Social Provision In Eastover
This report emerged from a fact-finding visit to Bridgwater by workers from ‘Family Centres’ in the Czech Republic. Paid for by the European Social Fund and managed on the ground by local international links group Bridgwater International, the trip saw the Czech visitors link with the Eastover Sports and Social Trust to learn about social inclusion in a deprived area of Bridgwater.
The Czech Republic doesn’t have a system analogous to our state-funded Children’s Centres, and the group, while including state-employed social workers and psychologists, was predominately made up of managers and volunteers from private, non-profit Family Centres (while the majority of their funding does come from the Czech government, it comes in the form of grants that have to be frequently applied and re-applied for). The visit was therefore an opportunity for them to experience how the kinds of services they provide to communities in the Czech Republic have been traditionally funded and delivered in the UK, and, at a time when the future of publically funded frontline services is increasingly uncertain, how the British situation is changing amid large-scale cuts to local government budgets.
Visiting a variety of services and social resources, predominantly in Eastover but also with some comparative visits to areas run by other authorities, the trip also provided an opportunity to reflect on the situation from a British perspective. This report aims to collect together the week’s experiences and attempt to assess what resources are available for residents of Eastover, where more provision is needed, and, given the changing nature of both central and local government funding, suggest how vital services can be financially supported going forward.
2) Eastover General Overview
As the name implies, Eastover is an area of central-eastern Bridgwater, serving as a ward of both Bridgwater Town and Sedgemoor District councils. Bounded on the its west side by the River Parrett and, apart from a small protrusion around Penzoy Avenue, on the east by the main Bristol to Exeter railway line, it contains two main residential areas – one that extends northwards along Bristol Road and Bath Road, and another roughly central area where estates off St. John Street meet those surrounding Eastover Park. The majority of the housing in both these areas was constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly consisting of very long terraces comprised of two-up two-down-style houses, and, as such, were originally designed to be used in very different social contexts than today. However, a third area of new builds was constructed to the south of Eastover Park in the 1990s, known locally as the ‘Duck Estate’.
Eastover has two main commercial areas – although their significance to the town and overall economic health have declined markedly over the last three decades, Eastover itself and St. John Street still house a mix of small independent shops, other small businesses, medium-sized chain stores, pubs and restaurants. It’s also here that two of the town’s six major supermarkets can be found. Lidl is off Eastover itself, while Asda is the other side of the bus station, just to the north. The second major commercial area is centred on Bridgwater Retail Park, which houses several major national retailers and a MacDonalds restaurant, and sits alongside a large Sainsbury’s supermarket.
While Bridgwater’s present-day industrial activity is much reduced from what it was decades previously, Eastover remains one of the most industrialised areas of the town. It contains two sizeable industrial estates – one in the far south of the ward, known to locals as Colley Lane, and the Castlefield estate in the north-west of the ward. The latter also contains a number of very large warehouse-sized retailers like Matalan.
2a) The Political Context
|Bridgwater House HQ of Sedgemoor District Council|
Eastover is subject to three tiers of local government – Bridgwater Town Council, Sedgemoor District Council and Somerset County Council. Earlier in Bridgwater’s history, town-level government was the most powerful and the most important – by the mid twentieth century, Bridgwater’s then-Borough Council had control over housing, social services and other major functions. In 1972, the Heath government legislated to change the structure of local government, and Bridgwater’s 770 year-old borough status was revoked. A new system based around larger Districts was created, and the focus of power shifted away from Bridgwater itself to new largely rural Sedgemoor.
It wasn’t until 2003 that Bridgwater regained a degree of town-level representation with the establishment of Bridgwater Town Council. The body was largely powerless, and while this hasn’t changed much in the intervening decade, it is increasingly being called upon to pick up responsibilities being shed by the District and County Councils as budgets are cut.
Sedgemoor District Council now has a wide range of responsibilities, including presiding over social security payments and social housing, making planning decisions, refuse collection and street cleaning, car parks, environmental services and regeneration projects. Somerset County Council, meanwhile, oversees schools and youth services, social services and highway maintenance among other socially strategic functions.
The most recent and reliable data about Eastover and its population comes from research conducted for Somerset County Council by its Partnership Intelligence Unit in 2011. That year, according to these figures, there were 4,633 people living in Eastover. 2,519 of them, over half, were working-age adults between the ages of 25-64. At 34, the median age was relatively young. 569, approximately 12% of the total population, were over 65, and 263 were over 75. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 878, or approximately 19%, were under the age of 16. 620 were under the age of 9, and 384 were under the age of 4.
