Imposed change and a lack of control

Living and operating out on the Thames estuary, we’re aware of a lot of changes in the pipeline. Changes led by developers as well as the bid to make Thurrock a freeport. Changes that will have a significant impact on our lives. Changes that many people feel they have no say in and are effectively being imposed upon us whether we like it or not.

After a year of the COVID-19 crisis and a succession of lockdowns and tiered restrictions, people feel they have even less control over their lives than ever before. Changes which were already happening such as the decline of bricks and mortar retail have been rapidly accelerated by the lockdowns. While physical retailers such as Debenhams are going to the wall, the likes of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, have seen their fortunes soar. As has been said, ‘why let a crisis go to waste’? The fabric of our town centres which we have taken for granted for most of our lives is going to be subject to massive change. Change which going by the situation with the Basildon town centre masterplan, us mere plebs will have absolutely no influence over.

The Basildon town centre masterplan was presented to us in the spring and summer of 2020 when the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdowns and tiered restrictions were already underway. However, the plans were in preparation well before the crisis struck. The masterplan recognises that the future of Basildon town centre cannot remain tied to a bricks and mortar retail sector that was struggling before the crisis hit. Hence the emphasis on a massive expansion of residential accommodation plus attempts to re-vitalise the night time sector.

Pretty much most people in Basildon would agree that the town centre does need re-vitalising. The problem is that what we’ve been offered is a developer led Manhattanisation of the town centre with high rise apartment blocks set to spring up all over the place: ‘Regeneration’ – the only way is up. Apartments aimed at young professionals who can’t afford to live in London along with a few supposedly being offered to key workers. Apartments that do nothing to resolve the housing crisis that impacts on people already living in Basildon.

The masterplan for Basildon town centre has been heavily promoted by the leader of the council, Cllr. Gavin Callaghan. As much as we detest his mode of operation, we have to hand it to him and everyone else backing the masterplan. They saw what was coming and responded with a plan that shifted the focus of the town centre away from dominance by retail and towards residential and leisure. When the COVID-19 crisis came along with the lockdowns and tiered restrictions accelerating the already existing trend away from bricks and mortar retail, Callaghan and his mates probably couldn’t believe their luck. The problem is they told people what was going to be done to the town centre rather than involve them in a dialogue of equals.

What has and will happen with the Basildon town centre masterplan is a microcosm of what’s happening or is in the pipeline all the way along the Thames estuary. Change had to come to a post industrial estuary environment with a high level of deprivation, there’s no arguing with that. The problem is those of us living out along the estuary have no meaningful say in what that change should be and how it should be implemented. This ranges from the type of employment opportunities that have and will continue to emerge through to where new housing should go and who it should be getting built for. Also, there’s the question of what extra infrastructure is needed to support what will be a growing population. That’s schools, health care facilities and the like which all too often seem to be tacked on as an afterthought rather than included in joined up, holistically developed plans.

There’s a bid to make Thurrock a freeport along with the Ford plant at Dagenham. Obviously that’s going to have an impact on the region. It’s early days on this one and we’re still looking at what changes this will bring so it’s probably too early to make an informed comment. The only thing that can be said at the moment is that this is a top down, business led decision and whether the consequences are beneficial, deleterious or a complex mixture of both, those of us living along the estuary are just expected to accept this without being able to have a meaningful say in the process.

There’s the London Resort Theme Park scheduled for the other side of the river from Grays on the Swanscombe Peninsula: Talk to us! It may be on the other side of the river but it will have an impact on the Essex side, particularly with Tilbury set to be a ‘park and ferry’ point to get people to and from the resort. Mind you that may only be temporary if the plans for the KenEx tram link come to fruition. A tram link that may not just be a cross river one but could extend to Dartford and Gravesend on the south side and on our side, all the way from Purfleet and Chafford Hundred in the west over to Basildon and Canvey Island in the east. That sounds great but bear in mind that if it wasn’t for the London Resort, this proposal most likely would not be getting taken anything like as seriously as it is now.

On the subject of cross river links, there’s the Lower Thames Crossing where Highways England are currently undertaking detailed surveying work while they await the full go ahead. This is a project that has divided people and caused a lot of controversy. There are a number of people in the region who can’t wait for it to be completed and running. On the other hand, there are a lot of people concerned about the impact on an already poor level of air quality another busy main road will have and who have done what they think is their level best to challenge the proposal: It’s not a done deal. With so much else that’s happening along the estuary, despite the token ‘consultations’, this feels like something that’s being done to us rather than anything we can have any influence over.

