Post Exodus - Marsh Farm's Communalist revolution

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Apr 13 21:06:12 BST 2011

Communalist revolution

A £50m regeneration scheme changed little, say 
residents of a deprived estate, so this time they 
want to do things their way. Alexandra Topping on the Marsh Farm radicals
Guardian, Wednesday 12 March 2008

On the wall of a slightly chaotic office on the 
Marsh Farm estate, on the outskirts of Luton, 
hangs a huge poster of revolutionary icon Che 
Guevara. Scrawled beneath are the words: "Hasta 
la victoria siempre" (Always, until victory). It 
is a phrase that captures the mood of the estate 
residents sitting around the table.

"We have ruffled a lot of feathers, and I don't 
think that by the end of this process there will 
be a lot of feathers unruffled," says Glenn 
Jenkins, the 44-year-old resident and chair of 
Marsh Farm Outreach (MFOR), a not-for-profit 
enterprise that promotes community involvement.

Jenkins is at the heart of a battle that has been 
going on at Marsh Farm since the area won 
government regeneration funding as part of the 
New Deal for Communities (NDC) in 2000. He says 
local residents have been consistently sidelined 
and excluded from the process. "We have learnt 
what it means to have your needs as a community 
ignored - to have a voice and not be heard," he says.

The tower blocks and low-rise 1960s semis of the 
Marsh Farm estate house a socially excluded 
population. Around 20% of young people over the 
age of 16 are still "neets" (not in education, 
employment or training), the average wage is 
around £16,000, and drug problems are rife. The 
estate earned brief notoriety in 1995 when 
disenchantment erupted into violence, with three 
days of riots. "These are the forgotten people," 
says Steve Williams, a local resident and member 
of MFOR. "There are people here who've been 
unemployed their whole lives. Whenever someone 
from here wants to better themselves, they move out."

But in 2000, the newly formed Marsh Farm 
Community Development Trust (MFCDT) - a coalition 
of residents, service providers and the council - 
became one of 39 of the most deprived communities 
to win £50m regeneration funding from the 
government's NDC. "Everyone was so positive," 
Williams recalls. "This £50m, if used in the 
right way, was going to change people's lives."

Eight years later, evidence of the area's 
transformation is scarce. The centre is largely 
unchanged, devoid of all but a few hardy 
shoppers, and the many problems that plagued 
Marsh Farm before the NDC cash show little sign 
of being eradicated. Critics argue that money has 
been frittered away, and are unhappy about the 
£3.1m spent on external consultants in the last eight years.

Graham Maunders, interim chief executive of the 
MFCDT, disagrees. He says: "Regeneration does not 
happen overnight, it takes a long time, But we 
have made inroads." He cites a 23% increase in 
the number of pupils gaining five A-C GCSEs in 
local schools, an 11% drop in crime, 62 new 
nursery places, and a number of new businesses created.

The NDC, conceived in the early days of the Blair 
government, aimed to be radically different from 
failed regeneration packages of the past. Instead 
of a top-down approach, communities would design 
and deliver the programme that would bring 
greater prosperity to their neighbourhoods. It is 
a vision that has gone badly wrong, according to some residents of Marsh Farm.

A "battle of conflicting visions" led to a 
damning - and, Jenkins claims, untrue - report 
commissioned by Luton council's public scrutiny 
committee in 2004 into the way the trust was 
being run. Jenkins offered to resign from the 
board of directors, demanding that the report be 
held to public scrutiny, but says his resignation 
was not accepted. An interim management team was 
put in place to make the trust into a more 
"Luton-council compliant" body, Jenkins claims. 
"The original development plan - the one that we 
won the bid with - was torn up."

Subsequently, elections to the trust's board were 
suspended in 2006 to enable continuity while the 
estate master plan was being debated, according 
to the trust. But in 2007, five elected resident 
board members departed after they took concerns 
about the way finances were being handled to Go 
East, the regional government office. Maunders 
says the directors were "removed", not "sacked". 
"Their conduct was such that the board could not 
continue," he says. "We encourage robust 
discussion and different points of view, but you 
have to argue through your case and the board has 
to reach decisions and move forward, otherwise it just can't function."

