Contested spaces…

Dave – the editor

Back in May on our sister project, Alternative Estuary, we published this piece eulogising the value of being able to access open space during lockdown: Reflections on the value of a park. The park in question is on the western edge of Stanford-le-Hope and was created from part of an old golf course by a housing developer as one of the conditions for being granted permission to build houses on the rest of it. As with most developer created parks, it could have been done better. Also it would be good if the park actually had a name!

Despite all of this, during lockdown this park provided a valuable opportunity for local residents to get out and get some exercise. The benefits of having access to open space during lockdown weren’t just physical but mental as well. Being able to get out to somewhere that’s open, green, has extensive views over the estuary and where you can connect with nature did make a crucial difference to the mental health of many people during the difficult months of lockdown.

It’s not all idyllic though. There have been and will continue to be points where this park is a contested space, particularly at the weekends. There’s an element of scrambler bikers and quad bikers who sometimes like to make use of the park as well. If you look closely at the image at the top of this post, you can see the tracks made by the quad bikes. As you can imagine, the dog walkers, nature lovers, young lovers and those who want a quiet contemplative walk do not want to be constantly on edge fearing a quad or scrambler bike hurtling round the corner towards them!

Part of the area where the park is and a long concrete track running along the south western edge of the park have been a regular haunt of the quad and scrambler bikers for a few years before the park was created. Because of the informal, unorganised type of biking that was taking place, they were regarded as a nuisance by the authorities, so no attempt was made to help them find a more permanent location for their activities when the park was created. To be fair, the bikers don’t always use the new park, they also use a long abandoned quarry next door to it.

Quad biking is a bit more of a recent thing over the last two to three decades. Scrambler biking has been going on for a fair few decades longer. As far back as 1973 on the way down to Coalhouse Fort, I can remember seeing scrambler bikes zooming around old sand and gravel quarries alongside Buckingham Hill Road. This is part and parcel of what has been going on in Thurrock for decades and the fact there isn’t a permanent site for their activities where they can charge around to their heart’s content away from residents and walkers beggars belief.

Currently the situation is that quad and scrambler bikers are treated as a nuisance and subjected to fairly frequent police operations which effectively criminalises them. It’s a classic ‘them and us’ situation which has been set up so it will go on for ages to come. When you take a step back from this, it’s clear this situation benefits no one. Quad and scrambler biking are most definitely not our types of activities! We prefer the quiet contemplative walks in the countryside. However, just because these are activities we wouldn’t ever engage in, on the basis of ‘live and let live’, we don’t want to see them constantly criminalised.

A solution really needs to be found. Preferably one that evolves from within the community and comes from a mix of hard talking, developing a mutual understanding of the varying needs of the people who use open spaces in Thurrock and some flexibility and imagination from a local landowner willing to accommodate the bikers. Also a willingness for the quad and scrambler bikers to sign a waiver to the effect that they are responsible for their own health and safety while charging around. A community led solution, while it may be hard work to achieve, is a considerably more desirable solution that relying on the cops.

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