The total number of households in Eastover was 2,060 in 2011. A sizeable portion of these, 690, were only occupied by one person, 208 by sole occupiers over the age of 65. Here we see a section of the population clearly at risk of social isolation, the combination of sole occupancy and advanced age, likely to be complicated by health or mobility issues, leaving individuals housebound without social interaction or mental stimulation. Single-parent households represent another key at-risk group – 180 Eastover households were occupied by lone parents with dependent children.
Like Bridgwater and Somerset as a whole, the vast majority of people living in Eastover are indigenously British – at 97.1%, the percentage of Eastover residents who self-describe as white British closely matches the 98% who do when Somerset is taken as whole. Only 135 residents are classed as ‘Black or Minority Ethnic’. It is worth noting, though, that the popular perception of a situation is often more important that verifiable reality, and locals view Eastover as one of the more multicultural areas of the town. This is perhaps because its extra-European ethnic minority community is especially visible, owning a number of restaurants and takeaway businesses along St John Street.
There is also a heightened awareness of the increased inter-European migration of the previous decade – Polden Street, Eastover, is colloquially known by some as ‘Poland Street’, because of the high number of Central and Eastern Europeans thought to live there. Around 500 current Eastover residents who were born overseas arrived in Britain within the last decade, 309 of these from countries that joined the European Union between 2001 and 2011. In 116 Eastover households, no resident has English as their first language. Here, there’s potential for much social isolation, Eastover now being home to a sizeable migrant community not just cut off from familial support networks but also struggling with language and other cultural barriers. It’s also a sad but undeniable fact that this section of the community is sometimes subject to abuse and discrimination, particularly in a political climate turning increasingly hostile to migrant workers.
The Partnership Intelligence Unit also gathered statistics on the health of Eastover’s population, separating it into those with ‘Very good health’, ‘good health’, ‘fair health’, ‘bad health’ or ‘very bad health’. The problem with this kind of data is immediately apparent – how do you quantify an individual’s level of health? And what are the criteria for each category? What is the difference between someone in ‘Good health’ and ‘Very good health?’? And could that difference simply be down to the temperament of the individual in question, with, for example, a more positively–inclined person more likely to describe their state of health as being better than it objectively is?
These issues aside, we can assume the figures give a reasonably accurate insight into the health of the population, and can be taken as a rough guide at least – 2,075 are described as being in ‘Very good health’, 1,667 in ‘Good health’, 672 in ‘Fair health’, 181 in ‘Bad health’ and 38 in ‘Very bad health’. 325 people are described as having a long-term illness that limits their day-to-day activities ‘a lot’, 176 of them between the ages of 16 and 64. 426 are described as being limited ‘a little’, 242 of them in the 16 – 64 age bracket. Of particular interest to any discussion of social inclusion are people who provide unpaid care to an ill or disabled friend of family member, and are often left struggling in silence without sufficient emotional or material support. The Intelligence Unit counted 351 carers, with 205 of them providing care between 1-19 hours a week, 60 providing 20-49 hours of care a week and 86 providing 50 or more hours a week.
The economic activity of Eastover residents is easier to accurately assess – of the 3,492 aged between 16 and 74, 2,629 were deemed economically active. 1,526 were in full-time employment, 541 in part-time employment, 263 were self-employed, and 90 were full time students. The kinds of work undertaken by Eastover residents was heavily weighted towards the service industry – 543, the highest total for any occupational bracket, worked in retail or motor vehicle repair. 151 worked in accommodation and food services, and 142 worked in administrative and support services. 374 worked in manufacturing - still a sizeable amount but far lower than would’ve had similar employment in the ward decades previously.
|Eastover 1905 - a busy commercial street|
863 residents between the ages of 16 and 74 were deemed economically inactive. Of these, 863 were retired, 107 were students, 181 weren’t able to work because of their responsibilities as carers and 161 were described as being long-term sick or disabled. Of the 209 labelled officially ‘unemployed’, 67 were between the ages of 16 and 24. 85 were designated ‘long term unemployed’, and 34 had never worked. Among these groups especially, potential for social isolation is high.
Eastover is also ranked as one of the most deprived areas in Somerset. When measured by Indices of Multiple Deprivations, Eastover ranked as the tenth move deprived ward in the county in 2010. It’s unsurprising but still deeply saddening to find that four out of Somerset’s top ten most deprived wards are in Bridgwater, with Sydenham ranked as the county’s most deprived. According to mid-2012 estimates by the advocacy group End Child Poverty, 23% of Eastover’s children were officially impoverished. Especially startling is the fact that 146 houses in Eastover still have no central heating.
