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Selling Off Southend

The government is determined to privatise NHS assets and dismantle public land. But local activist groups in Southend are fighting back.

The stealth privatisation of our NHS has meant a piece-by-piece dismantling of the service — but the march of the market doesn’t end there. Alongside enabling the deterioration of pay and conditions for health workers and the outsourcing of essential services, healthcare privateers are sinking their claws ever deeper into the NHS by gutting all of its so-called ‘surplus’ assets, including the land that the NHS owns.

This is what is happening at Fossetts Farm in Southend. The 14-acre plot of land, which was originally intended for use as a diagnostic and treatment centre, is now in the hands of property developers with the support of the government. This move is part of a nationwide sell-off of public land to generate a one-off cash boost.

According to a Freedom of Information request undertaken by Southend residents, the government agency Homes England bought the site from the local NHS Trust for just £7.8 million in 2018. At the time, the secretary of the community anti-landgrab group Fossetts For The People (FFTP), Martin Berry, said that if Homes England sells the site at a profit it would disappear into the ‘black hole’ of privatised assets and local residents would see no benefit.

Of the fifty-nine NHS sites sold until 2018, the vast majority have been used to build ‘executive’ homes. The distance from Southend to London — a mere fifty miles — makes it a desirable location for commuters to the capital, as well as for working people fleeing a city where the average house price is over half a million pounds. This means property developers swarm towns like Southend to buy up potentially valuable land.

In the end, Berry has been proven right — the little profit that the NHS received from the sale of Fossetts has not been put into frontline services, but has fallen into the hands of the Sustainable Transformation Partnership (STP) — an organisation in charge of administering the further removal of NHS services by streamlining them between Southend, Basildon, and Broomfield.

Local tenants and trade unionists are no strangers to the cuts imposed by the STP; many of those active in FFTP met through a successful struggle against the closure of their accident and emergency unit (AE) in 2017. After it was announced that the AE was to be downgraded and left with 24-hour walk-in departments, the biggest demonstration seen in Southend since the anti-poll tax movement was organised and the STP quickly backtracked on their plans.

Today, the same activists are using the massive support network developed through their previous victory to fight for a social housing development on the Fossetts site. Workers and residents are organising to demand that the land be put back into public hands, so that it can be used to provide affordable homes for local NHS workers.

Kate Sheehan, a nurse and local resident, has said it is ‘imperative’ that NHS students and workers are given the opportunity to gain access to housing on ex-NHS land. Many in the area face ‘sky high rents’, she said, and find little support from their employer when it comes to housing. These workers are vital for the community, and will be lost if sufficient affordable housing is not built. So why would the NHS simply sell off the land?

This is not to mention the rising problem of homelessness in the town, something you would imagine our National Health Service would have a stake in tackling. At the last official count, Southend has 49 people sleeping outside, with 146 households in hostel accommodation, and a further 52 are in other forms of temporary accommodation. This will always be an issue in a town where the average wage is £22,000 — a figure artificially boosted by the higher wages of London commuters.

Despite these urgent issues, Homes England have been reluctant to engage the public or their political representatives in decision-making. The sale has been determined by market logic, with the agency avoiding any democratic oversight. The only local consultation by Homes England was a poorly-advertised meeting at the back of the council’s offices. When residents attended the consultation and managed to confront the new owners, the agency’s representatives seemed baffled by the idea that working-class people would demand a say over their local healthcare system and land.

The campaign has been growing, and has achieved the support of local councillors and people. In building this campaign, FFTP have opened up space in the political landscape for a compelling alternative vision of how to use local space: they want a Fossetts Farm that is used to tackle soaring rent prices and prevent the degradation of the NHS, rather than to further bolster the portfolios of rentier interests.

But problems like Fossetts go beyond the local level. Sell offs like this are happening at an alarming rate nationally. Without a political struggle to tackle the problems of NHS privatisation and the dismantling of public land, many more communities like Southend will find themselves beholden to the whims of the market.