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Just a little reminder that for Basildon-based readers of “Fragments and Reflections” there is a survey running on basildonFOCUS regarding borough status. It is the first item with a nice big blue banner headline!

Please do go and have your say so that as local councillors we can make an informed decision about whether or not to support the proposal when it is put to Council next Wednesday.

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Exciting news from Basildon’s artistic community.

The first “Basildon Arts Forum” is to be held at St Martin’s Church Hall, Basildon Town Centre on Monday 1st March at 7pm. Anyone interested in seeing a thriving artistic community in Basildon is welcome. As spaces have to be limited for health and safety reasons please drop an email to Liz Grant if you are intending to come: lizzy_grant@btopenworld.com.

Also, in the best traditions of anti-establishment art, the irreverent Old Man Stan has decided to share his views on the fate of “The Woodsman”. He really is the most incredible creation, sort of like Alf Garnett crossed with Statler and Waldorf and “Grandad Trotter”. I hope that those it lampoons remember that satire in Britain has a handsome pedigree – and take it in the spirit of Fousgasse and Hogarth.

Or at least Spitting Image.

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In yet another display of cultural vandalism, Basildon’s Tories have torn up the national motorboat collection, following their closure of the nation’s Motorboat Museum so it can be converted into a “green” centre. To give you an idea of the collection’s significance, here is an excerpt from the note on the website about it:

“The Motorboat Museum has been Britain’s leading authority on sporting and leisure motorboats since its creation in 1986.

Many record breakers and rare examples of boats, inboard and outboard motors are housed in the Museum. There is also an extensive collection of historic replica models and memorabilia.

The comprehensive library holds books, magazines and plans dating back to the 1890s. The library is open for use by researchers by appointment only. Enquiries can also be made through the post.”

The museum’s website says the following:

“We’re sorry to announce that the Motorboat Museum is closing down as of 4th December 2009.

Due to large scale refurbishment of the building housing the Motorboat Museum, it is necessary to close the Motorboat Museum and repatriate the collection.”

Back in November, The Echo ran a story on with the headline £1m green centre to open on site of boat museum. In that article, there is a reference to the Council’s postition:

“It would see half of the existing motorboat museum transformed into the new green museum by Spring 2011.

The other half will go out to lease, but could still remain as a venue for powerboat enthusiasts if an interested party comes forward to take over the running from Basildon Council.

Although planning is still in the early stages, it could also house historical artefacts and other items of interest.”

The article concludes:

“The council stressed all options were still open regarding the remainder of the motorboat museum, which is now only visited by about 10 per cent of visitors to the park annually.”

On the 12th November, Cabinet met and agreed to take further funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government under its Parklands Initiative. (I sit on Cabinet but, detained at work, missed the first items on the agenda, including this one. You can see from the voting record at the back of the minutes.) The report to Cabinet states:

“The second phase of funding will develop part of the Motorboat Museum to create a new community facility that provides education on the environment and the reduction of carbon.”

As this was an extensive redevelopment, you would expect it to close to the public for some time – and for the collection to be temporarily relocated.

So to recap…

On 9 November The Echo runs a story saying it could close.

On 12 November Cabinet meets and paves the way for the museum’s closure to permit the works at Wat Tyler.

On 4 December or before, the  Motorboat Museum posts a story on its website saying that as of 4 December the Motorboat Museum is to be closed and its collection repatriated.

Look again at that press comment. It is written in the clever spin-speak you come to expect of politicians and bureaucrats who want you to reach their conclusion: “now only visited by about 10 per cent of visitors to the park annually”. It is the language of minimisation, when you want to make something less significant.

But remember what Councillor Horgan said of “The Woodsman” and Wat Tyler Park? It bears repeating:

“The woodsman is a well loved piece of public art, and we believe that a new home at Wat Tyler Country Park is more suitable and appropriate, where he will be appreciated by the hundreds of thousands of people that visit the park each year.”

Note the figure: hundreds of thousands. Ten percent of hundreds of thousands means that the Motorboat Museum was being visited by tens of thousands of people annually. A rather more impressive figure than we are led to believe by the figure of ten percent. Indeed, the Cabinet report of 12 November is very specific about Wat Tyler’s projected visitors: numbers are projected to increase to 450,000 in two years. That means that the Council are acknowledging that the museum would receive 45,000 visitors a year in the next two years.

I don’t think 45,000 visitors is an insignificant number for a museum that I doubt has been widely promoted in recent years. (If you have time, the Cabinet report is worth a read – it is riddled with contradictions which it has been suggested to me is the product of repeated redrafting and editing.)