Assuming that the situation hasn’t changed dramatically since 2011, the picture we’re left with is of an Eastover that is socioeconomically deprived, despite the majority eligible to work being in paid employment. We can identify key minorities more at risk of social isolation, and more in need of resources to enable them to life safe, healthy, fulfilling lives – Eastover’s child population, for example, nearly a quarter of whom are officially impoverished, and their parents, particularly those struggling to raise their offspring alone while juggling other life commitments; the elderly in general, but particularly those living alone and/or struggling with mobility issues; elderly or not, the section of the community with life-limiting illnesses and disabilities; the often-forgotten unpaid carers, some of whom are called on to provide over 50 hours a week of support every week; the migrant community; and the unemployed. However, this isn’t to detract from the needs of the elements of the population who don’t slot into any of the above categories – in areas like Eastover, particularly given the prevailing economic and political climate, life can be difficult for stably married able-bodied couples with secure full-time jobs and 2.4 children.
3) The Resources Available to Eastover Residents
This report will now attempt to assess what resources are available to this population, grouping them into three broad categories: societal resources, ie. non-state organisations like pubs, clubs and churches that can provide significant informal support to the individuals that use them; politically funded resources, encompassing all public-run or publically funded organisations within Eastover, whether they be funded by the Town, District or County Councils; and commercial resources, the shops and businesses whose social importance can go far beyond simply providing people with things to buy. It will begin, though, with a brief discussion of a highly important but very difficult to assess fourth category, namely family resources.
3a) Family Resources
|Cllr Julian Taylor (Eastover)|
The extent to which individuals can rely on their families for support obviously differs hugely between cases. That established, it’s still worth briefly dwelling on which groups among Eastover’s population are less able to call on the kind of familial support network many others take for granted as it’s often these people who have to rely more heavily on the other kinds of resources outlined above. As previously observed, a startling number of Eastover residents live alone. This could be for any number of reasons – family breakdown, lone individuals moving into the area for work purposes, the death of a spouse or childlessness, for example. The children of the elderly often ensure their care needs are met, and that they have a minimum level of social interaction on any given week. If elderly individuals don’t have children, or their children have moved away, they go without this familial safety net. Working families often rely on their own parents to supply unpaid childcare, freeing them up not only to work but to lead sociable, fulfilling lives. Migrants who have left all their families ties back in their country of origin cannot rely on this support. Cllr Julian Taylor, one of Eastover’s two District Councillors, also described another local phenomenon to the group, noting a tendency for young people from more affluent areas of Bridgwater to move into small flats in the ward after disagreements with their parents, and, in some cases, turn to binge drinking and illegal drugs.
These are all examples of sections of the community in need of extra support. Again, though, these aren’t problems restricted to vulnerable minorities. Broad socioeconomics trends over the past thirty years have drastically changed the nature of work, increasing the number of people working unsocial hours, and as wages have consistently failed to keep pace with inflation, some individuals find themselves having to hold down several jobs just to stay afloat. Concurrently, state support has dwindled. Grandparents, once stalwarts of childcare, are likely to be younger and still in work, or forced to work for longer a) because the real value of the state pension has fallen while living costs have sharply risen and b) because the age at which individuals are eligible to receive it continues to rise. The kinds of family support that one would have been taken for granted have become harder to maintain.
3b) Societal Resources
By their very nature, societal resources are relatively informal and sometimes, therefore, difficult to identify. The following discussion of societal resources is Eastover doesn’t in any way aim to be comprehensive, as there will always be obscure clubs, societies and other very small but still important informal networks of support virtually unknown outside the individuals that use them. Instead, this will be an attempt to provide an overview of what’s available within Eastover, paying particular highlights to individual cases deemed especially high-profile, interesting or informative.
|A typical Eastover pub|
Pubs are essentially private businesses, and therefore might seem a natural fit for the economic resources category. However, choosing to label them as examples of societal resources is recognition of their traditional role within the community, a role which, in some cases, continues to this day. Historically, pubs performed a highly significant social service as the main place where local people could meet and socialise. Eastover, like Bridgwater as a whole, had a high number of pubs given the size of its population. They tended to serve relatively small but highly loyal client-bases, largely living in the immediate vicinity – it wasn’t unusual for a pub to effectively function as a social club for the population of just a few residential streets. During the latter part of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first, large proportions of these pubs have been forced to close, the supermarket revolution leading to people buying and drinking alcohol at home.
Many of those that remain have being forced to conform with modern business realities and become half-restaurants, unable to make a living selling alcohol alone. In Eastover, however, perhaps more so than other areas of Bridgwater, a number of old-style pubs have managed to stay in business. In the last decade, pubs have become negatively associated with binge drinking, alcoholism and anti-social behaviour, but this has sadly distracted from their positive social potential. These kinds of traditional pubs continue to serve as highly localised community hubs, meeting places where locals can socialise, relax, talk about their lives and receive informal emotional and psychological support from people in similar situations. Given the increasing loneliness and social isolation that has characterised the last quarter-century, this little-acknowledged secondary function is highly important. Some pubs compete with one another in competitive skittles leagues, firstly providing a source of recreation for locals but also allowing them to meet and mix with people from other areas of the town.