The original plan for Marsh Farm's regeneration 
had at its heart the acquisition and 
redevelopment of a former electronics factory, 
and the building was bought in early 2003 for 
£4.4m. But last autumn, the MFCDT announced that 
a new master plan - which would demolish the 
building to make way for new houses, and would 
involve building a considerably smaller Community 
Enterprise and Resource Centre on a nearby 
roundabout - would be its "preferred option".

Jenkins and his team canvassed the estate, and 
within three days had got 1,000 signatures on a 
petition demanding a public vote on the issue. In 
the resulting ballot, in which 350 people voted, 
64% of residents chose the original plan, option 
1, to redevelop the existing Community Enterprise 
and Resource Centre, rejecting the trust's recommendation, option 4A.

The trust will now pursue option 1, but because 
of concerns about costs, is preparing a business 
plan for option 4A as a back-up option, Maunders 
says. "There is a danger we won't get the funding 
unless we deliver something," he explains. "The 
board was concerned that if we get to a point in 
a few months' time and we find we can't deliver 
option 1, then all would be lost . . . hence the idea of having a substitute."

Jenkins is adamant that the trust now has a duty 
to respect local residents' decisions. "If they 
force through option 4A, they would be saying 
there is no such thing as local democracy," he insists.

Social enterprises

The vote has paved the way for the development of 
a multi-functional community hub, mooted in the 
original development plan, with community 
services, business centre and social space. It 
will also contain a series of a social 
enterprises, known as the Organisation Workshop, 
which aims to start up several community 
businesses - including an MOT centre, indoor 
children's play park, and a builders' cooperative.

The workshop is a response to research from the 
New Economics Foundation, which revealed that, in 
the UK, if just 10% of annual spending on 
everyday public services was redirected to 
services delivered locally by local people and 
businesses, the equivalent of 15 times total 
annual regeneration spend would go directly into those communities.

Marsh Farm's 3,200 dwellings have a "GDP" of 
around £94m, but only a fraction of that is spent 
in the area, according to the 2005 report, 
Plugging the Leaks. Ruth Potts, spokeswoman for 
the New Economics Foundation, says a new approach 
is needed because of the limited impact of past 
government regeneration funding. "Often, 
government money that enters an area leaves 
almost immediately, to pay for external 
contractors for physical redevelopment, for 
example," she says. "For regeneration to work, it 
absolutely has to involve and harness the 
potential of the local community by creating 
locally embedded responses to local needs."

The workshop - an idea that has been successful 
in Africa and South America, but has never been 
attempted in a developed country - is radically 
different from other regeneration programmes, 
Jenkins claims. It will employ "hard-to-reach" 
residents - the long-term unemployed, for 
example, who, after an initial eight-week 
training period, will "learn by doing", guided by expert mentors.

The workshop has the continued backing of the 
trust and key partners, despite wrangling over 
the master plan. It is also supported by the 
neighbourhood renewal unit of the Department for 
Communities and Local Government, even though it 
has labelled the scheme "novel and contentious". 
But with so much riding on its success, is the 
workshop not an unacceptable risk? Williams says: 
"Why do they have to keep regenerating these 
areas? Because previous attempts haven't worked. 
We have the biggest stake in pulling this off in 
Marsh Farm because in 2010, when all these people 
[the development trust] have gone, we still live here."


Jenkins laughs at the suggestion that they are 
trying to create a communist mini-state on the 
outskirts of Luton. "This is not communism - that 
was all top-down," he says. "This is about 
community development from the grassroots up, and 
the creation of a micro-economy. We're communalists, not communists."

He admits that the last eight years have been 
difficult, but he now wants to focus on the 
opportunity the workshop can provide. Perhaps 
taking inspiration from the resilience of the 
more famous revolutionary pinned to his wall, he 
says: "If at the end of it, after eight years of 
struggle, we manage to create a sustainable way 
of making 100 new jobs and rebuilding the social 
fabric of this place , then that would be a worthwhile journey."


Glenn is on the evil fb
+44 (0)7786 952037
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
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