Radical inner-city regeneration in Luton
An embattled inner city housing estate in Luton is set to radically rejuvenate the whole concept of regeneration. Jim Carey pays a visit to the resident revolutionaries of Marsh Farm and discovers an estate buzzing with new manoeuvres.
23rd April 2002
The rest of the nation had already heard the tragic news. Three small children drowned when their family car plunged into a lake near Luton. So, as the newly formed Marsh Farm Community Development Trust convened its fortnightly meeting, a sombre atmosphere hung over the room. The distraught parents and drowned children lived in the flats directly above the meeting hall. Many of those present knew them. After a minute's silence, Dave Crean, single parent and chairman of the Trust, proposes that community funds should pay all the funeral costs. On an estate which has had more than its fair share of adversity, the motion is carried unanimously. A gritty solidarity prevails.
In the car park outside the meeting hall a dried out bunch of flowers marks the spot where a 29 year old man was stabbed to death two weeks previously. A petty argument in mortal escalation, with knives too easy to hand. 'To my dear son' reads the label.
A couple of weeks prior to this incident, another man had gone berserk with a samurai sword, rampaging through the area before being stabbed four times. Meanwhile the front page of the local paper tells of the arrest of 14 members of a yardie drug-ring selling crack cocaine from tower blocks on the estate.
"Welcome to Marsh Farm mate and all that comes with it," observes local resident and father of four, Glenn Jenkins, wryly.
Former spokesperson of the late Exodus Collective, Glenn is now vice chairman of the newly formed March Farm Development Trust, a soon-to-be-constituted body charged with an important mission: to spend £50 million on transforming their estate.
"OUR AIM IS TO ENSURE THAT, AS MUCH AS IS PRACTICALLY POSSIBLE, THIS ESTATE WILL BE SELF-MANAGED. WITH A BOTTOM UP RATHER THAN TOP DOWN LEADERSHIP. A SITUATION WHERE RESIDENTS ARE IN CONTROL OF THEIR OWN DESTINY."
The plan of action includes a massive reclamation of community self management; from growing their own food to operating their own refuse collection, from running their own entertainment venues to instigating a remarkable system of all-inclusive local democracy. The estate is heading for a shakedown and, unusually, it is the residents themselves in the driving seat. If the estate succeeds, which looks increasingly likely, it will forge a revolutionary template which will galvanise the tired concept of inner city regeneration.
The money to execute this radical new programme comes from the New Deal for Communities (NDC) scheme introduced by Tony Blair in the late nineties. The rhetoric which accompanying the launch of NDC claimed the scheme would re-approach inner city regeneration with a full frontal emphasis on resident-led initiatives. Previous inner city regeneration schemes had wasted millions of pounds on business-led projects which, although provided lucrative contracts for the commercial sector, produced no meaningful benefit to the community as a whole.
THE QUALIFYING CRITERIA FOR NDC MONEY ARE HIGH CRIME, WORKLESSNESS, POOR HEALTH AND EDUCATIONAL UNDERACHIEVEMENT AND MARSH FARM ESTATE FITS THE CRITERIA LIKE A GLOVE IN URGENT NEED OF A HAND.
Announcing the NDC scheme back in the nineties Tony Blair asserted: "Too much has been imposed from above when experience shows that success depends on the communities themselves having the power and taking responsibility to make things better."
Tony Blair's autocratic leadership style since making this statement have led many to have doubts over his genuine adherence to this belief. Indeed other NDC projects around the country have fallen into the same old trap of channelling £millions into the agenda of the business lobby and bypassing residents. However, Marsh Farm is determined that this should not happen to their estate and residents are busy populating the NDC rhetoric with gusto.
"Our aim is to ensure that, as much as is practically possible, this estate will be self-managed," Glenn Jenkins told SQUALL, "with a bottom up rather than top down leadership. A situation where residents are in control of their own destiny."
"When it was announced we'd won the bid we were delighted," recalls Dave Crean. "I don't think the estate can get much worse than it is. The only way is up."
Almost immediately the community signalled its determination to get on with the process by taking over a disused Co-op supermarket and turning it into a community office. They painted the walls, kited it out with office furniture and set about securing computers and resources. From the moment the bright new office was opened it was packed with kids, teenagers and adults; a throng of local residents putting forward project ideas and sorting out amongst themselves how to proceed. It was staggering to watch given the social conditions in which Marsh Farms' residents live.
IT IS NOT DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND WHY AN ENTRENCHED FEELING OF DESPONDENCY SETTLED STIFLINGLY OVER THE ESTATE. IN 1995, THE FERMENTING SOCIAL DISCONTENT EXPLODED ONTO THE STREETS WITH THREE DAYS OF RIOTING.