In Bridgwater, pubs also have additional significance given the town’s historic Carnival tradition. The Carnival Clubs that construct carts to take part in November’s processions have traditionally been based in pubs around Bridgwater – Lime Kiln Carnival Club, for example, is based at the pub of the same name on Salmon Parade, Eastover – and bring people from around the community together, increasing social ties and making lasting friendships through a shared endeavour. The effort and dedication clubs pour into producing their carnival entries is often extraordinary, and it’s unsurprisingly a very positive, rewarding experience for those who take part.
Pubs like The Railway Club, known locally as The Shack, offer an additional service to the community, hiring out their facilities for music nights and other social events, as well as for political meetings.
|St John's Church|
St John’s Church, Blake Place, Bridgwater, affordably hires out its facilities for meetings and events, notably hosting highly beneficial, socially worthwhile organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. Elsewhere in Eastover, situated next to the Children’s Centre on Westonzoyland Road (see below), is a building which was once known as the Eastover Community Centre, but since 1999 has been run as a charity called the Eastover Youth Centre. Aiming to provide recreational activities for local youth, the centre hires itself out as a venue for a variety of clubs and community groups, including judo, Budo Juku karate, kickboxing and other martial arts classes, the Chameleon Majorettes, and the youth arm of the St John Ambulance service, the Badgers.
Jointly with the neighbouring Children’s Centre, the Youth Centre also acts as a base for the Eastover Organic Food Co-op, a group that sells organic vegetables from Plowright Farm, Over Stowey both to members and the general public. Socially and environmentally conscious, the organisation aims to help people reduce their food bills and support local agriculture, lessening their reliance on supermarkets and putting money back into the local economy rather than into the coffers of transnational corporations. For more details, interested members of the public can ask at the reception of the Children’s Centre.
Another innovative local organisation is the Eastover Sports and Social Trust, the body our Czech visitors twinned with to enable their EU-funded project. The trust was set up by Eastover councillors and local people when a little-used tennis court owned by Sedgemoor District Council was earmarked for sale to the private sector to be turned into flats. An entirely voluntary organisation, the Trust fought the decision and instead proposed the court should be converted into a multi-purpose games area for the local community, particularly young people living in an area that doesn’t offer them much else to do. The Trust is now working with Sedgemoor, and, partially funded by the council, is in the final stages of making this vision a reality.
Adjoining the tennis court is the Eastover Park Bowls Club which leases land from the District Council to provide bowling greens for the club’s members. Club users are mostly elderly, and it provides a valuable recreational space where members can stay fit and active, socialise with their peers, meet new friends and ward off the social isolation that may be a feature of other aspects of their lives. The Club also generously gave a home to itinerant Bridgwater youth football team Rhode Lane Wanderers, which gives direction as well as opportunities for recreation and socialising to the town’s young people.
|Bridgwater Senior Citizens Forum|
During the project, our group also met with the Bridgwater Senior Citizen’s Forum, a group based in Eastover but drawing over-50s from all around town. The group brings local pensioners together to socialise and make new friends, hear talks from a variety of speakers, discuss local political issues and provide a voice for local older people.
3c) State Resources
National and local government is of huge, unquestionable importance to Eastover residents, as it is for everyone in the country. However, there are few publically funded resources physically based in the ward itself.
Eastover Community Primary School is state-funded through Somerset County Council. While the building itself is mostly Victorian, the school is well situated on Wellington Road, in the middle of a large residential area and within reasonable walking distance for able-bodied individuals living anywhere in Eastover. At the time of the school’s latest OFSTED inspection (dated 16th – 17th January 2013) it was educating 403 4-11 year-olds, with two classes in each year group, making it larger than average. The subsequent OFSTED report was very complimentary about the school, rating it ‘Good’ in terms of the achievement of pupils, the quality of teaching, the behaviour and safety of pupils, and its leadership and management, all of which translated to a ‘Good’ rating overall. Incidentally, OFSTED’s report also confirms that the proportion of Eastover pupils with special educational needs and disabilities is well above average, as in the proportion eligible for the so-called ‘pupil premium’, additional funding for pupils in receipt of free school meals.
|Cranleigh Gardens Medical Centre|
Eastover is also well served by a very modern GP surgery in the form of Cranleigh Gardens Medical Centre, which was opened in February 2011. Prior to this, the surgery was known as Brent House and based in Westover, on the other side of the River Parrett. Thus its relocation to Eastover was of great benefit to residents, not only providing them with access to medical care within the community, but also with a brand new medical centre designed for optimum disability access. The consulting rooms are all downstairs, while a large lift makes upstairs facilities accessible for wheelchair users. Doors have been made especially wide, again for wheelchair access. All door signs are in Braille as well as English, and corridors have been purposely painted to have good colour definition, enabling individuals with impaired vision navigate more easily around the building.
