These were our initial thoughts on the much hyped masterplan for Basildon town centre: Some brief thoughts on the ‘masterplan’ for Basildon town centre. Now we’ve had time to think things over, we’d like to return to some of the points we raised and deal with them in a bit more depth.

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.

We’re in a situation where physical distancing and all the other measures brought in to deal with the COVID-19 crisis look like they will be with us for some time, quite possibly years. One significant part of the masterplan was boosting the night time economy with an arena at Westgate, the cinema that’s now under construction by East Walk and more bars, cafes and restaurants. If physical distancing, handing over personal contact details at the door and being served by masked and expressionless staff is going to be with us for years as part of the ‘new normal’, will people still be willing to go out under these circumstances? We certainly wouldn’t be willing to subject ourselves to this kind of controlled misery. We can imagine quite a few people feeling the same way. That leaves a bit of a question mark over the leisure component of the masterplan.

If the leisure part of the masterplan is less viable because of the life of controlled misery that looks to be our future, what remains of the vision that Cllr. Gavin Callaghan (Lab) has for the town centre? Well, you only have to look at the numerous visuals being circulated depicting how the town centre could look and there’s your answer – tower after tower of high rise apartment blocks! These blocks aren’t an ‘add on’ to the masterplan, they’re a core part of it.

Over the years, we’ve written more posts than we care to remember about the housing crisis in London and how what happens in the capital 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.

In our previous post on the masterplan, we questioned the rationale behind it being solely focused on the town centre to the detriment of the rest of Basildon and the outlying towns. Well, when it’s 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, 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 in one of the new, trendy coffee bars that are part of the vision for the reimagined town centre.

Apart from possibly visiting nearby Gloucester Park, it’s doubtful whether the new residents of the new towers will have much to do with the rest of Basildon. With all they need in the way of trendy cafes and bars on their doorstep in the town centre and easy access to the railway station and a relatively swift journey into London, they will have no need to venture out to the rest of Basildon. Should the COVID-19 induced faffing around with digitally submitting personal details every time you want a coffee, a drink and/or a meal persist, the new residents are more likely to be the kind of demographic who’ll be happy to go along with this.

The point has been made that as we are supposedly in the age of the pandemic, with more lockdowns likely, what would life be like for residents in these towers? If as we suspect, they’re the demographic who can easily switch to working from home, providing they can get the essentials of life delivered, they’ll probably be okay. With physical distancing and masking, intentionally or not, we’re all being conditioned to get used to less in the way of meaningful, real life face to face communication and more used to interacting with each other digitally. So long as the internet and wi-fi holds out, they’ll cope. Personally speaking, this is our idea of hell…

This is why the masterplan has no meaningful relevance to the rest of Basildon and the outlying towns such as Wickford and Billericay. It’s a vehicle to use high rise apartments to socially engineer the town centre into something very different from what it is today. Make no mistake, the high rise towers are a key part of the plan. Take them out of the equation and we suspect that Callaghan and his developer mates would start to lose interest in regenerating the town centre because the money wouldn’t be there nor would the social engineering aspect which excites them.

As previously mentioned, we recognise that the town centre does need a serious rethink and a fair bit of rebuilding. We’re not complete Luddites who want to stand in the way of all change. The point is that any ‘re-imagining’ of the town centre has to be led by the residents of the town with input from those who shop and work there as well. It has to be a process that the residents of Basildon feel they have complete ownership over. What it feels like instead is that it’s something that’s being imposed with just a scant nod to ‘consultation’.

Also, it’s utterly wrong to discuss the future of any town centre without reference to what happens in the rest of the area. That’s particularly the case when it comes to a planned new town such as Basildon. A holistic vision that is owned by and benefits everyone right across Basildon is needed. We’ll repeat what we wrote in our previous post on the masterplan: “From reviving local centres through to improvements in public transport, cycle ways and pedestrian routes, there are a host of things that could be done to make life better for everyone right across Basildon. Improvements that would respect the original vision for the new town while accommodating the need to reduce dependency on cars. The original vision being to provide a green, spacious environment for people moving out from London to live and thrive in. Okay, we know that vision never fully materialised but that’s no excuse to totally reject it.”

Fortunately, there appears to be considerable opposition to the proposed dystopian, high rise hellscape in Basildon town centre. The launch of this campaign – Say NO to High Rise Hell in Basildon Town Centre – really has put the ‘masterplan’ for Basildon town centre under the spotlight. Callaghan is already getting rattled by this – rightly so in our opinion.