May 18, 2021

Basildon was originally forbidden from having a railway station. When it was built, in the 1950s, it was meant to be Somewhere. As a shortcut to developing that sense of place, and with the breathtaking arrogance of the age, the planners simply decreed that Basildon would be an inward-focused town. It was designed to be a patchwork of low-rise suburbs, heavily zoned — its new community life located around the big new factories that formed its economic motor.

Back then, the idea was that if you managed to get a job in one of those factories — Yardley, say, or Ford, or Rothmans — then a council house was yours. It was a covenant that saw thousands flock from the Blitzed-out East End. In short order, a New Town arose from a lonely countryside crossroads in Essex — one of the eight created within commuting distance of London by the 1946 New Towns Act, which also blessed Essex with Harlow.

Now, in 2021, a war is raging for the soul of BasildonA project has been proposed that would subject the town to a new, similarly epic, wave of migration. One that is the precise opposite of the planners’ original vision. And one that will rely almost entirely upon that (since built) railway station. It’s a project, in short, that would turn the town fully and finally into a suburb of Anywhere. And it’s a war that places this long-time political bellwether at the heart of a bigger national narrative: about what we want from our sense of place, and what it means to have “community”, at a point in the timeline when even our utopias seem shrunken. 

A billion pounds. A 26storey central tower. Nine other new high-rises within a few hundred metres. A 5,000-seater arena. A vow to create “the new hub of Essex”. Near-total demolition of the brutalist central precinct. The outgoing Labour-run town council’s attempt to re-fashion downtown comes with a level of ambition that feels cut from another age. It was repudiated in the local elections.

But no one could deny that something post-war in scale may be needed to save a precinct that has gone gangrenous. Almost 20% of Basildon’s central shops were shuttered even before Covid. Raquels, the once iconic nightclub where a young Depeche Mode honed their own glass-and-chrome vision of modernism, has been boarded up for 23 years, a monument to a vanished culture. Just beyond that tableau, in a block once filled by HMRC, London’s Haringey Council now barracks overspill tenants in office-conversion flats. Licks of paint are notable only by their absence.

Soon, though, Basildon could become the first New Town palimpsest. The old vision razed, and in its stead, a fresh kind of Metroland, built in a new vernacular: of biscuit brick and plate glass, endless plazas to nowhere, indistinguishable from what has gone up in Canary Wharf in recent years, or Salford Quays, or what’s coming up the tracks at Barking Riverside.

What no one seems to know is whether they should celebrate: whether being New gives Basildon the power to start all over again. Or whether any settled community has the right to simply stay settled, for good or ill. “The problem,” as 83-year-old local historian Vin Harrop puts it, “is that the sorts of people who could afford those flats are not the sorts of people who presently live here.” The new vision promises to shatter the white working-class tone of the place. Even though, in their own way, the incomers are as desperate to be housed as the original Blitzed-out cockneys. They would represent a new Precariat: those who can no longer afford the capital — first-homers, young families — but who still need to maintain a limbo existence just metres from the station, effectively on an umbilicus to London. Whether they interact with Basildon, what values they bring to the place, is almost moot: the design orients them entirely towards Fenchurch Street Station, and from there, the City.

On the side of a settled community’s right to be settled sits Jacob Hogg, local council candidate for the Basildon Community Residents Party — which has been set up to oppose the scheme. Hogg once worked with his dad in the building trade, and for St Mungos, caring for the town’s homeless. When I ask if he’s at least excited about the financial lifeline of a 15-year construction project, he shakes his head. “Modern building firms have their own people who they bring in. We won’t see any of it.” Surely there are secondary effects? Money trickles down, after all: every time a new resident needs a sandwich, or their boiler fixed. Yes and no, he admits. The Basildon Community Residents Party is only the tip of a deeper distrust. At heart, those he represents feel as though, time and again, a “solution” has been imposed on them from above.

