A diversity of tactics

This piece was first published on our sister blog, On Uncertain Ground. We’re re-posting it here because in our opinion, what’s discussed is very relevant to the kind of grassroots action we actively support.

The way we (South Essex Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) operate depends very much on the circumstances prevailing at the time and the task in hand. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, those tactics are a mixture of lobbying, propaganda, education and direct action. Our ultimate aim is the empowerment of people on a working class estate so they reach a point where they will embrace our project of radical political, social and economic change. Obviously, we’re a long way from that point and have to work from where we are.

An immediate aim is the improvement of conditions on the estate. That involves a mixture of facilitating residents in lobbying Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the various housing associations to do their job properly on the one hand and community clean ups and guerilla gardening on the other. These activities are supported with propaganda in the form of posts on the South Essex Stirrer. We also produce the occasional leaflet and flyer and have plans for a newsletter in the long term.

Our long term aim is empowerment of the residents and we work very closely with the Vange Hill Community Group in achieving this. The aspirations for the estate are expressed here: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange. Essentially what we are trying to achieve is starting to build a new world in the shell of the decaying, dysfunctional and dystopian one we currently endure. That can only be done from the grassroots upwards.

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. The challenges are that 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, 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 could through our toys out of the pram and walk away in a huff on encountering reactionary sentiments but as we’ve already written before, that won’t achieve anything: A few words on how we work. On the propaganda front, this is how we try to resolve contentious issues: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls. Regarding the issue dealt with in this piece, negotiations are underway between the parties concerned with the aim of coming to a resolution.

As for 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. Regarding the lobbying, it’s generally aimed at the council officers responsible for a particular service on the estate with the two wards councillors (both Labour) being copied in. There have been occasional sightings of the two ward councillors but efforts to constructively engage with them have rarely been successful.

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 lobbying 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 in the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, 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.

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. We realise that getting to the point where that can start to happen is a long journey – we’re in this for the long haul. 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.

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.

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A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange

A few posts back we wrote about our experience on the Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend course and how we used that to come up with some ideas for improving life on the ¾ estate in Vange: A different way of thinking about community activism. That plan is now available as a downloadable PDF from here.

Bear in mind that the plan is an aspiration and the contents are a guide as to how that aspiration can be realised. As such, it’s not written in stone and can and most likely will change as we progress and learn from our experiences, successes and mistakes!

Making a point about plastics

A humorous but also thought provoking cartoon highlighting the longevity of plastics in the environment. Time for all of us to rethink how we use plastics and what the alternatives are. A tough call because plastics are so ubiquitous in our everyday lives so…creative but practical and do-able suggestions for doing without them are warmly welcomed:)

A transformation is underway in Gambleside as well:)

In an earlier post – A different way of thinking about community activism – we presented what some may see as a rather ambitious plan to transform the ¾ estate on Vange Hill, located on the southern fringes of Basildon. In a subsequent post – A transformation is underway in Vange Hill:) – we wrote about how this transformation is starting. As you can see from the above image from the Gambleside area of the estate, things are happening there as well.

It’s a simple act of a resident taking a wooden pallet, breaking it down and using its component parts to construct a border around a small patch of land surrounding a tree, making it look tidier. What’s great about this is its symbolic value – it’s sending out a signal that residents care about their close and will put in the time and effort in improving it themselves. This is exactly the kind of autonomous, unilateral action we love! With this and the newly established pocket garden on nearby Swanstead, there are two examples of what DIY guerilla gardening can achieve in making the estate look better.

As we’ve mentioned before, it’s work like this in existing areas of enhancement on the estate that we hope will act as an inspiration to residents elsewhere on Vange Hill. Momentum in achieving this aim is slowly starting to grow. As the weather starts to improve over the spring and into the summer, we look forward to seeing more autonomous, unilateral actions like this springing up across the estate.

What’s really good about this is that the first we knew about it was when we checked the Facebook page of the Vange Hill Community Group and saw the images of the finished job. Basildon & Southend Housing Action had no involvement in this at all in terms of providing materials or facilitating the work. This is exactly what we’re after – independent action by a resident feeling empowered to go out and make a difference to their community.

A transformation is underway in Vange Hill:)


This patch of land on Swanstead had been left as a neglected fly tip until Basildon Council finally cleared it up back in February


This is what residents facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action did on Sunday 8th April to start transforming this patch of land into a community pocket garden

In our previous post – A different way of thinking about community activism – we presented what some may see as a rather ambitious plan to transform the ¾ estate on Vange Hill. As you can see from the above images, residents from the Vange Hill Community Group facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action are making a start on bringing that plan to fruition.

Spring is a time for new beginnings and the opportunity this recently cleared patch of land offered as a symbol of a new beginning on the estate had to be taken. As you can see from the image below, there’s already an area of enhancement on Oldwyk with a small pocket garden. Over in Gambleside, there’s another area that’s getting close attention from residents and has been planted out with bulbs. This patch in Swanstead is between these two locations. If all goes to plan, there will be three areas of enhancement which will hopefully inspire other residents across the estate to start doing the same.

A small pocket garden in and of itself isn’t the revolution. However, the gradual emergence of pocket gardens on an estate that has more than its fair share of problems and which has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years is a sign that change is coming. It’s small, doable low cost projects like this which give people a bit of pride in their community and empower residents that will lay the foundations for more ambitious projects in the future. Projects that will not just change the way the estate looks but also how people interact with each other as a sense of community pride and solidarity is built up.


A volunteer maintaining an existing pocket garden on Oldwyk

A different way of thinking about community activism

We’ve just completed a six week course facilitated by Graham Burnett and Sherry Fuller – Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend (CAPRIS). It was an incredibly useful course that made us question a lot of our assumptions about community organising. As community activists, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut of operating in a certain way and constantly wondering why your efforts aren’t making the impact you want them to make. For some activists it can be hard to have to question set patterns of working – we’re fortunate in that we welcome the opportunity to have our assumptions questioned and to start thinking about different ways to deal with the issues we encounter on the estates.

As part of our final presentation which was based around enhancing the work we’re already undertaking with the Vange Hill Community Group and Basildon & Southend Housing Action on an estate in Vange, we came up with the outcome tree shown above. It works in a very simple way. In red in the middle is the ultimate outcome we want to achieve. Above in blue are aspects of the vision we have for the estate. Below in green are the actions that need to be undertaken in order to realise that vision.

The outcome tree was just one tool we discussed on the course. There were others that were useful in making us think about how we work towards our desired outcome. One of these was a timeline that in our case stretched out to eight years. It starts off with one small undertaking which in our case will be encouraging residents to work on converting a patch of land recently cleared of flytipping and turn it into a pocket garden. As residents achieve more, learn more, become more confident and empowered, the vision for the development of the estate becomes more ambitious until the aim shown in the outcome tree above is realised.

This may seem like pie in the sky thinking but if you really want to change the world, you have to have a vision. Obviously, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in our way and we had a frank and useful discussion about those at the last session of CAPRIS. The point is that we want to move from a situation where we’re just fire fighting the whole time and dealing with the same issues over and over again to one where we’re moving forwards and making genuine progress. CAPRIS has hopefully given us the ideas and inspiration to achieve that.

UPDATE 14.4.18 – A downloadable PDF of the presentation / plan for Vange Hill is available from here.