Situated next to Eastover Children’s Centre (see below) on Westonzoyland Road is New Prospects, an outpost of the Somerset Youth Offending Team. Young people between the ages of 10 and 18 who have been arrested on at least one occasion come to the centre to be assessed, and to establish a plan of action for ensuring they do not become repeat offenders. Socioeconomic deprivation is strongly linked to higher incidents of crime, and it’s unsurprising that between May 2013 and October 2013 41.9% of reported crime in Eastover related to anti-social behaviour, much of it by young people. In addition, the service can connect the young people concerned to a variety of other resources, including social workers, psychologists, drug workers and others.
Eastover also contains the three-hectare of open grass area known locally as either Cranleigh Gardens or Eastover Park. It contains a fenced children’s play area, predominantly aimed at toddlers and younger children, as well as a half pipe skate boarding facility for teenagers, both run by Sedgemoor District Council. Both are reasonably new and well-maintained, receiving weekly inspections from members of Sedgemoor’s Parks Department.
3ci) Eastover Children’s Centre
|Julie Simmonds at Eastover Children's Centre|
By far the most impressive and, arguably, important state resource visited during the project was Eastover Children’s Centre, located on Westonzoyland Road. Children’s Centres were created as part of the Sure Start programme, initiated by the 1997 – 2009 Labour government with the aim of tackling child poverty and improving early years education, healthcare and standards of parenting. In Somerset currently, one manager is placed in charge of a ‘cluster’ of three centres – Eastover is clustered with a centre in nearby Sydenham, and one in the village of Woolavington. Primarily focusing on children between birth and the age of five, the three centres are technically responsible for 2,013 children – the number who regularly using the centre is obviously far smaller, but all are entitled to the services provided - and are informed of every new birth within their jurisdiction.
The Eastover centre hosts visits by midwives and health visitors. The health visitors try and see new-borns within six days of birth to take parents through the process of weighing and immunisations to come in the baby’s first few months, as well as offering advice about breast-feeding for the first time and other important parental skills. These sessions are hugely helpful to the parents who attend them, not just for being instructional, but also for offering inexperienced or anxious new mothers a safe place to chat, express worries and receive informal emotional and psychological support. Other sessions encourage parents to bring their children in to play with the centre staff and other children, again enabling potentially isolated mothers to mix with people in similar situations, developing supportive relationships with their peers and centre workers trained to be on the lookout for signs of trouble at home, post-natal depression etc.
In this sense, the name ‘Children’s Centres’ is somewhat misleading - it gives an overly narrow first impression of the types of services and support available. Ironically enough, the Czech equivalent, ‘Family Centres’, would be more apt. The Centre, for example, plays a vital role in helping the victims of domestic violence, a phenomenon that’s sadly common in the Eastover area. Through developing trusting personal relationships with members of staff at the centre, victims are able to express their concerns about their situation and be encouraged to seek further help. Our group was told that a common worry voiced by abuse victims is that their children would be taken away from them if they came forward. By coming to trust the Family Centre staff and confiding in them about their concerns, these individuals can be talked through the process from the state and social service perspective, reassuring them that taking children into care is avoided at all costs. It takes an average of seven attempts before an abuse victim in able to leave a domestic violence situation, and the Centre can be a vital source of both emotional support and practical advice during a long, traumatic process. The Centre also runs a Community Café, offering employment advice to parents and helping them get back into training or education.
|Marcela Bradova discussing with staff|
Staff members are passionate about what they do and the benefits of early intervention. The Centre has a warm, inclusive ethos, typified by its use of a selection of core values rather than a list of stern do’s and don’ts for service users. It was also notable that some signage inside the centre was in both English and some Eastern European languages, ensuring Eastover’s now-sizeable European migrant population feels welcome at the Centre. With connections to the police, social services and others, the Centre also plays an important role in linking individuals in need with other state resources.
