Directed by Christopher Ian Smith
Produced by Margaret Matheson
New Town Utopia website
New Town Utopia Facebook

Last night (Thursday 26th July) four of us from South Essex Working Class Action went to the Towngate Theatre in Basildon for a screening of New Town Utopia. This is a film looking at Basildon through the eyes of its artists, asking what happened to the original, optimistic vision of what the new town could be in light of the current grim reality that we’re all too familiar with.

These are the words of the MP Lewis Silkin Smith, the Minister for Town & Country Planning in 1949 when Basildon New Town was founded: “Basildon will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit. It will be a place where all classes of community can meet freely together on equal terms and enjoy common cultural recreational facilities.” These words were read at the beginning of the film over panning shots of what are now worn and all too often, badly maintained housing estates across Basildon. As you can imagine, this did raise a few cynical guffaws from the audience!

The ambition of Lewis Silkin Smith was undeniably utopian. For the early residents moving out of cramped, inadequate housing in a bomb damaged London in the 1950s and 1960s, the new homes in Basildon did seem like a dream come true to many of them. Along with the plentiful jobs in the industrial areas with employers like Ford, Ilford, Carreras and Yardley plus the ongoing work in the building trade as the town grew, a lot of the original inhabitants felt like they really had landed on their feet.

At this point, a question needs to be asked – can utopia be delivered by top down planning? Given our anarchist leanings, we’d have to conclude that the answer to that is no. Some of the estates in Basildon were laid out on what can best be described as ‘experimental’ lines with no dialogue with the residents who would be moving into them. When a Labour Councillor, Joe Morgan, was invited to say a few words at the opening of the Five Links estate in Laindon, as a result of the complex layout that led to him getting lost, he described the place as being like Alcatraz and then went on his way!

Also when you consider that a fair chunk of Basildon New Town was built over existing plotland settlements, particularly in Laindon to the west and Pitsea to the east, it could be argued that an informal arcadia was destroyed to make way for an elitist vision of utopia. This is something we’ll return to in the future.

When did it all start to go wrong? There are a number of factors that led to the utopian vision never being realised and the undertow of dystopia that we’re all too familiar with emerging. One was the build quality where a lot of the town was built to a price rather than a standard resulting in estates, public buildings and shopping areas that have not aged well. Another was the de-industrialisation that started in the 1980s and over the subsequent decades led to the replacement of reasonable quality manufacturing jobs with increasingly precarious warehouse and distribution jobs on considerably less money.

Then there was the ‘right to buy’ which really got underway in the 1980s when the Thatcher government heavily promoted it. The public housing stock that was sold off was never replaced. As for what was brought by former tenants, it’s a mixed story. Some stayed and were still part of a community. Some sold up after a few years and moved off to pastures new. On a number of estates, these houses have been brought up by private landlords as well as an increasing number of London based housing associations. As we know only too well on the Vange Hill estate, there are now too many slum landlords willing to cram as many tenants on short term leases into properties they undertake the bare minimum of maintenance on. This re-creates the cramped, insanitary slum conditions that the original inhabitants of Basildon thought they’d left behind when they left London!

Then there’s the loss of the public sphere. The clubs and facilities where kids could go to engage in activities that enabled them to do anything from letting off steam to expressing their creativity started to go from the 1980s onwards. The parks that were planned into the new town to provide green lungs have over the decades been given less and less in the way of maintenance and all too often, are now seen as assets to be flogged off to the developers as happened with part of Gloucester Park.

There was the Arts Centre in Towngate, built as a temporary theatre at a cost of £100,000 and re-named the Towngate Theatre and Arts Centre in January 1976 (this was the predecessor of the current Towngate Theatre). This was a blank canvas which people like Vin Harrop opened up to the people of the town to express themselves as they wanted with guidance and encouragement as necessary. Public facilities such as this played a part in the do it yourself cultural scene that has characterised Basildon. It’s the artists spawned by this scene with their complex mix of love and loathing for the town who drive the New Town Utopia film with their observations and feelings.

Some people might see the 1980s as the heyday of this do it yourself culture. That in part was down to the emergence of Alison Moyet and Depeche Mode in that period. The 1980s were a period of social and political strife which was an inspiration to a lot of people. It was also a period where you would get coachloads of people travelling from Basildon to Rock Against Racism concerts and CND marches in London. The film captured the sense that at that point, people felt it was possible to act and achieve change, culturally and politically.

We can’t afford to look back and reminisce over a cultural and political scene that had more than a glimmer of promise. Hard times do inspire edgy, challenging culture. We’re in pretty grim times at the moment. While there aren’t the spaces there were in the 1980s to nurture that culture, when push comes to shove, people will find a way to express themselves. Unlike the 1980s, we have the Internet and social media to help push out cultural expression. As for the politics, trust us, we’re doing what we can!

The thing about a film like New Town Utopia is that it’s a snapshot in time. Basildon is changing. Part of that is down to a continuing outward movement of people from London. Some of that is voluntary, some of that is enforced as a result of social cleansing from the capital. New people mean new experiences, ideas and different ways of expressing them. What can be said is that given the council’s lack of interest in culture, the way the younger generation and the newer arrivals to the town express themselves creatively will still have something in common with the early 1980s – it will still have an element of do it yourself about it.

Would we recommend that people see New Town Utopia? Absolutely… But, be prepared to come out of viewing the film feeling choked as some of us did on the realisation of what has been lost and how much work has to be done to rekindle the spark that will not only get people expressing themselves creatively but also fighting for real change.

Dave (the editor)