Their estate sits three miles north of Luton town centre. Planned in the sixties and completed in the early seventies, it's a sprawling mix of 4000 households with over 9,400 residents. Three tower blocks mark the entrance to the estate but most of the housing stock is made up of a mix of council and privately-owned semi's. Unusually for such estates the skyline is not cluttered with high rises and there are numerous grass verges and green areas. There are also a lot of burned out cars. The multi-ethnic residents on the estate - which include Caribbean, African, Bangladeshi, Irish, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese - co-exist with a remarkable lack of racial discord. Racism, although it exists, is not a major problem. So there are positives on Marsh Farm.
However, the qualifying criteria for NDC money are high crime, worklessness, poor health and educational underachievement and Marsh Farm Estate fits the criteria like a glove in urgent need of a hand. Unemployment on the estate currently stands at 22 per cent of the eligible population, four times the national average. Nearly 50 per cent of the residents have no qualifications at all, with exam results in local schools falling well below both the national and Luton average.
Burglaries are more than 40 per cent more prevalent than the rest of Luton whilst violent crimes are 54 per cent higher.
Incidence of heart disease and smoking levels are also high for both the area and national average.
Estate self esteem understandably doesn't rate too high, with residents claiming local employers "see the postcode not the person" and are reluctant to employ people from the estate. The average earnings per household are well below the national average whilst the cost of household-content insurance premiums inevitably soar higher.
THROUGH A PROCESS OF 'SHADOWING', ANYONE HIRED IN FROM OUTSIDE THE ESTATE WILL BE ACCOMPANIED BY A VOLUNTEER RESIDENT WHO WILL CONSEQUENTLY LEARN HOW TO DO THE JOB THEMSELVES.
It is not difficult to understand why an entrenched feeling of despondency settled stiflingly over the estate. In 1995, the fermenting social discontent exploded onto the streets after an altercation with the police escalated into three days of rioting. The disturbances only came to a halt when an illicit rave held nearby redirected the force of the anger.
One of the DJ's at that event was local resident Bruce Hannah, now acting secretary of the Marsh Farm Development Trust and co-ordinator of a new project which has become the talk of Marsh Farm's youth. A recording studio....
The new musical equipment has just arrived and, on our way down to check it out, we pick up Sean, a black teenager and winner of a recent DJ talent contest on the estate. Spotting a mate of his walking along the road, he asks us to pull over. "Oi Richard," he shouts, "we're going down to check the new studio". Richard - a white teenager and winner of the MC section of the talent contest - climbs on board. He's sporting a huge black eye and noticeable cuts and bruises on his arms. For the rest of the journey he chews on about how he "got jumped last night" and how he's gonna "mash the geezer up later when he's on his own and not with his gang". In fact he doesn't stop going on about the incident until we reach Marsh House, the small council-owned building at the edge of the estate in which the recording studio is being set up. Bruce Hannah is busy unwrapping the new gear; a rack of brand new samplers, sound modules, synthesisers, a computer and a digital mixing desk. The MC and the DJ run their fingers over the faders and buttons in silent awe, before Sean finally pipes up: "We're gonna make 'nuff phat drum and bass tunes wid this." "Yes-I" says Richard and starts mumbling a little rap he's got going in his head........
"I can't walk across this estate without getting pulled by some youth asking about the studio and when it's gonna be up and running," says Bruce. "At the moment we're gonna keep it open from 9am til 9pm but eventually we want to have it running all night."
His nocturnal aspirations are a radical departure. Most amenities operate only in the daytime, leaving no focus for the majority of youth who roam listlessly about at night. A few weeks previously the Development Trust instigated the construction of a new sound system, with youth on the estate pitching in to construct a set of large speaker cabinets. The rig was christened at a one day festival on the estate held last year and a large gaggle of MC's, DJ's and other youth gathered round the sound. "The idea is to help set up and the training," explains Bruce, "and then vanish, leaving the youth to run it themselves."
This three prong process of facilitating, teaching and vanishing is a fundamental approach informing all the projects proposed for the estate. Through a process of 'shadowing', anyone hired in from outside the estate to work for the Community Development Trust will be accompanied by a volunteer resident who will consequently learn how to do the job themselves.
THERE ARE STICKY HANDS REACHING FOR THE TILLER BUT THE MARSH FARM RESIDENTS SEEM WELL AWARE OF THE DANGERS.
A company called Renaisi have been hired to help the residents get started. According to the project manager, Tony Jules: "Renaisi's involvement is temporary until the residents learn to do the job themselves.