Given the fantastic work it does for Eastover, it’s deeply concerning that at the time of writing the future of the service looks uncertain. The Children’s Centre network has already been subject to extensive funding cuts by the County Council. Two years ago, the budget for management was cut by 58% as the Centres were reorganised into the current ‘cluster’ system. However, the County Council is now seeking to make further savings, and have previously suggested that as many as 18 of the county’s 41 centres could be stripped of their ‘Children Centre’ status, the consequences of which remain largely unknown. In addition, they aim to cut even more from the service’s management and administration budget. The County-level Cabinet Member for Children & Families, Cllr Frances Nicholson, claims that she wants to ‘reduce spending on management and administration and increase spending on the front-line by restructuring the service on an area basis’. When councils are looking to cut budgets, management always presents a soft target. Cutting bureaucracy is easy to sell to the electorate. However, it's wrong to suggest that management and ‘frontline services’ are somehow entirely separate from one another. Yes, where extravagant amounts are spent on administration, in some cases budgets can be cut without affecting service users. But it’s managers and administrative workers that enable frontline staff to spend as much as their time as possible on those service users. More pertinently, Children’s Centres have already endured cuts to the extent that managers are left coping with three centres over large geographical areas. It’s hard to see how further cutbacks could do anything but reduce the quality of the service provided.
Unfortunately, this is an area where the mechanics of the political system – or at least the priorities of mainstream politics – work against the running of a high quality public service. There needs to be strategic thinking looking ten years into the future, rather than the political horizon being no further away than the next election. At present, every Children’s Centre receives the same amount of funding, regardless of its location. In effect, this adversely affects areas like Eastover, which, given its level of deprivation, has far greater needs than other areas of the county. What’s more, in attempting to cut even more from management budgets, councillors and council officers seem to either lack understanding about what the centres do and how they are run, or just not care about the consequences.
3d) Commercial Resources
In the nineteenth century, Eastover was a bustling commercial district of Bridgwater. The last century has seen the economically healthy town centre area steadily retract back across the river, and is now limited to a very small area centred on Fore Street and the eastern end of the High Street, including the Angel Place shopping centre. Until the 1970s and 1980s, St John’s Street was a major shopping area. In the 1990s, Eastover (the road in the ward, not the ward itself) could still be considered part of the town centre. In 2013, both are economically ailing.
In a sense, the area’s economic trajectory has reflected Britain’s over the last two centuries. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it was full of small and medium sized family firms, extending to the heart of the Eastover community. It also contained the extensive industry and manufacturing that employed a large swathe of both the ward’s and the wider town’s population. Over the last thirty years, however, the country’s focus has abruptly shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy, and smaller businesses have repeatedly lost out to huge retail chains.
This isn’t just a historical distraction – it’s crucial to how Eastover’s residential areas were designed and laid out. Houses were within walking distance of practically all a household’s commercial needs, with grocery stores, butchers, bakers, pubs, and, in many cases, employment lying with reasonable walking or cycling distance. Just as importantly, small local businesses offered something that the best examples still do today – a place to bump into people, hear news, and develop social relationships. Shopping wasn’t and doesn’t need to be just about spending money, it can have a fulfilling social function as well.
|The same street scenes 100 years apart|
The arrival of supermarkets and other big retail chains, with vastly greater resources than anything local businesses could ever muster, has effectively killed dozens of small local businesses, and concentrated a large portion of the town’s commercial activity under one roof. Very little of that money ends up back in the local economy – whereas local businesses are likely to employ the services of local electricians, carpenters and other tradesman, the big chain stores tend to use national contractors.
Both planning decisions and, again, the prevailing political and socioeconomic climate have gone against small local businesses, leaving them to flounder largely unassisted while councils cheerlead for multibillion pound corporations. Despite this, there are still small and medium-sized local businesses in the ward, particularly along St John Street and Eastover. Many of these are takeaway restaurants. While these are very conveniently positioned for people living in the area, there is a lack of businesses providing more essential services in the community. Again, the sale of groceries, bread and meat products have been monopolised by supermarkets, although long-standing local business Judith’s Bakery still exists on St John Street. Bridgwater retailer Hooks is still in the area, and has just expanded, opening a small branch in Angel Place Shopping Centre. Ironically, the section arguably best able to access the kind of traditional, sociable shopping described above are the ward’s European migrant community. Two small shops specialising in Eastern European goods have opened in recent years, one situated where Eastover meets Broadway and another on New Road, giving a potentially isolated section of the community a place to socialise and make connections with others in a similar situation. Also on New Road is the newly-opened Akropolis Restaurant, serving Eastern European food. On Eastover (the road) a Portuguese café serves as a focus for the local Portuguese community.
Attempts by Sedgemoor District Council to regenerate Eastover have thus far been tokenistic. The arrival of the Asda superstore on the site of the old Territorial Army Centre and part of the old Bus Station was originally sold as being part of an attempt to rejuvenate the area. Council officers have since privately admitted that this was a failure, citing, among other things, a very poor pedestrian layout as being behind the disappointing outcome. There has yet to be an admission that the whole premise of involving a supermarket in an attempt to rejuvenate the local economy is highly dubious – indeed, with the forthcoming Tesco development at Northgate, Bridgwater, the council is ably demonstrating that it learned nothing from the Asda situation.
|The Town's main Post Office locating to Eastover|
At the time of writing, the council is seeking to gain members’ approval for its Eastover Supplementary Planning Document, a report detailing Sedgemoor’s latest plans to regenerate the area – the proposals are based round increased pedestrianisation of the area, partly to account for the perceived failings of the Asda development.
