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Michael Condron emailed today with details of his latest sculptures.

Interested readers, and particularly those in the Basildon Arts Collective, may recall that at the height of the furore surrounding The Woodsman I blogged on several occasions about Condron’s works of public art, bemoaning the treatment meted out to Progression.

I’ve extracted the photographs from his email and placed them in the gallery below.

Enjoy them, admire them and appreciate a quite extraordinary local talent. And then question why it is that Basildon’s Conservative administration have consistently demonstrated such hostility to public art, including Condron’s own Progression.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

Brooke House, Camera, Light

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Walking down to the town today, Em and I were staggered to see so many lights left on at, I presume, not inconsiderable public expense. The alien landing lights I’ve blogged about previously were among the worst offenders, all but one blazing away into a bright April afternoon (I presume the bulb has already gone in that one).

Lighting Column

To deal with this sort of environmental thoughtlessness, a school in Boston installed animated polar bears to show how well students were conserving energy:

“For example, when energy use is low, such as early in the morning, the bear is asleep and happy. But as energy use rises as students turn on computers, televisions and music devices, the ice can begin melting under the bear’s paws – and if energy use really peaks – the poor bear falls in and flails in the open water.”

I rather suspect that, between ET’s landing zone and the purple squid tentacles, Basildon Council’s polar bear would have come to a distinctly watery end a long time ago.

Most of us realise we are stuck with these ugly, purple up-lighters, even though we live in a time when most people are worried about the fact there is far too much artificial upward illumination at night.

However, please, please, please could someone turn out the lights in the day!

At least we can see what use the purple posts will be put to by creative locals in the coming years…

Stickered Lighting PoleThere is only one description for this whole project:

Epic fail.

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With some gusto Basildon Council announced that the Clock had been returned to the town. It was erected where The Woodsman stood – and whilst I can accept that the clock is a piece of artistic engineering, I find it hard to think of it as public art. It certainly wasn’t created for the space in which it now stands.

But that is by-the-by.

The Council has determined this is the structure that will preside over St Martin’s Square. (Actually, I am a little confused as to whether or not we still call it St Martin’s Square, since it appears to have been arbitrarily renamed Compass Square. Clearly, whichever fourteen-year old PR whizz thought that up hadn’t looked closely enough at the stone-set round in front of the Towngate. It is actually a sundial.)

It had been taken down from its original location because it was not working and was repaired by the Cumbria Clock Company.

However, you might be a little confused if you take a look at this picture, snapped earlier today.

Town Centre ClockI am not sure how most people define a working clock, but I am pretty sure that it has hands… Still, I guess I might have been expecting too much.

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They look faintly sinister, Orwellian almost, like something that would be more at home in 1984 than 2010. These new cameras with I presume 360 degree vision are designed to make us feel safer.

Forget North Korea. Britain is the most surveilled state in the world. We have 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras in the UK – over 4 million cameras watching us as we go about our daily business. Now three more in Basildon.

In 2006 you may recall that members of the Surveillance Studies Network produced a report on the surveillance society. It makes for shocking reading:

And what do these cameras do?

They don’t deter the petty anti-social behaviour that plagues most ordinary shoppers – kids on bikes were still racing dangerously and recklessly through the crowds at the weekend. How do they improve the quality of our lives?

In 2005 the Home Office published a study into the efficacy of CCTV. It’s results were far, far from conclusive:

I find this continual erosion of personal space alarming.

And the Tories show their true colours when they come out in favour of the surveillance state.

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As one of the councillors who voted in principle to bid for and accept the money from government to put new lighting in St Martin’s Square and the Town Centre, I am shocked and embarrassed by what the administration have done.

Purple Poles, St Martin's Square

Who on earth thought that serried ranks of purple poles, with the off-cuts of Robbie the Robot perched on top, could possibly improve the look of the area or the quality of the public space?

And in an age when we worry about light pollution and climate change, why do they cast light up but not down? And why are they on in the day?

