At the back end of last year, we wrote this piece about plans to refurbish the Thurrock Council offices in New Road, Grays: Never mind us plebs, just build yourselves some shiny new offices! It would seem that despite a considerable amount of scepticism from local residents, the Tory administration are determined to go ahead with these plans: Leader stands firm on new council office plan. Their justification is that it will ‘provide an inspiration and leadership for the regeneration of Grays’. Hubris that’s matched by Southend Borough Council spending a small fortune on ‘artfully’ assembled piles of rusty iron in a bid to tart up the approach to Southend High Street: Screwed priorities…

In an age of permanent austerity when frontline services are being hammered, there’s a disturbing trend for local authorities to focus on projects that present a positive image of their main towns to outsiders while behind the facade, everything is crumbling. From inadequate social services, decaying peripheral estates through to potholed roads that never seem to get properly mended, many residents feel the neighbourhoods they live in are in permanent decline. Yet in the midst of all of this, councils always seem to be able secure funding from central government, property deals and the like to spend on projects that focus on presentation as opposed to substance.

We live in an age where surface image and presentation seem to be all important while undertaking anything that makes a real difference to peoples lives gets pushed down the priority order. When local authorities start splashing the cash on town centre re-generation, there’s generally an agenda. That agenda is to advertise to property developers that the town is ‘open for business’. The ‘business’ concerned normally means the kind of property developments that force working class people out to the margins on the peripheral estates. Alongside of this, is the replacement of cheap, cheerful and popular cafes and small shops that provide a service to those on low and modest incomes by more upmarket restaurants and boutique style shops serving a more affluent demographic.

Basically, we’re talking about tarting up town centres being part of the conscious facilitation of social cleansing. The shops that operate in and around Grays town centre are there because they know they have a market they can serve. They reflect the demographic of the town. Because of that, there’s a fair bit of choice available for needs based shopping. Sure, there are always incremental cosmetic improvements that can be undertaken and yes, safety at the level crossing could be better but by and large, the town centre in Grays works. Anyone objecting to what they see in the retail offering available in Grays and supporting ‘regeneration’ that would take the town centre ‘upmarket’ quite probably has a bit of a racist agenda.

The jargon term for tarting up a town centre is ‘place-making’. This is the Trojan Horse for the kind of regeneration that leads to social cleansing. What it leaves behind is a bland, carefully controlled environment that will welcome you if you have money to spend, preferably lots of it. If you’re shopping on a budget, you’ll be less welcome. So, when local councils talk about transforming town centres, look behind the facade to work out what they really want to achieve then do all you can to oppose what will effectively be an agenda of social cleansing.