However, there have been some positive developments recently. The decision to locate Bridgwater’s new main Post Office in the ward (on the corner of New Road) is likely to prove very beneficial, bringing potential shoppers into the area to use the services. Post Offices are also known for bringing people together in the manner described above, allowing for chance social interaction and human contact for isolated members of the community.
This report’s conclusion is relatively straightforward – within Eastover itself, there are very few resources available for residents. Many of the resources that do exist, particularly those that are state-funded, are of high quality and indispensably important to the local community – Eastover Children’s Centre, Eastover Community Primary School and Cranleigh Gardens Medical Centre stand out in this respect. Hard work and perseverance by community-minded volunteers is also yielding promising results, the example of the Eastover Sports and Community Trust showing that if residents are willing and able to organise themselves, and have backing from local councillors, they can intervene to change the fate of threatened public resources. When the proposed games area opens, it will combine with the an already high quality children’s play park and half-pipe skating area to create an excellent recreational hub for local young people. However, given its deprivation, Eastover is in need of far greater support and, unfortunately, at a time when existing resources are under threat, it’s difficult to see where this support is going to come from.
4a) The Political Dimension
|The elephant in the room|
National politics is the elephant in room – firstly at a broad, socioeconomic level. It’s an indisputable fact that social and economic trends have sharply gone against areas like Eastover and towns like Bridgwater over the last thirty years. The town’s predicament is very similar to that of large parts of the North of England. For generations, thousands of local people worked in the manufacturing industry, which provided them with secure, skilled, well-paid jobs. They were trained and made into desirable employees, giving them a certain amount of choice in where they worked. It was possible for one wage-earner to comfortably provide for a whole family. In the mid-1970s, one political consensus gave way to another, and in the years that followed the economic basis of whole communities was destroyed, as the economy was hurriedly converted from one largely based around manufacturing to one based on retail and other service industries. Individuals were now forced into poorly paid, low-skill jobs that were far more precarious. They had to work longer and harder to stay afloat, and, both because their workplaces gave them very little training and because the service industries were much lower-density employers than the manufacturing companies that came before, they were left having to take whatever they could get in terms of employment. Crudely put, shops and offices don’t employ as many people as factories do. As governments concurrently abandoned their previous commitment to achieving full employment, this also meant that large numbers became unemployed.
Decades on, places like Eastover are arguably still struggling to recover from that socioeconomic trauma. The new highly financialised economy was largely focused in the south-east, and post-industrial areas were left to flounder. Successive governments neglected towns like Bridgwater, as inequality soared, and the fruits of the boom years were being enjoyed elsewhere. It’s worth remembering that Bridgwater was declining even during the longest sustained period of economic growth since the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. By the early 2000s, timid steps were being taken in the right direction, with the establishment of the Sure Start scheme and the Building Schools for the Future Programme, as well as the Single Regeneration Budget scheme in Hamp and Sydenham, but these were modest given the scale of the problem. Now, as the current British government joins its counterparts around the developed world in choosing to respond to the 2008 financial crisis with ‘Austerity’, it’s these parts of the country that are bearing the brunt of deep cuts in public spending. Somerset County Council was only local government body in the country to cut its Arts budget by 100%. Similarly, during the course of the project our group attended a meeting of the Sedgemoor Youth Network at Bridgwater YMCA, where representative from youth clubs and organisations were bracing themselves for the imminent cancellation of all County-level funding after May 2014.
Both at the level of national government and local government, the solution offered is, simplistically put, to replace public-funded resources with societal resources. As we’ve seen, societal resources are of massive importance, and help millions of people live happier, more fulfilling lives, and they should be stoked and encouraged wherever possible. However, an individual we met during the project (who will remain nameless) summed up the prevailing governmental attitude the best – that if you throw enough volunteers at a problem, it will just go away. It’s here that we encounter the paradox at the centre of what has previously been called the ‘Big Society’ – firstly, volunteers need training, and the funding to train them has to come from somewhere. Secondly, there isn’t, sadly, an equal distribution of fit, healthy, enthusiastic people with lots of time on their hands around the country. In some areas, which have undergone far less socioeconomic trauma during recent decades, where residents tend to be wealthier and traditional community ties have been left intact, more people can afford to donate their time for free. In places like Eastover that just isn’t the case. In previous decades, it was seen as government’s role to redistribute wealth from areas and sections of the population that could afford to spare it to those that couldn’t. Unfortunately, that notion has been largely banished from the political mainstream.
