‘Regeneration’ – the only way is up

These are just a few of the high rise apartment blocks mooted for Basildon town centre. If these are built, it will lose the open spacious feel that was integral to the vision of the new town planners.

There’s a pattern emerging with the so called ‘regeneration’ of suburban towns and new towns. Namely shoving up as many high rise apartment blocks as the developers think they can get away with!

A ‘consultation’ on the masterplan drawn up by Basildon Council for the town centre concluded back in the summer. This has been followed by ‘consultations’ from developers for specific developments they’re proposing. How can you have a ‘masterplan’ for the town centre without any consideration as to how the rest of Basildon plus the satellite towns of Laindon, Pitsea, Wickford and Billericay fit into it? It’s not exactly joined up thinking is it?

A holistic vision that is owned by and benefits everyone right across Basildon is needed. From reviving local centres through to improvements in public transport, cycle ways and pedestrian routes, there’s a lot that could be done to make life better for everyone across Basildon. Improvements that would respect the original vision for the new town while accommodating the need to reduce dependency on cars. That vision being to provide a green, spacious environment for people moving out from London to live and thrive in.

What isn’t in any doubt is that the town centre of Basildon needs a re-vamp. Residents and visitors to the town can see and feel that the place is looking tired and needs more than a cosmetic facelift. With the changes that were already happening in retail before the COVID-19 crisis hit, it was becoming clear that town centres have to be about more than shops if they are to play a positive role for their surrounding communities. The lockdown that was a response to the COVID-19 crisis has only served to accelerate the changes in retail which make the questions about what a town centre is for all the more urgent.

The point is that any discussion about this has to fully involve the residents of Basildon and also those who work there and visit the town centre. Rigged and piecemeal ‘consultations’ simply don’t cut it. All residents have had is a series of proposals run in front of them to say yay or nay to. What should have happened was residents being actively involved from the start in developing the proposals to re-develop the town centre. Obviously, that would only happen in an ideal world and the one we live is far from that!

What are the residents of Basildon getting? A citadel of high rise apartments, situated within easy walking distance of the railway station with frequent train services to whisk people in and out of London. A new community of commuters whose focus will be on their jobs in the capital and not on the town they live in. A high tech, high rise dormitory that will have little to do with the rest of the town. This has nothing to do with improving the lives of people across Basildon. A ‘masterplan’ that focuses almost exclusively on the town centre with little consideration as to how it relates to the rest of Basildon has to be seen for what it is – the facilitation of the wet dreams of the property developers.

What happens with the housing crisis in London has a ripple effect all the way out into Essex. One of those effects is that an increasing number of people who work in London cannot afford to live there. That’s not just the low paid workers whose graft keeps the capital functioning but also a growing number of middle income workers in the finance, media and information technology sectors. Callaghan and his developer mates are not at all interested in providing accommodation for these low paid workers in Basildon – what they are very interested in is attracting the middle income workers.

This is a thinly disguised project of social engineering to attract a youngish, more affluent, digitally savvy demographic to come and live in one of the new towers, so why bother with the rest of Basildon? The residents of the new towers will most likely be commuting into London or working from home in the ‘digital economy’. They may quite possibly choose to work from one of the new, trendy coffee bars that are part of the vision for the reimagined town centre. For the most part, they will not fully become part of or belong to Basildon.

There always will be a demand for flats. The problem is the sheer scale of what’s being proposed. There’s a world of difference between well designed blocks of flats surrounded by landscaped grass, planting and trees, and the high density, dystopian looking hell towers that are being foisted upon us. In theory, the principle of building residential properties in town centres is quite sound. Historically, most of our town and city centres had a significant amount of homes in them up until the 20th century when thinking on urban planning and zoning started to change. If the proposed residential units in Basildon and Romford town centres were designed to a human scale, didn’t rise any higher than 6-8 storeys, all came with balconies and were genuinely affordable to rent, people would be more supportive of them.

What we’re getting instead are high rise hell towers that do nothing to solve local housing needs. Which is why opposition to the plans even at this seemingly late stage has to continue and intensify.

It’s not just Basildon that’s threatened with a rash of high rise apartments that will do zilch to meet existing housing needs in the area. It’s happening in Romford as well. The spur to the proposed rash of high rise apartments targeted at single or childless working couples there is the eventual completion of the Crossrail project.

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