Who advised them?

How ironic that at last week’s Cabinet we considered a report on Basildon’s open spaces which rated St Martin’s Square very highly – before the bulldozers moved in. It is very sad that the Tories placed petty local politics above even their own administration’s assessment of the value of this civic space.

A friend at dinner joked that maybe they were landing lights for the aliens coming to collect their purple squid tentacle lights… If only.

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There is something remarkably gratifying about your politics becoming the subject of a doolally rant from Peter Oborne.

His comment piece in today’s Mail is both astonishing and embarrassing in its swivel-eyed political illiteracy – riddled with hackneyed clichés to such an extent that you can almost see his words foaming on the page like some twenty-first century incarnation of a nineteenth-century pamphleteer.

Of course on one level he can be simply dismissed as a slightly dotty commentator who, whilst perhaps a little too spiky to be regarded a lovable eccentric, nevertheless fulfils a role in the media as a vocal representative of a certain small-minded, right-wing conservatism. Of course, whilst in US politics the right has radio ‘shock jocks’, Britain, despite an increasing pace of life, still conducts its politics in a comparatively leisurely fashion, better suited to writer-provocateurs in our newspapers. These I always imagine to be sartorially-challenged individuals given to flamboyant or eccentric dress – ‘sock jocks’ if you will.

On another level, however, Oborne’s flailing around is a fascinating indication of the rising panic on the part of Britain’s conservative politicians and commentators who have coasted along for years, relying on a ropey strategy perhaps best summarised as opportunism bolstered by a confidence born of entitlement. Oborne, whether as ‘sock jock’ or unofficial Tory mouthpiece, reveals how politically confused and contradictory the right-wing of British politics has become – grasping out in a vacuum of principle for a policy to justify this strange sense of entitlement to power.

Bizarrely, he decides that the key point of political differentiation is not principle, policy or even political message, but rather election slogan. Sadly, I suppose his obsession with slogans is not unexpected from someone who is part of a media industry that seeks in its own condescending way to portray British voters as supine – unable to make political choices based on more substantive criteria without the benefit of the media intervening to interpret and translate.

Oborne, interestingly, also accuses the Lib Dems of opacity on the big issues. This seems to be one of his odder comments, reflecting more the fact that his preferred emperor is clearly wearing no clothes and, I presume, hoping that by shouting loudly at as many people as possible, no-one will notice.

It is also contradicted by his admiration of Nick Clegg’s stance on Afghanistan and civil liberties. In the same piece!

Add in the fact of the Liberal Democrats’ four key election commitments and Oborne’s article is reduced to simple, ignorant bluster.

This is confirmed by his dependence on a tiresome and dull confusion between campaigning and political positioning in a dismal attempt to justify an accusation of hypocrisy:

“For example, one internal campaigning document – called Effective Opposition – hypocritically advised the party’s candidates to face in both directions at the same time.

It urged them ‘to secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and similarly in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory’.”

Oborne, like many ‘sock jocks’, appears to think that politics should occur in a vacuum of activity. The reality is any party looking to win a seat will be looking to maximise its support from voters by differentiating itself from other parties. To do that well, you need to present your policies in a way that is both relevant and effective. If you believe in the importance of local community politics that is going to be different in different parts of the country. It is basic campaigning common sense.

Fortunately, voters realise that, even if armchair media pundits – who lack accountability and often comment without any sense of responsibility – do not.

All of this adds up to one important thing: this election is still wide open and in the hands of the British electorate.

And the Tories know it…

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With delicious irony, the spirit of Wat Tyler has been stirred in Basildon’s creative communities by the way in which Basildon Council dumped Dave Chapple’s Woodsman Poacher sculpture at the park that bears Tyler’s name. I am sure Wat Tyler, who led a peasant army in revolt against financial dictats from the King (a poll tax, actually), would smile at the way Basildon artists are speaking out in opposition to local politicians who are quite happily rake in our taxes, but appear to have no respect for what the community actually wants.

