New towns like Basildon started as a utopian dream. So what happened?

Basildown town centre. Image: John Armagh/Wikimedia Commons.

“Basildon is complicated,” wrote Norman Scarfe in the 1968 Shell Guide To Essex. He was right – and that’s the reason I chose the town as the subject of my upcoming documentary New Town Utopia. It’s a film of memory, poetry, music and architecture that explores a complex social history and the power of art.

In 1946, Lewis Silkin, the Minister for Town & Country Planning, delivered a lyrical and impassioned speech to parliament. In the midst the Labour government’s radical post-war policy drive, he announced a plan to build ten ‘new towns’ across the UK.

The plan addressed the major issues facing the cities of Britain – includeng the devastating impact of WW2 bombing and atrocious living and working conditions – by relocating families to new, purpose-built towns. Silkin’s speech expressed a desire to create “a new type of citizen” who would develop through living in the new town “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride”. He evoked Thomas More’s Utopia in the scale of his ambition. 

The new towns and their early residents were invested with these post-war hopes and aspirations. Seventy years on, Basildon, of this first wave of new towns, is a challenging place that’s been through difficult times. According to recent research carried out by its council, Basildon houses one quarter of the most deprived areas in Essex. The gap between rich and poor is huge – it’s the 6th most unequal city in the country – and 29 per cent of workers in Basildon earn less than the living wage.  Art and culture seem to be a distant memory. Its negative reputation precedes it, having cemented a place in popular culture as a paradigm of a shit British town.

So what happened?

I grew up in the area in the ‘80s, as Basildon’s reputation from the outside seemed to nosedive. At a national level names began to stick – Basildon Man, Chav, Essex Girl – labels that were sometimes ball and chain, sometimes badge of honour.

Unsurprisingly these were not coined by the locals. A Sunday Telegraph article first Coined the name “Essex Man”, defining him as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”. It was patronising, superior and fully intended to reinforce negative perceptions of successful working class people.


Basildon has long been a political bellwether – it voted for Thatcher, Blair and then Brexit. With this in mind, I hope that the film, through its focus on one town, reveals something about the state of modern Britain. In the ‘70s the town began a shift from being a socialist stronghold dubbed “Little Moscow on the Thames” to a Tory stronghold within ten years.  This was destabilising change, with Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy policy at its heart, as the individual trumped community in a town built upon communitarian values.

On top of this, the adversarial nature of British politics led to changing parties in power, nationally and locally, pulling the town in different directions, at a time when it was still growing. As Vin Harrop, a champion for the arts in Basildon, once told me, “Democracy does not build new towns.” 

Somehow, somewhere, over time, Silkin’s aesthetic and civic dream had faltered. In New Town Utopia I try to understand why and how this happened, and what this means for Basildon, its people and the rest of the UK. In doing this the film touches on some key challenges facing British society, including the housing crisis, the sucker punch of globalisation and new technology on our high streets, and the continued demonisation of people from working class backgrounds.

Many or the people I met were artists, poets and musicians whose creative pursuits occurred either in spite of the town, or as a reaction against it. They were individuals with imagination, talent, fight and a shared belief in the positive power of self expression.

These characters included Steve Waters, the puppeteer behind Old Man Stan, a puppet pensioner activist who gained a cult following on YouTube; folk and blues musician the ‘Bard of Basildon’ Phil Burdett; poets Ralph Dartford and Ölmo Lazarus; and musicians such as Sue Paget and Rob Marlow from the ‘80s electro scene that spawned bands like Yazoo and Depeche Mode.

Their thoughts, work and memories are the narrative engine of the film of New Town Utopia. One particular line from Silkin’s speech lingered: “A sense of beauty, culture and civic pride.”

This aesthetic utopian dream felt so alien to the mood of the town – a mood that I gauged through time spent with many Basildon people during my research. It’s true that many of the first generation ‘pioneers’ maintained pride about the town, what it represented, and the shelter it provided; but I found that many from later generations were desperate to escape, and seemed to blame the town itself for many of their own personal ills.

Camus considered Utopia to be “in contradiction to reality”. Basildon is not Utopia – but then again, where is?

Christopher Ian Smith is director of New Town Utopia.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.