The Motorboat Museum is a registered museum with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. As such, upon closure, certain protocols have to be followed to ensure that the collection is properly dispersed (I am not certain, but I presume that this is so that items in the collection can be traced). I have seen correspondence which reassures me that those protocols are being followed. However, the fact remains that the collection as was is no longer intact and a sizeable number of the boats have already been relocated.

Personally, I don’t believe the Council has invested any serious effort in maintaining the integrity of the collection. I have nothing against taking funding from Government for a new green education centre. However, if the Council were bothered enough, they could have sought to preserve this nationally significant collection. I think that when the meeting was held on 12 November, the decision had already been taken privately by administration councillors that they were no longer interested in the Motorboat Museum. They wanted to be rid of it – and the “hassle” of looking after its collection. If I am wrong, and I hope I am, then we will see plans coming forward to preserve and display the remaining boats. After all, all options are still open. Or were.

For once, Basildon was able to lay claim to providing a home to a nationally significant collection (if you Google “”motorboat museum” basildon” you get over 8,000 hits). The Motorboat Museum was a landmark institution – and I don’t recall Basildon Council Tax payers being consulted as to whether Basildon should continue to provide that home.

Irrespective of local people’s views, the fact is Basildon no longer is.

Once again, the Tories have demonstrated their complete contempt for our local and national heritage – and taken us all for suckers.

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Over on basildonFOCUS, my colleagues and I have launched a survey regarding the forthcoming discussion at Council on Borough status (Wed 24 February 2010). If you live in Basildon and want your views to be heard, please take a few moments to click the relevant buttons.

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It is a sobering email to find yourself sending in the days immediately after Christmas:

Dear Ambassador Fu Ying,

I write to express my deep concern for Akmal Shaikh, who faces execution in China on December 29.

Akmal’s family has pleaded for his life to be spared, and my heart is with them at this terrible time. Akmal’s death, particularly during this holiday season, would destroy his children, his brother and his elderly mother, and tear the family apart.

I know that the Chinese people care deeply about family and I would like to join Akmal’s children in begging for mercy for their father.

This unusual case is not about politics, but about humanity and compassion — values that we share with the Chinese people. My plea to the Chinese authorities is based on the greatest respect for Chinese culture and for these shared values.

yours sincerely,

Ben Williams

If you’ve not done so yet, I would urge you to send it as soon as you can: to the Chinese Ambassador on secretary@chinese-embassy.org.uk and to the Prime Minister via the Number 10 website.

The case of Akmal Shaikh makes for tragic reading and one that, having had cause to have contact with mental health services in the UK, is very believable in terms of the circumstances of his arrest and subsequent explanation of events. Chinese criminal law recognises that mental incapacity reduces criminal responsibility, though the stark way it is written up in the Chinese criminal law suggests that there is a tremendous onus on the defendant to demonstrate diminution of responsibility due to mental ill health at the time the crime was committed.

Whilst the lack of facilities for the treatment of mental illness is a constant source of criticism in the British justice system, particularly in terms of prison care (see this BBC report for more info), a huge library of case law has been developed to help with the interpretation of circumstances (e.g. Wiki Mental Health, a continuously updated online database for professionals who need to understand mental health and the law). China has a powerfully symbolic opportunity to reveal a similarly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of mental health. At the same time it would demonstrate that it is prepared to engage the language-deficient West in terms of European liberal democratic criminal law that can be readily understood.

For me, as citizen of country that is looking to foster enhanced trade relations with China’s provinces, and who has found himself having a small but real part in the conversation about such relationships, such a gesture would be a resonant signal that the identification of a shared global future is not some self-justifying, post-colonial Western construct – but a definite objective rooted in the practical, hard-nosed give-and-take of international politics and appreciated by a modern China willing to embrace the world.

***

Basildon District Council recently took part in a trade delegation organised by Essex County Council. Two councillors and two officers took part in the visit, which was to the Changzhou area of China’s Jiangsu province. It was reported by the Basildon Echo in this report. It was reported to the last Cabinet meeting (see item 7 on the Agenda) and received support as an initiative from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups (see Minute 812). Conservative Councillor Stephen Horgan, Deputy Leader of Basildon Council, was a member of that delegation and his blog report can be read here.