Yesterday, The Echo reported how on Monday “More than 50 painters, sculptors, performers, heritage bosses, and other members of the arts community gathered for their inaugral meeting.” Liz Grant, who worked with other local artists to convene the meeting, describes it brilliantly:

“We had lots of people from across the arts spectum, which is fantastic for a first meeting.

“The Woodsman has been the catalyst for the group’s formation.

“We see it as a symbol of how the artistic community and the public feel about how the arts are being dealt with by Basildon’s current council and the previous one.

“It’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with how the council is operating.”

To my mind it is quite incredible how the plight of a single wooden statue has brought together Basildon’s creative communities in a way nothing else has. Steve Waters is one of the artists behind Old Man Stan, and his quote in The Echo captures succinctly the way in which the treatment of Dave Chapple’s creation has caused people to take a stand:

“We now have one united voice for the arts community in Basildon.

“The Woodman is what has brought us all together.

“We don’t want it to happen again, or ever be forgotten.”

Too damn right we don’t.

There was unanimous agreement on a motion of no confidence in the way that the Council currently engages those involved in the arts – and the way it looks after Basildon’s valuable collection of public art. As someone who has blogged variously about The Woodsman, public art in Basildon, the Wat Tyler sculpture trail and the Motorboat Museum, it was truly heartening to learn that all these issues were discussed.

What is particuarly exciting about this venture is that it is professionals and amateurs alike who are involved. Quite simply, it’s local people saying they want to have a say in how their public spaces look – and how their interests are supported – in just the same way that sport and other leisure activities are supported.

Politicians might think they can shrug this off. I don’t think they can.

Many of those who enjoy participating in the arts – creating things, making things, acting things, singing things, watching things, listening to things – get fed up with being treated as the Cinderella sector, left to sweep up the crumbs whilst the ugly homogeneous stepsisters “Sport” and “Leisure” receive the funding and the attention.

My own view, as someone involved in local politics and the local art scene, is that we attempt to tell people what they want at our peril. For me it comes back to the “raucous, unpredictable capacity of people” that lends our communities power and vibrancy and which, when untied in a single shout, demands attention as the voice of local people that help pay the Council’s way.

Being involved in the arts, involved in Basildon’s creative communities, is about being involved with each other, in all its glorious messiness.

Some things we’ll love.

Some things we’ll hate.

Some things we’ll think are pointless.

And some things we’ll disagree on.

But some things – like The Woodsman Poacher – will make us realise that we have much more in common than we think.

If you want to get involved, the next meeting is on Monday 22nd March at 7.00pm, St Martin’s Church Hall. Please call Elizabeth Grant on 07939 122864 for further details.

If you think Basildon deserves better than bulldozers and excuses, come along.

And finally, for those politicians who still think that all this really doesn’t matter, there’s a salutory lesson on Facebook.

Friends for the The Woodsman Poacher? 1,651.

Friends on the campaign page of Basildon’s Tory candidate? 150.

The Woodsman Poacher rests his case…

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I’ve not heard any news regarding progress on rehousing the collection of rare boats formerly stored at the Motorboat Museum in Wat Tyler Country Park. However, a friend has sent me three pictures of some of the magnificent boats once displayed there.

Closing down the museum was an act of cultural vandalism – something that Basildon’s Conservative Party seem prone to.

Enjoy the pictures – and if you have any more, please send them through.

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On Wednesday night, immediately following a Cabinet meeting that witnessed the collapse of the Tories regeneration plans in Wickford, we had the farce of Council meeting to decide if Basildon should apply to the Queen to become a Borough

The result was a foregone conclusion.

All but one Tory councillor was present, all three Liberal Democrats were there, but Labour decided not to turn up –  despite saying they opposed it in the paper.

Quite how Labour councillors opposed this by taking a decision not to be there to vote against is completely beyond me. It wasn’t something that happened by accident – work over-running or a train arriving late, for instance. This was a decision not to be present.

