It was in 1963 when as a boy my family moved to near Fossets Farm, part of the green belt land on the Rochford side of Eastern Avenue, between Sutton Road and Hamstel Road. I was given to understand that no building would happen on that land, which was deemed to be sacrosanct. I have lived in that area ever since, and for a time chaired the local residents association, wistfully remembering the days I could walk toward Shopland, enjoing the green open spaces.
A lot of changed since then, starting in 1968 when the school I was leaving, Wentworth HSB, became a comprehensive school, Cecil Jones, and joined with Wentworth HSG, together moving to a new site, the first to be built on this greenbelt land. Ever since, there have been developments, the latest being the expected relocation of Southend United football club, and THEN the biggie – houses – which is the subject of this article. While I am saddened by the loss of greenbelt land, for (surprising maybe given my climate change views) environmental reasons and the town centre is further degenerated (a bad thing), I have bowed to the inevitable, providing it benefits the community. Besides, we need many more houses.
I was somewhat surprised, albeit pleasantly, when a couple of weeks back I was asked by a group that hitherto I knew little about, Fossets for the People, nor the campaign they are running, to be part of their panel in a public meeting they were holding (see memes below). It meant I needed to do my homework to best understand the issues, suspecting others on the panel knew more than me (which proved to be the case) and given the feel of their website (see here) and Facebook page (see here) it became clear they were pretty much sold on the idea the development should be for Council houses.
Part of their blurb was “We want to see Southend Council build up to 400 new council & keyworker homes for rent to families and people from #Southend on the land recently sold off by the #NHS at Fossetts Farm (NOTHING to do with SUFC new stadium plot). This land will be developed regardless. We want that development to benefit the community who are in need of low rent social housing and not benefit a large corporate company’s pocket who’ll build unaffordable luxury homes.” According to one of my more knowledgeable sources the land (as shown in the map above) was given over to the NHS, who couldn’t / wouldn’t use it, who sold it on to Homes England for circa £7 million, with the idea now being to sell this to developers to build less houses, more at the higher end.
Armed with this knowledge, I went along to this well-organized but disappointingly turned out meeting, and enjoyed meeting old friends and new, impressed by the dedication and knowledge of those present. When it came to panel contribution, mine was the least, but sometimes it is better to simply listen and learn and figure out what to do with this newly gained knowledge. It was no surprise to learn that most of the panel supported the FFTP proposal and were in no doubt what they understood by “affordable”, and coming to the view this can only be achieved by building Council houses. The bigger disappointment was that two people invited to join the panel: local MP James Duddridge and the Homes England representative, who could provide alternative perspectives, declined the invitation to attend, which was duly noted by empty chairs.
The reason I was invited on the panel was because I chair an organization called Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) (see here) and might be able to offer a homeless perspective. This I did but people did not need convincing that Southend does have a sizable homeless community and because of the dire shortage of affordable accommodation many who are housed are beholden to rogue landlords. While I did not leave the meeting completely sold on FFTP’s proposal, realizing there will be practical considerations like can the Council manage such a large project, what regularity hurdles and government obstruction is there to overcome and if it is going to be a private developer (or a housing association masquerading as social landlords) then a profit motive won’t be far away, besides which there is also a demand for higher end housing and if that is satisfied it may help relieve the pressure at the lower end. It was a shame the two people who could have been quizzed on points like this weren’t there to present their case. It was good one of the Southend Councillor cabinet members, Martin Terry, was present. He declared support for FFTP aims but I reckon he will now have to be made partly accountable to how the Council responds.
One of the many helpful snippets arising from the meeting was about the Southend Local Plan, which I have contributed toward and discussed at SHAN but we had earlier overlooked this point, and it made me realise it is still somewhat woolly regarding this particular development or the underlying philosophy when it comes to building more affordable housing. An even more helpful one was by the campaign expert on the panel that if we don’t act as a matter of urgency we may find that the development will be sold off for as per the mooted plan of Homes England under our feet despite the land being a public asset and the indignant objections of a few campaigners. The general feeling was they and our local MP were unlikely to do much to help it and there was a fear that our local council may be too inept to take appropriate action, and my fear that resident apathy when it comes to raising objections will dominate. But I salute the efforts of FFTP and part of my response is this blog and alerting folk. As a suggestion, it will be helpful for interested parties to be kept abreast of developments and what we the people can do as well as the challenge of enthusing an apathetic public. I suspect there will be factors we will have little control over e.g. government (although arguably we can to a small extent through the ballot box) and negotiating a system that is not transparent.
In rounding things off, I should address the issue of politics, knowing of those who did not attend the meeting because they saw it as Labour run. I suspect, albeit without doing too deep an analysis, that many involved with FFTP are Labour supporters but I judge that the issues raised are too important to be confined to any one political party. There many people who do much for the homeless that could be labelled far right and adverse to campaigning but will testify that the human cost (that can also translate to money) of our current housing crisis is huge and something needs to be done. Dare I say it, it can start with the Fossets Farm development. I am a political neutral and am undecided who to vote for in December’s election, but on Saturday’s showing I have been more impressed on this issue by the Labour candidate than the Conservative one. Socialism and conservatism are two ideologies that are flawed (imho) but when it comes to building more Council Houses, while I can see the practicalities that preclude this, I believe that is what is needed for the Fossetts Farm development simply because we do have a housing crisis which while alleviated by building more homes, still begs the question regarding those on low incomes.