On November 7th, prior to the visit, I wrote to Conservative Councillor Tony Ball, Council Leader, raising amongst other things the imprisonment by the Jiangsu authorities of Guo Quan, the pro-democracy campaigner (see this Financial Times report). Guo Quan was the author of an open letter to the Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo calling for democratic government and multi-party elections [NB the later references to Falun Gong are disputed, apparently not appearing in the original Chinese version].  In my email, acknowledging the positive step this trade mission represented for Basildon, I made the following statement:

“As locally-elected politicians, we are the public face of a district that has been politically and economically shaped at a fundamental level by healthy competition between political parties. I hope you share my view that it is important to account for our robust democratic values in any dealings in Jiangsu Province and not see them set aside or devalued because they are in some way inconvenient.”

I don’t know if that statement was pompous, naïve or entirely appropriate.

I am yet to receive a response.

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Tim Montgomerie has tweeted that today is the 30th anniversary of the Right to Buy Scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher.  There is no doubt in my mind that it is a policy that has fundamentally altered the shape and original purpose of the New Town concept, creating something of an identity crisis for these sprawling conurbations which local politicians of all parties are struggling to overcome. As suppliers of social housing on enormous scales, the New Towns, like Basildon, were inspired by the concept of  Garden Cities, in a time when big government still believed it could socially engineer society. The New Towns Act was passed in 1946 and, between then and 1970, 21 New Towns were built. In a glorious piece of propaganda, the Central Office of Information attempted to explain the concept of these sustainable living areas in an informative cartoon about an ordinary bloke called Charley:

Many of the concepts are eerily prescient in an era when we are concerned with carbon footprints and quality leaving spaces. It’s important to remember, however, that the New Towns are entirely artificial. Unlike other villages, towns and cities, the New Towns had no historic focal point to draw people together. Indeed, in most cases, a huge amount of effort was put into destroying the character and history of the original area, instead of building in sympathy with it. This parliamentary exchange from 1954, between Mr Bernard Braine (as he was then) and Sir Thomas Dugdale reveals how pressure for development land was paramount. In Basildon, this has led to local people asking serious questions about the origins of the place they live in and fighting hard to save what little remains of the pre-New Town identity (e.g. the efforts of the Chalvedon Hall Community Group).

When places are shiny and new, they are usually attractive places to live. However, a home, in its broadest understanding, is not just the fabric of the building – it is the infrastructure that supports a community: roads, utilities and recreational facilities amongst others. The prospect of a new home and services beyond the imagining must have seemed incredible to those leaving the bomb-shattered ruins of the East End. However, with the provision of social housing on unprecedented scales as the foundation of the New Town, it seems obvious with hindsight that  “Right to Buy” would have an enormous effect on their purpose and future expansion.

Don’t get me wrong: “Right to Buy” and its promotion of home ownership encapsulates a fundamentally liberal aspiration. I wouldn’t suggest turning back the clock. However, by encouraging the social housing stock to be sold off, without permitting local authorities to use the proceeds of sale to provide new social housing,  Thatcher effectively destroyed this visionary concept of confident, sustainable communities.  On a social level, the gap between those who could afford to buy and those who could not became immediately visible in the heart of local communities.  On a planning level, physical expansion was required to attempt to meet the needs of those who had been promised a home but for whom there were few council properties available.

Skip forward thirty years and look at the situation of the New Towns now.

Just as they were built at a similar time, their infrastructure is coming to the end of its life at the same time. What would have been an incredible headache for local and national government in any event has been exacerbated by the pressure placed on New Town roads, services and utilities. Doctors surgeries overflow, roads and footpaths crumble, drains and pipes block and burst as capacity is exceeded – and new development encroaches more and more onto the green belts that were designated to provide recreational relief from the urban environment, preserve the distinct identity of urban communities and retain a much-needed connection to our environment. There is a danger in the South East, with regional initiatives such as the Thames Gateway redevelopment, that towns and villages may simply disappear into an anonymous morass of urban sprawl. Government risks failing again to grasp that communities are self-determining and not engineered, spending vast quantities of taxpayers’ money on enormous and totemic projects instead of stimulating the local economy by assuring the basic fabric of the places in which we already live.

“Right to Buy” is not to blame for the ills of the New Town. However, just as we can appreciate the liberation of the individual and the creation of opportunities to satisfy aspiration that it represented, so we should recognise that the fundamental mistakes of its implementation, driven by Thatcher’s peculiarly ideological politics, have contributed significantly to the difficulties faced by local government in sustaining these enormous and artificial conurbations. More importantly, and regardless of government (local and national), the fact that local communities are determined to preserve their past is a reassuring demonstration of the hunger of local people to know and own the identity of the wider space in which they live.

If you are interested in the campaign to save Great Chalvedon Hall, please contact Gary on greatchalvedonhall@hotmail.co.uk who will be able to let you know how you can help.

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