If the town’s plight largely comes down to decisions beyond local control, the loss of town-level power has also had an impact. Sedgemoor District Council is responsible for a largely rural area, and dominated by councillors from outside Bridgwater. Anecdotally, it’s clear that there is a culture at Sedgemoor whereby council leaders see Bridgwater as somewhat of a nuisance, and their lack of attachment to the town would certainly explain a succession of decisions that have gone against the interests of local residents. If Sedgemoor were to be abolished and the main focus of local power be returned to Bridgwater itself, central government funding cuts would still leave a revived Bridgwater Borough Council with very difficult decisions to make. However, it could be more reliably expected to make those decisions in the best interest of the people of the town, rather than in those a rural electorate with no interest in its predicament. Britain remains the most centralised country in Europe, and a more lasting, satisfactory solution would require the return of the powers stripped from local government during the last half-century.
4b) Funding and Future Provision
|Call for greater resources|
There are clear gaps in provision for Eastover’s elderly, migrant, full-time carer and general working population, both in terms of state and societal resources. This isn’t to cast doubt on the quality of state-level care outside the ward, but is instead a call for greater resources to be embedded in communities themselves, where residents, particularly those with limited mobility, are best able to access them. What form these resources might take is open to question – certainly, a Children’s Centre equivalent instead designed around the needs of older people would be a very welcome development, for example, but those kinds of decisions are well beyond local control. Furthermore, it would be too be too easy to place the blame entirely at the doors of local and national government. When it comes to societal resources, public apathy does play a part in accounting for the lack of provision. Clubs require people to attend them, and when people don’t it gives local and national government a very easy excuse not to fund them. However it’s also the sad case that the people most in need of recreation and relaxation – thinking particularly of carers, single parents, working people in general – are those with the least free time to be able to enjoy it. Again, without a marked shift in national-level political priorities, these problems will go unsolved.
However, a more pressing concern is how to fund already existing resources as government continues to cut funding. There are only three broad ways in which services and resources can be funded – local or national government can pay for it, individual service-users themselves can pay for it, or private companies can pay for it. For some it’s a very controversial conclusion to come to, but of these three options public funding is by far the most preferable. Reliable state funding guarantees the consistent functioning of the service and enables long-term strategic planning. Our Czech visitors run their Family Centres with what could be termed unreliable state funding, having to repeatedly apply for grants that they may or may not be given, and thus not be able to look much further into the future than the next grant application deadline.
Given its levels of deprivation, and residents’ very low levels of disposable income, it would be completely unacceptable for anything but the most nominal of payments be requested from service users themselves. This leaves us with the third option – private funding. From a rational perspective at least, it would seem obvious to ask the private sector to help fund vital services and resources – public budgets are being cut, while large companies continue to make multimillion pound profits. As has been repeatedly demonstrated during the last few decades, privatisation of public services adversely affects the quality of the service delivered. The notion that facilities like the Children’s’ Centre could be privatised is grim, and completely unacceptable - it would create a situation where the welfare of vulnerable children and their parents would constantly come second behind the imperative to make a profit. Thus, a far better way of using private money for the public good would be for the kinds of large retailers and other corporations who have flocked to Bridgwater in recent decades to be asked to contribute towards the upkeep of services. For example, in order to receive planning permission, a new housing development proposed by a major housing developer could be required to include a community building donated to local residents. To receive permission to build a new superstore, a retail giant like Tesco might have to agree to fund a number of youth or other clubs, or make sizeable donations to facilities like the Children’s Centre or Eastover School.
The skewed balance of private and public power was demonstrated when French energy company EDF, behind the proposed third reactor at Hinkley Point, was asked by Sedgemoor District Council to make an annual payment to compensate the town for the continued disruption its construction and upkeep would cause. The company simply said no, and the council could do nothing but accept its decision. A far more progressive arrangement would require such payments by law – a small price to pay in return for making millions of pounds out of local people. However, such a situation would still only be a least-worst solution. It would raise uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the public was said to ‘owe’ the private sector, and whether in future local facilities will come sponsored by Asda or Tescos.
|Simon Hann gets his thoughts together in thinkers corner|
Realistically, in the short to medium term, the most likely outcome will be a ramshackle combination of all three sources of funding. Perhaps limited public grants to everything from Children’s Centres to Youth Clubs will be combined with (hopefully nominal) on-the-door fees for service users, topped up with donations from major businesses. Such a situation would be far from ideal - as generous as it is for private corporations to make voluntary donations to local services, said payments are inevitably going to be small, tokenistic and made purely for their public relations value. It would also be a far less stable financial basis than full public funding can provide, and the quality of the services provided would be bound to fall.
Simon Hann, December 2013