No one is nostalgic for the old smokestack industries such as the cement works with their pollution and working conditions that were bad for people’s health. It has to be acknowledged that some of the employment opportunities that are and if the freeport bid comes to fruition, will come on stream will be highly skilled and well paid. If the film studios proposed for Purfleet materialise, they will provide some pretty exciting employment opportunities. It’s not all doom and gloom but – alongside the decent opportunities that will come, there will also be way too much in the way of precarious, zero hours contract, anti-social hours working warehouse and delivery jobs. Obviously, with relatively good rail links into London, even if home working continues after the COVID-19 crisis is deemed to be over, being in close proximity to the capital will draw in a lot of young professionals who can’t afford to live there but will still need to travel in two or three times a week.

Alongside of this is talk of significant changes to how local authorities will operate in our region in the future. One potential change is a much closer relationship between Thurrock and Basildon councils possibly leading to a merger: Is a merger on the cards? Don’t be under any illusions this is being done for the benefit of us mere plebs. This is being done to streamline the inward investment process from big business and the housing developers.

When you take a few steps back to try and get an overview of what’s happening, it looks as though both sides of the estuary are set to become some kind of linear city. Given the river and the road and rail links running alongside it, you can see why the concept of a linear city has some appeal to those who like to devise and implement some pretty grandiose plans. How much of what we’re getting is a result of properly joined up thinking and how much is just piecemeal development is a moot point. Given the way new housing developments are being allowed to pop up on floodplains, we kind of suspect that there’s more of an element of piecemeal additions to development in our region: Draw your own conclusions…

With the transformation to what will be to all intents and purposes a linear city, comes demographic change from inward migration. The region we cover is no stranger to this.

Ever since London started to emerge as a major city, there has been outward migration from the capital by those looking for a bit of space and fresh air. We’ve had the plotlands, the new town of Basildon and the overspill developments of South Ockendon, Chadwell St. Mary, Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham. Inward migration into our region is certainly nothing new – in fact it’s been going on in one form or another for more than a century.

What is changing are the demographics of who’s moving in. With London becoming unaffordable to pretty much all but the super rich, even young professionals who might have once considered moving into the gentrifying terraces of inner London have been obliged to look to the outer suburbs and beyond. The proposed re-generation of Purfleet and the construction of what to all intents and purposes will be a mini new town is an attempt to capitalise on this market. How that will sit alongside the nearby Garrison estate with the issues they have is a matter for conjecture. With the completion of the new estate on the western edge of Stanford-le-Hope plus an increase in the number of young professionals moving out to find affordable accommodation, we’ve noticed a change in the demographic. The town feels like it’s becoming more middle class.

The thing is that the people out here doing the grunt work of precarious warehouse, delivery and shop work are feeling increasingly left out of what’s happening. They feel that life is something that’s done to them rather than anything they have any real control over. You don’t have to be a sociological genius to work out that this is going to lead to increasing polarisation and social tension.

People want to be able to have a meaningful degree of control over their lives. That can be individually, collectively or a mixture of both to varying degrees. This was articulated in this report from Demos released in 1997: Basildon the mood of the nation – Dennis Hayes, Alan Hudson. Even in this report, the gap between the aspiration of realising this and the ability to do so was recognised. That gap has grown over the decades. It was massively exacerbated with the financial crisis of 2008. It’s something that has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and the consequent lockdowns and tiered restrictions.

People have no objection to change if they’re in control of the process. Most people living along the Thames estuary recognise that if we’re going to have better lives, there has to be change. What is frustrating is that pretty much everyone out here feels that what’s happening with all the changes is something that’s being done to us rather than anything we can control. When that is overlain by all the shite we’ve had to endure with lockdowns and tiered restrictions, it all starts to become a bit too much. We’re doing what we can with our very limited resources to act as a pole of attraction for the increasing number of people who feel disaffected because they feel life is something that’s done to them rather than anything they have any meaningful control over.

This piece is a general overview of how we see things shaping up in the region we cover and in the wider Thames estuary region. It raises issues that do need to be examined in greater depth at some point in the future. Issues that resources permitting, may have to be acted upon. As ever, constructive criticism and comradely debate are always welcome.

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