Basildon Local Elections 2021 – The Masterplan Effect – Out with the old and in with the…. oh wait it’s the old lot again!

Many thanks to Jacob Hogg of the Basildon Community Residents Party for this write up of the impact of the new party on the political landscape in Basildon.

Basildon has always been a political hotbed. I’ve heard the stories of punch ups at the count, and even one year where a young Boris Johnson came to Basildon to interview some of his fellow Tories after they won a few seats. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that residents in this local political scene came together to form a new party – Basildon Community Residents Party (BCRP). The party’s agenda was very simple, they wanted to take their council back from the Labour, Conservatives and ex UKIP turned independents (who only answer to Kerry Smith), who have spent decades playing Basildon off Billericay for their party political gains.

This story started in 2020 when the Basildon Alliance (Labour/UKIPendent/Wickford Independents) rushed out plans to add 4000+ apartments crammed into more than 30 high-rise tower blocks to the local plan in the shape of a town centre regeneration strategy and new town centre masterplan. The tower blocks would range in height from 6 storeys up to 26 storeys (for some perspective, that’s almost twice the size of Brooke House) and the apartments would not meet size standards. There is a lot of speculation around how this masterplan took shape. It is still my hope that one day we will know exactly who tried to destroy Basildon’s unique town centre and replace it with a high-rise housing estate, but for now in theory, the high-rise element of the masterplan is gone. So let’s stick with the impact the masterplan had on the election.

Gavin Callaghan (Lab), the now ex leader of the council, is a PR pro. He took straight to social media to set out his vision for a city-scaped Basildon, booming with affluence. He kept saying the same similar-sounding tag lines over and over: “Believe in Basildon”, “millions of pounds of investment”, and possibly my favourite “If we don’t build these 4000+ homes, legislated by a Tory Government in the town, we will have to build them in parks and on other green spaces”. What he never said once was that his masterplan consisted of 30+ high-rise tower blocks. He was backed by his frontbenchers of course, but Gavin was plagued by bad decisions and PR stunt fails. Residents fought back, social media was awash with videos and informative content – creating awareness about what the masterplan meant for Basildon. People were creating opposition groups like the Basildon Residents Opposed to the Masterplan Group (BRMO) and forming plans to put as many spanners in the works as possible, desperate to get to May 2021 in the hope of a change in administration. Because what I haven’t mentioned yet is Gavin was already on borrowed time. Gifted an extra year in power by the Government because of the pandemic and lockdown, he quickly pushed forward with a masterplan which he sometimes laid claim to and quite proudly, yet at other times, he described it as out of his control or mandated from central government. Other points I can’t stop thinking about: Did Gavin have the mandate for this type of project? Was it the right time to be pushing for generational changes to the town while people couldn’t get out and engage with the consultation and understand the implications? I’d have to say no on both counts.

The odds were starting to stack up against a local leader who had been applauded for his handling of COVID-19 and lockdown. Even I have to doff my cap to the man because he was exactly what this town needed during a global crisis no one could be prepared for, he was informative, helpful, and most importantly present, while our local MP’s and other elected officials were nowhere to be seen. But had the local fame gone to his head? Was he feeling untouchable? Because Gavin kept making enemies of residents… Where ever he went, he behaved much like a schoolboy bully, with his army of Facebook supporters – anyone opposed to the masterplan became the enemy. This also took place in Laindon Park where he was keen to win a seat for newcomer Angela Stanbrook. He attacked a bunch of residents campaigning to keep their very much loved community centre where it was, refurbished as quickly as possible and open to the public. After weeks of back and forth again over social media Gavin, mayor David Burton-Sampson and deputy leader of the council, Kerry Smith were all running scared. But not just from the 4000 plus residents trying to save the Laindon Community Centre, but also from the BRMO group trying to save the town centre and the BCRP trying to give a real voice to the residents.

Basildon Labour had a shaky majority propped up by Kerry Smith’s crew and the Wickford Independents – whose leader David Harrison is a political shape-shifter having been in all 3 main parties and now has his own little niche in Wickford – he is far from Independent as the last few years have shown. Labour needed to retain all contested seats to retain its leadership of the Council (the full results can be found here on Basildon Council’s website. Labour held Fryerns, Pitsea North West and Lee Chapel North. They lost Vange, St. Martins, Laindon Park and Pitsea South East, to the Conservatives. While the Laindon Park landslide win for the Conservatives was no surprise, (the Basildon Tories put all their eggs in that basket in my honest opinion) it was a loss for the independent contesting the seat and another blow to Gavin’s leadership. Soon after losing his majority but holding onto his seat in Pitsea, Gavin took to social media to resign as Basildon Labour leader while offering his full support to his replacement. Defeat for Labour – Basildon residents did not want the high-rise towers.

I’m not into the hardcore analysis of elections. But when I look at the votes it becomes quite clear that the Basildon Community Residents Party made a massive impact on this election. For a party that only started 8 weeks before the election they picked up an overall vote share of 5% when only standing in 7 wards. It is an achievement they should be proud of, and I hope by breaking Fryerns down a little I can show the impact the BCRP made in its opposition to the high-rise masterplan, and its community focused message of giving residents a real voice on the council.

2019 Fryerns vote share:

Labour 55%

Conservative 30%

LibDem 15%

Turnout 19%

2021 Fryern vote share:

Labour 41%

Conservative 33%

Basildon Community Residents Party 14%

ReformUK 9%

LibDem 3%

Turnout 23%

Labour lose 14 points, Basildon Community Residents Party gains 14 points, that is something to build on for a bunch of politically homeless residents intent on not only saving their town but empowering the communities to shape its future. It is a similar story in other wards where Labour lost their seats. Vange for example, Labour loses 6 points, BCRP gains 13 points out of nowhere, and again turnout is slightly up, another great foundation for the newly formed party.

The conclusion is bittersweet, the Basildon Borough Conservatives now have a majority in Basildon Council. We don’t have to look far back in our local history to know that doesn’t often work out well for the new town. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of residents sick of the “Billericay Tories” as they are often described, favouring Billericay while letting parts of Pitsea, Vange and Laindon decay year after year. So as the headline indicates, not much changed with who’s in charge, the new lot is very much the old lot. But with a bright future ahead the Basildon Community Residents Party have changed the political landscape of Basildon, and with a year to campaign for the next ballot, they have my full attention.

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