Hogg points a finger round at the shops in the square, noting where the McDonalds used to be (it’s easy to lose all hope when even McDonald’s are abandoning you). “See, these ones have had their water and electric ripped out, so they don’t have to pay business rates,” he says. They’re just empty units. “The big development companies have been land banking for years.” They’ve been storing up these derelict hulks, just so that they can one day knock them down. This town didn’t die naturally, Hogg hints; it was murdered.

“It’s our heritage,” he says. “It’s not deep history, but it’s still history: they’ll never make places like this again.” He offers up a common complaint — that the reason Basildon is stuffed is that no one has ever invested in the central precinct. Yet it’s hard to pinpoint quite who the mysterious ‘they’ is who never invested. Basildon Council has changed hands repeatedly down the years: switching parties is almost its entire motif. So is it the voters, or the politicians who’ve brought the town to its knees?

Basildons residents just dont take pride in the place,” Vin Harrop complains, “I’ve tried for years to get an art gallery here. A museum, even. Something to give the people pride. Harlow has a lovely art gallery. But people here just aren’t interested…”

Perhaps that’s because, to be proud of something, first you need to define what it stands for — and Basildon’s character has always been elusive. Despite or perhaps because of its status as a political bellwether, it’s always been a place that has blown in the wind. This is the town that made Essex Man, the Eighties pollster’s perfect confection of a typical swing voter: dad was Labour, but he loved Thatcher for the chance to buy his council house. It’s the place whose re-election of Tory MP David Amess in 1992 first signalled that John Major would be returning to No 10.

But what Basildon seems to be a bellwether of lately is not so much party politics as simply alienation itself. These are the working classes for whom returning from Thatcherite Toryism to New Labour was the last throw of the dice on a dying dream, who’d sensed their town’s decline, and had sensed that Blair’s kinder gentler socialism might reverse that. Instead, it accelerated it. Yardley and Gordon’s Gin both finally shut up shop in 1998. As the whopping 68.6vote for Brexit shows, Basildon’s citizens are reacting against a certain top-down modern consensus — but perhaps not in a way that comes with its own positive vision of a future they want. 

Just as Henry Ford was supposed to have once said, “If I’d asked the public what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”, what Basildon Man desires at an individual level is essentially a pony on steroids. They’re not much moved by eco-villages, or integrated cycleways. The dream is still a kind of Barratt Home, twoup twodown with double parking and some greenery out back. It is perhaps the most English of things to want; castle-ownership is baked deep into the national psyche. Long ago, the lawyers and doctors who were meant to populate Basildon’s iconic downtown tower block, Brooke House, moved out to leafier detached homes in South Benfleet or Billericay. But from a planner’s point of view, the suburban home is neither interesting nor sexy — nor does it minimise unit costs, as a bouji flat on the 19th floor of a downtown tower certainly does.

The battle playing out in Basildon is the central one of the post-Thatcher era, between what’s good for us individually, versus collectively. But while the post-War central planners taught us important lessons about hubris, we’ve long since become pathologically gun-shy: one by one, all of our grand schemes have failed, and we have never replaced them. What is left is just a strange kind of out-of-control capitalist machine, running almost on auto-pilot, to the benefit of practically no one.

At present, that machine is propped up by a Labour council who don’t seem to have any thoughts about place or community or utopia. Indeed, in the 21st century, each party’s bold utopia is exactly the same: posh cinemas and a Franco Manca at ground level, beneath a score of poky two-bed flats, each with an identical windowless bathroom. But Basildon’s bellwether status has returned once more. After standing in stout opposition to the regeneration plan, the Tories took back control of the council in the May 2021 local elections. Their own schemes have yet to be revealed. Or whether they, in turn, will end up sandbagged by their opponents. Or whether the way through is simply to dream dreams too mediocre to be objectionable.

At some point, though, the deadlock must break, the town must choose. Either Basildon can embrace the globalised world, becoming a well-off satellite of Canary Wharf. Or it can get serious about investing in what cultural capital it does have. Right now, it’s Thatcherism without the success, Labour without the solidarity. If it refuses the Anywheres coming up from the City to colonise it, as well as the chance to invest in its own sense of Somewhere, then where exactly is Basildon? It isn’t even Nowhere.