"Renaisi will only stay as long as necessary and will leave when the residents are all up to speed on administration." A former representative of the revolutionary government of Grenada and a veteran of several inner city regeneration projects in London, Tony Jules describes his latest job as "particularly professionally exciting".
"When I arrived here my first impression was of a hive of activity," he recalls. "A lot of genuine people doing things for themselves; a lot of spontaneous energy. My first task was to organise some embryonic administration to respond to it. And two of the reasons why this task is so exciting is the amount of green spaces here and the Coulter's project."
Coulter's is a 120,000 sq ft empty warehouse bang in the middle of Marsh Farm estate. It is now the stuff of dreams.
The residents now intend to buy the building for £4.75 million and run it as an enormous resident run community centre. A tour round its unused expanses reveals the reason for all the excitement. In the middle, a huge floor space. Round the edges, a fully fitted café, a first aid room and a mass of rooms all in good clean condition and ready to foster hundreds of projects. The ideas are flooding in.
A nurse on the estate wants to run the first aid room as a place where residents can have a regular check up; "an MOT centre for humans". There's a cable TV proposal where residents with an interest in film will be trained to create programmes and films and then show them on a local cable network. The Community Trust have been in contact with NTL which own the cable networks on the estate to work out a deal. A staggering deluge of creative projects and proposals include community builders co-ops, an affordable animal hospital and a community mechanics, a theatre and a snooker hall. Every service operating at a low price and every project involving accredited training by local colleges and directly applied to the community.
Another project at the proposal stage is a multimedia centre aiming both to train residents in using computers and to provide the hub of an intranet for the entire estate. It is hoped that the creation of an intranet might then provide a forum by which residents of the estate could discuss local issues and offer their opinions on decision-making issues without having to attend formal meetings.
The Trust are in contact with a recycled IT firm about equipping every household with a computer. Ten computers available for training and community access have already been set up in the Trust office.
"I SUSPECT THAT INSIDE WHITEHALL THERE ARE LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE VERY SUSPICIOUS ABOUT THE CAPABILITIES OF LOCAL PEOPLE."
Jackie Jenkins somehow finds the time to mother four children and take a very active role in the setting up the new Trust. As part of her work she is co-ordinating a skills audit of the estate, filling a database with the names of local carpenters, mechanics, plumbers, builders etc.
"The idea is to have what we call 'sticky' skills and 'sticky' money," explains Jacki. "Why not employ a neighbour to repair and build; someone who really needs the money and has got the skills. In that way it's like ethical spending and keeps the skills and money on the estate."
Furthermore residents who register their skills with the Community Development Trust will then be employed by the Trust either to train others and/or to carry out work on the estate at a later date.
Jackie is also co-ordinating a project to carry out an archaeological dig on a 4,500 year old megalithic henge site which forms part of the estate and is writing a book on the history of the estate from the Stone Age to the modern day. With professional archaeologists co-ordinating and local residents pitching in: "It will give the kids a hands on buzz about their own history and pride in their area."
Other big projects in the offing are a large eco-farm in the fields around the estate and a proposal to take-over the £430,000 refuse collection job, currently tended out by the council but viewed by residents as unacceptably deficient. This is a radical manoeuvre in that it takes over some of the duties carried out by the local council.
In order to ensure that the residents remain firmly in the driving seat for the ten year New Deal process, the newly constituted Marsh Farm Development Trust board has decreed it should be made up of twice as many residents as council officials or service providers; a ratio the residents have insisted on keeping despite pressure from both council and local businesses. There are sticky hands reaching for the tiller but the Marsh Farm residents seem well aware of the dangers.
A remarkable system of street co-ordinators is being designed to keep every resident connected with the process in an impressive devolution of power and a blueprint for a more representative local democracy.
"I suspect that inside Whitehall there are lots of people who are very suspicious about the capabilities of local people," says Tony Jules. "But I do believe there's a lot of skilled people here who can do the work which is currently being done by bureaucrats and people like myself in council offices."
This resident revolution - for that is what it is - now looks set not only to transform the estate itself but to provide a remarkable template applicable to other sink estates around the country. The Development Trust have now opened offices inside the huge Coulter's warehouse in the first step towards full occupation. "These are exciting times," confirms Bruce Hannah.
Meanwhile the Marsh Farm youth are getting ready for their second outing with the new community sound system. It's to be held next Friday on the estate and the youth have decided amongst themselves that everyone should pay a pound to get into the party with all money going to the family of the three little girls who drowned. The unity in the community has never swollen so proud and full of meaningful promise.
SQUALL will be following the development of the radical initiatives on Marsh Farm Estate so watch this space.