Film Review: New Town Utopia

Directed by Christopher Ian Smith
Release date: 2018
Running time: 80 minutes

‘New Town Utopia is a feature documentary film about utopian dreams and concrete realities… the challenging, funny, and sometimes tragic story of the British new town of Basildon, Essex. The narrative is guided by the artists, musicians and poets of Basildon – on a journey through memory, place and performance. Facing austerity, adversity and personal battles they are individuals driven by creative spirit to help their community through art, poetry, music… and some rather angry puppets.’

The film is about the vision the post war Labour government had for the New Towns and how that contrasts to the stark reality of what Basildon is like today. There’s footage of tired looking estates with the inevitable cracked and broken paths with the actor, Jim Broadbent, speaking the words of the Labour MP, Lewis Silken, as he articulated his vision for what the New Towns could be.

The vision of what Basildon could have been – a town largely self sufficient in employment with the new estates having a mixed population living side by side, in an environment of well designed, inspiring architecture interspersed with plenty of green space remained just that, a vision. Sure, up until the 1980s, there was plenty of manufacturing industry along the north side of Basildon by the A127. As those of us who are old enough to remember, the 1980s saw the next phase of de-industrialisation and the new factories that were optimistically built in the late 1950s and early 1960s closed one by one, destroying skilled jobs in the process. What has replaced them is an endless sea of warehouses offering little in the way of skilled labour but plenty in the way of short term and zero hours contracts.

Regarding housing, as the film points out, the right to buy in the 1980s and the individualistic mindset that came in with it started the break up of what sense of social solidarity and community there was on the new estates. The one flaw we could find in the film was the way it didn’t cover what happened to many of these properties after the owners had flogged them and left for the leafier pastures of Wickford and Billericay. Namely the growing number of buy to let landlords, a fair few of who are total scumbags who bear a responsibility for the rising number of homes of multiple occupation and the slum conditions residents of these properties have to endure.

What we loved about the film was the way it gave locals a voice. Okay, there was a bias towards the arts community in Basildon but that’s no bad thing. Yes, we did say arts community and Basildon in the same sentence – just because you’re working class, it doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself in a creative way. In the 1970s, when there was still an air of optimism about what the place could be, there was an arts scene supported by public funding that encouraged ordinary people to participate and express themselves. Needless to say, when the 1980s came along, a lot of that went as it didn’t ‘contribute’ to the bottom line… However, even though a lot of the arts infrastructure was cut from Basildon, the musicians, artists and poets featured in the film simply kept going, relying on a ‘do it yourself’ ethos and a spirit of defiance.

This film is brutally honest about the gulf between the original vision for Basildon and the reality of life in the town now as it’s ravaged by austerity and the social problems that come with it. Problems that our friends at Basildon & Southend Housing Action are only too familiar with.

It’s not just the estates that are bearing the brunt of this – a walk round the town centre will show an ever increasing number of empty shop units as the economic climate gets harsher and the shoppers who still have money either go to the big malls at places like Westfield and Bluewater or shop online. The ‘green lungs’ that were planned in as parks are increasingly seen as development opportunities by a council that only values what it sees on the bottom line. The desecration of a significant chunk of Gloucester Park, which is next to the town centre, by a private housing development aimed at commuters is one example of this narrow mindset.

All in all, this is a film that is brutally honest, moving in parts and funny (in a gallows humour kind of way) in others. We’d recommend watching it so people can get a picture of what working class life in the new towns is like. There is one proviso – any documentary like this is a snapshot in time and life moves on. With outward migration from London, as the demographic and ethnic mix of Basildon alters, the town will see a lot of changes in the next decade or so. Maybe, with the right kind of social movement, that will offer an opportunity to try and realise some of the original vision for the new town, albeit tailored to the 21st century…

See here for more information about this film: http://www.newtownutopia.com/

This review first appeared on the On Uncertain Ground blog.