective of revolution.

Empowering people on the estates and encouraging them to become more ambitious in their demands and aspirations is a step by step process. Being a part of this process means accepting that we’re in this for the long haul. The hope is that what we do on the few estates where we do have a presence a) inspires more people on these estates to get involved and b) inspires people on other estates to start doing the same.

The people we work with on the estates

Working at the grassroots with people who in the main are fairly apolitical but also cynical about what politicians at local and national level can offer presents an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities. With people being apolitical, their views are formed by a combination of life experiences, how they discuss issues with friends, family and neighbours and to a certain extent, influences from the media. Which often means it’s hard to pin people down on any particular part of the political spectrum. One person can be pretty progressive on some issues but on others, may have a bit of a reactionary take.

We’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the Vange Hill estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group.

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people.

What we do on the estates

Our ultimate aim is an empowered, progressive working class who want to see radical change. Empowerment means starting off with relatively easy goals to attain and moving onwards and upwards from there. The process involves a range of tactics from facilitating residents in lobbying the council to practical actions aimed at improving conditions on the estates.

With regard to facilitating the lobbying of councils, we realise that the more purist anarchists will see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the use of the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group in lobbying by offering support, advice and logistical backing as and when necessary. When lobbying pays off with a result, it empowers those involved in it to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands. As this proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity. It’s a combination of empowerment and political education that we’re doing our level best to implement.

Then there’s the direct action. Which at the moment in the case of the Vange Hill estate, is a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there is some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

Our longer term goals on the direct action front are best described in this piece we wrote about our vision for the Vange Hill estate: A different way of thinking about community activism. It’s a step by step process that involves increasingly empowered residents taking on more responsibility for their estate and in so doing, starting to take what power they can down to the grassroots. Obviously, there will come a point when barriers will be hit as the council refuses to relinquish any more power. The hope is that when this point is reached, people are politicised enough to push things forward in taking on the powers that be and start fighting for real change.

Conclusion

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. There’s no single, easily defined route to get to that point. It’s a case of nurturing quite a few different strands and over time, gradually bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. Which is why we deploy a variety of tactics to support our overall strategy.

What is heartening is that we’re not alone in understanding the need to work at the grassroots with people as they are and build from there. This extract from the Statements page of the Anarchist Communist Group pretty much chimes with how we operate: Without being part of working class struggles we cannot hope to convince people that a revolution is both desirable and possible. In addition, we need to be explaining to people what anarchism is, giving possible ideas of what a future society might look like as well as give an anarchist analysis of what is going on at the moment. We cannot get anywhere by staying within our own ghettos, relating only to people who agree with us and writing for social media sites that are only read by the already ‘converted’. The tendency towards practices that are inward-looking, destructive, self-referential, etc. is not revolutionary. You need an outward-looking, expansive, genuinely inclusive approach that accepts degrees of difference if you want to change the world – or simply save your local library or support a group of workers in struggle.

To conclude, this is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change.

Getting to where we want to be is a learning curve and there’s a lot of trial and error and subsequent reassessment of strategy and tactics along the way. We’re happy for what we do to be open for constructive criticism and discussion.

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 few words on how we work

Recently on our sister blog, The South Essex Stirrer, we posted up this piece: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community hallshttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/a-few-thoughts-on-neighbourhood-community-halls/ It’s about concerns expressed by a number of residents on the ¾ estate in Vange over safety issues relating to parking and traffic on Fridays when the neighbourhood community centre is used as a mosque. It’s one of those issues that if we don’t get involved with our analysis of it, there are those on the right and possibly, the far right who will be only too happy to take ownership of it. That would make it very difficult for us and our partners to continue to operate on the ¾ estate.

We’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the ¾ estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. This has involved practical actions such as community clean ups as well as using what resources we can muster to put pressure on Basildon Council to get their act together and do the job residents pay them their council tax for. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/180311358699122/

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in some of the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people. As we have stated many times before, anyone who wants to see fundamental change is going to have to have the working class with them because without us, you will not achieve your goal!

Working in the way we do with BASHA and VHCG means there are inevitably a few grey areas. We know what we want to get out of this process so keeping that in mind, we can deal with the grey areas. Working at the coalface on isolated, deprived and forgotten estates on the fringes of a failing new town means finding an ideologically pure community group to work with is an impossibility. We have to work with what we find which means things can be a bit messy and complicated sometimes. We accept that and just get on with the process of engagement as best we can.

We could get huffy, throw the toys out of our pram and refuse to work with community groups that may include people whose views we don’t agree with. We could retreat to a hermetically sealed activist bubble where everything we hear confirms our world view and refuse to engage with those whose views we find disagreeable. We could but – it would be a massive abrogation of duty. Retreat raises the question ‘if not us, then who?’ Well, there’s a motley cast of UKIPers, ex UKIP ‘independents’, and lurking in the shadows, a few people off to the far right who would be only too happy to step in and fill the vacuum. So, this is why we work in the way we do with BASHA to make sure that there are at least a few estates in Basildon where these elements won’t be able to make an appearance without reckoning with our input.

This is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change. As ever, constructive criticism and informed debate on the issues raised in this piece are always welcome.

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…