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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Community gardening in Laindon

As well as facilitating the Vange Hill Community Group with community cleans up and guerilla gardening on the ¾ estate in Vange, Basildon & Southend Housing Action have also been involved for a number of years in working with residents on the Nursery Gardens estate in Laindon to maintain a community garden. These images were taken after the first major planting and maintenance session of the spring last weekend.

As well as flowers to brighten up the estate, this particular garden has a more serious vegetable growing side to it as well. On an estate where some residents experience issues with food poverty, a community garden dedicated to food production does make a positive difference. It’s these kind of localised vegetable growing beds that we eventually want to see springing up across the ¾ estate in Vange. We’re showing the image above to prove that it can be done on an informal basis.

It can also be done on a more formal setting as this Incredible Edible supported community plot on Mill Green near the shops on the Chalvedon estate in Basildon shows…
https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FHeartofPitsea%2Fposts%2F1692815327468695&width=500

The point is that with increasing food poverty and the uncertainty over food supply that could result from Brexit, there is a need for community gardens that provide fresh food. Not only that, maintaining a garden like this is a good way of building solidarity and neighbourhood resilience.

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

Here’s one way of creating and maintaining a pocket community garden…

In reference to our previous post about the newly created space on the ¾ estate in Vange after a ‘temporary’ fence and a load of fly-tipping was cleared, here’s an idea all the way from South Norwood on what could be done with it: The Sensible Gardenhttps://www.facebook.com/The-Sensible-Garden-786327811482410/ Namely, create a community run pocket garden. If you take a look at this Facebook page, we’re sure you will be inspired to come up with some ideas on what can be done with support from people in the neighbourhood.

There are a fair few gains that can be had from creating and maintaining a pocket garden on an estate. There’s the boost to community morale from seeing a space that’s cared for by locals as opposed to yet another ready made site for flytipping. There’s the sense of camaraderie generated by a group of people working together with a common purpose. There’s the opportunity for people to express their creativity as you can see from looking through the Facebook page for The Sensible Garden. Also, there are the benefits of just being out in the fresh air and getting some exercise.

The space on the ¾ estate is small and as such is unlikely to attract external funding unlike larger spaces such as the Mendip Wildlife Garden in Southend – https://www.facebook.com/MendipWildlifeGarden/ Also, it has to be borne in mind that some elements at Basildon Council can sometimes be less than helpful when dealing with community groups! So it’s down to the community to come up with ideas for what can be done and the implement it. As stated previously, Vange Hill Community Group and Basildon & Southend Housing Action will be more than happy to facilitate any ideas for a garden on this space.

Could there be a pocket community garden here?

After last week’s community clean up (see the previous post) on the ¾ estate in Vange on the southern fringes of Basildon, our sister blog, The South Essex Stirrer published a number of posts based on what they saw and experienced. One of them was this: Action?https://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/action/ about a fence and an accumulation of rubbish that had become an eyesore and a hazard. We don’t know what buttons this pushed at Basildon Council but action was taken to clear the fence and the trash to leave the patch of open ground shown above.

What we now have is a space with potential. As mentioned in our previous post, Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG), facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) have been focusing on the Oldwyk and Gambleside areas of the estate to establish a degree of community led maintenance and care that will hopefully act as an inspiration to the rest of the estate. Where this cleared patch of ground is in Swanstead is halfway between Oldwyk and Gambleside and would be a perfect location to establish a pocket community garden that would serve as the nucleus of another ‘maintained’ zone.

If any residents in and around Swanstead or from further afield on the ¾ estate want to step up to the plate to help create a community garden that would help people take a pride in their neighbourhood, VHCG and BASHA would be delighted to help them achieve this. Also, if anyone from the wider region we cover who has experience of creating and maintaining community run pocket gardens wants to get on board to offer their expertise and advice, they will be warmly welcomed.

We got our hands dirty…

Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and supported by a number of residents got their teeth into the community clean up on the ¾ estate today (Saturday 17.2). The main areas of focus were Oldwyk and the top end of Dewsgreen at the top end of the estate and Gambleside and Sturrocks at the bottom end.

These are areas where VHCG and BASHA have an active presence and are working to establish what are effectively ‘zones of control’ where we can move forwards from fire fighting with rubbish clearance onto enhancements such as pocket community gardens. The idea of establishing these zones is to set an example of what can be achieved by residents working together which will hopefully inspire other people across the estate to do the same. This is already working as we were able to expand operations down into Sturrocks with residents coming out to clean up their close. The long term aim is to start linking these zones up and to start really transforming the estate.


The pocket community garden on Oldwyk


Gambleside looking a lot better as a result of active resident involvement

More work was undertaken on the small community garden that’s been created at the top of Oldwyk and there was bulb planting, strimming and tidying undertaken on Gambleside and Sturrocks. As you can see from the images below, a lot of rubbish was collected. A heck of a lot of rubbish considering the small area we were operating in…

There was an agreement with Basildon Council to pick up the rubbish we had collected. The Oldwyk pile was eventually collected. At the time of writing, the pile at the end of Gambleside hadn’t been collected. To say this is disappointing is an understatement as it makes a mockery of all the hard graft that was put in today. VHCG are already chasing up Basildon Council to ensure that the pile at Gambleside is collected as early as possible on Monday.


The rubbish collected from Oldwyk and Dewsgreen


The rubbish collected from Gambleside and Sturrocks

All in all, it was a reasonably successful day. However, it was just one day in a long campaign to start to turn round the fortunes of an estate that has more than its fair share of problems. A campaign that will only succeed when residents really start to turn out in numbers on clean up days and in between, do what they can to keep the estate maintained. That means a combination of doing it themselves and working with VHCG to put pressure on Basildon Council to do their job. We will be back to support the work of VHCG and BASHA as and when required in the months to come.