It was a complete and utter abdication of political responsibility in two regards.

Firstly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as official opposition, failing to represent the many thousands of residents who have an opposite view to the Conservative administration. Secondly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as elected representatives. Their constituents expect them to represent their views. On Basildon and borough status, any comment they made in the paper is worthless as they singularly failed to follow up that stated opposition with votes.

Did Labour really oppose it? Or were they simply too divided that they thought it better not to turn up at all? We will never know as they abdicated their elected responsibilities: there are no votes to record their views.

The Conservatives argued that borough status would enhance the status of the district and with enhanced status would come investment. They explained that there is currently confusion when the “chain gang” get together [the other mayors] as Basildon is one of only two councils local to us  with a Chairman. To be honest, I think that most people these days think of a very different “chain gang” when it comes to politicians…

Most importantly, the Tories believe Borough status would allow them to recognise people of importance and grant them “Freedom of the Borough”. They made an emotive and compelling case, based on the Royal Anglian Regiment and the fact that, in the Leader of the Tory group’s words, they had missed a trick by not having borough status so they could grant “Freedom of the Borough”. They also said that they would spend no money on signage as all the signs say Basildon Council and they wouldn’t buy regalia or cars etc.

I was against the application. So were my colleagues. And we were there to make our points and vote against it.

For my part, I don’t have a principled objection to being Basildon Borough. However, politicians have never been regarded with so much contempt in modern times as they are now. There is a justified and deep-seated cynicism out there about the motivation of politicians and anything that appears to be self-serving, even when it is not, should be very carefully scrutinised.

I believe that the sight of politicians talking about whether they are called a “Mayor” or a “Chairman”, and whether or not they need to have regalia etc, is one that sits uncomfortably when so many businesses are going to the wall, as families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and when there is so much uncertainty out there about jobs and recovery.

And whilst deciding not to spend on new signs and stationery etc is the right decision, it does prompt the question, what’s the point? As far as the world out there is concerned, there is going to be very little visible difference. Basildon Council will be Basildon Council – Borough or District.

Part of me also thinks that this need to be like other Councils shows a spectacular lack of confidence. Basildon has a lot to be proud of, both in terms of its community and in terms of its national leadership in local government terms. We shouldn’t feel an obsessive need to be like other places, when one of Basildon’s strengths is that it is not. Conservatives don’t seem to be able to cope with being different and develop an entirely unnecessary inferiority complex. To my mind, the people we represent want us to simply get on and do the job.

Finally, on the business of offering distinguished individuals and organisations “Freedom of the Borough”, the Tories did indeed miss a trick.

It is perfectly in order for a District Council to offer “Freedom of the District”. They might have erroneously believed that that is a privilege that only a district with the status of city, borough or royal borough can confer.

However, they would be quite wrong.

Last year, Uttlesford saw the 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) parade through the town. Uttlesford decided it wanted to honour its soldiers for their service.

Uttlesford is a District Council and so doesn’t qualify under Section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 to offer “Freedom of the Borough” or “Freedom of the District”. However, they did identify that the general power of well-being contained in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 was broad enough to entitle them to grant the regiment freedom of entry. Accordingly, Uttlesford District Council resolved the following:

So it was that, on Sunday 14 June 2009, soldiers from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) marched through Uttlesford and were awarded the “Freedom of the District”.

Why didn’t this happen for the Royal Anglian Regiment when they marched through Basildon Town Centre on St George’s Day, 23 April 2009?

Not because Basildon is a District.

But because the Conservatives missed a trick.

In his summing up, Cllr Ball said that the reason they are applying for Borough status now is because it shows community leadership. If it is the right thing to do, you lead.

For me, though, and knowing what we do about Uttlesford, it’s hard to see Wednesday night as anything other than an exercise in politicians wanting fancier titles.

I agree that if it is the right thing to do you should lead.

What a shame that leadership didn’t mirror Uttlesford’s, with the Royal Anglian Regiment being granted the “Freedom of the District”.

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