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How a Luton Council Estate Is Taking Control of Its Future

Taj Ali

After years of institutional neglect, residents of Marsh Farm in Luton have come together to build a bottom-up model of regeneration – one which puts the community's interest before private profit.

Marsh Farm photographed in the 1960s.

The Marsh Farm housing estate in Luton was built in the 1960s, and now has a population of around 10,000. Like many social housing estates, in the years since its development, it has endured an institutional neglect which has seen its levels of unemployment and deprivation rise to more than double the Luton average.

In the absence of adequate government support, members of the community set up a self-help collective known as the Exodus Collective, which embarked on an ambitious plan to radically transform the estate. Many former members of the collective are now part of Marsh Farm Outreach, a grassroots community development organisation that has actively facilitated estate-based community wealth-building – and proven the power of bottom-up community regeneration.

The 1995 Riots

The Marsh Farm estate made headlines in 1995 after several years of tensions between police and groups of local youths erupted into three nights of running battles, which saw riot officers deployed from the Met.

Glenn Jenkins, a member of the Exodus Collective at the time, says the 1995 riots were a pivotal moment in the estate’s history, made so by the unprecedented police response. ‘What started as a burning car and kids protesting against their mate being beat up and arrested had all of a sudden led to what genuinely looked like a military incursion, and I mean military,’ he tells Tribune. ‘I’m talking hundreds of police in columns and police helicopters too. We’d never seen a helicopter in ’95.’

A small spark with a few kids was quickly turned into a mass disturbance, drawing thousands from all over Marsh Farm and Luton. ‘It felt like the estate had been invaded,’ says Glenn, adding that the petrol on the road was the years of antagonism between the kids and the police. ‘Police were like a gang downtown. They’d drive through and stare up the kids. There was constant harassment.’

Marsh House undergoing regeneration. Credit: Marsh Farm Outreach.

Robbie, another resident, says racism was a predominant factor. ‘The way police treated and still do treat young people around here doesn’t help.’

On the third night of the riots, in order to defuse tension, members of the Exodus Collective put on a major party five miles away. ‘There were over 5000 people going to our dances,’ explains Glenn. Masses of people who may have otherwise gone down to the scene of the riots went to the dance instead.

At four o’clock that morning, Glenn received a call from BBC Three Counties Radio. ‘They said, “We’re at Marsh Farm and there’s thousands of police just sitting on park benches. There’s nobody here.” And you could hear birds whistling in the background.

‘I was proud of that,’ he continues. ‘That was the beginning of us demonstrating how bottom-up community solutions can resolve issues that traditional approaches not only fail to resolve, but often make worse.’

Marsh Farm Outreach

In 2000, following a long period of campaigning by Marsh Farm residents for much-needed investment in the deprived estate, Marsh Farm Outreach was born.

‘We had to put together an approval package for funding – a vision for what they called at the time the “new deal for the communities”,’ explains Glenn. ‘The problem was that we had a lot of experience, and we knew that the “new deal for communities” would actually be the “usual deal for communities” if there wasn’t an activist base of residents who were willing to fight to make it do what it said on the tin.’

Caroline was a resident on the Marsh Farm Estate and involved in Marsh Farm Outreach from the very beginning. For her, a bottom-up approach to regeneration was desperately needed.

‘There was a strong feeling at the time that when funding went into poor areas, the money never filtered down to the people that needed it,’ she explains. ‘We knew that if something was really going to be meaningful and lasting, it had to be from the bottom up.’

Marsh House post-regeneration. Credit: Marsh Farm Outreach.

She adds that being rooted within the community helped the organisation to engage with the people on the estate in a way external organisations could not. ‘We used to actually go round and knock every single door on the estate and speak to people on their doorstep. As we were neighbours, there was a feeling of us all being in it together.’

In one of their earliest campaigns, the group of residents pushed for an empty former factory located right in the middle of the estate to be used as a Community Enterprise and Resource Centre (CERC). To make the case for the CERC, the community got together and drew up a business plan, demonstrating how the disused building could be transformed into a facility that directly benefited local residents.

‘Futures House was formerly a derelict old clapped-out factory, and is now one of the most sustainable community centres I’ve seen in the UK, and one of the biggest, too,’ says Glenn.

The regeneration of Futures House towards the community is an example of the economic power Marsh Farm Outreach has campaigned for and won. But the collective is also committed to fighting for greater political power for residents through direct democracy – a battle that remains ongoing.

‘Futures House is, in theory, owned by the community,’ says Glenn, ‘but in practice it’s still gripped by a neoliberal little board, who believe that democracy is a bad thing. So we’re going for a wonderful battle with that.’

The Organisation Workshop and Resource Mapping

Community organisers from Marsh Farm Outreach have also successfully pioneered a Brazilian model of organising called the ‘Organisational Workshop’ – the first of its kind in the UK. This grassroots approach empowers residents to create their own jobs by providing tools and resources to sell goods and services to the local community.

‘We got in touch with organisers from Chile,’ explains Caroline. ‘Through the organisation workshop, they had been incredibly successful in setting up bottom-up social enterprises in South America and Africa. We were intrigued.’

The Chilean organisers initially came over on a consultant basis, working with Marsh Farm Outreach to perform feasibility studies to see if the organisational workshop could be replicated in the UK. ‘We worked for years to try and prove its worth and how it would stand up financially,’ Caroline adds.

Through an economic survey of local residents, Marsh Farm outreach were able to identify the amount of money residents received, and where that money was actually spent. The study concluded that if the organisational workshop were implemented, it could potentially create up to 33 social enterprises on the estate which would be financially sustainable and create a large number of jobs.

In the same vein, Marsh Farm outreach also scan the local area and enquire about the ownership of derelict buildings.

‘We do a thing called resource mapping,’ says Glenn. ‘You look at all the buildings and who owns them. What’s being used and what’s not? When you do these ownership checks, you find out some interesting things.

From a workshop at Marsh Farm Outreach’s community organisers action camp. Credit: Marsh Farm Outreach.

‘With Marsh House, we said to the council, “What’s your future use? What are your plans? Because if you ain’t got none, then that’s not good enough.” We’re squatters: we’d mobilise our numbers and occupy.’

Marsh House, a derelict seventeenth-century farmhouse, has now been turned into a community hub, home to eight socialist enterprises including a radio station, a DJing academy, and a restaurant and bar.

Plugging the Leaks

In 2005, research from the New Economics Foundation found that if just ten percent of annual spending on public services was redirected to services delivered locally by local people, the equivalent of 15 times total annual regeneration spend would go directly into those communities. That’s a statistic Marsh Farm Outreach are keen to highlight.

‘We did a big bit of work called ‘Plugging the Leaks’, which examined where money is being leaked out of the local community and encouraging the growth of socialist enterprises that will benefit it directly,’ says Glenn. ‘Let’s take the food shops in Marsh Farm. Before the work we did, they were paying rent to the council or the precinct owners. Now the food shop pays rent to the community centre as it’s based there. Instead of rent leaking out of the community, that rent adds to the community bucket.’

Futures House. Credit: Marsh Farm Outreach.

After the wages and running costs have been paid, the surpluses from these enterprises are directed towards the creation of new not-for-profit businesses. ‘That’s the differences you get with a socialist enterprise,’ explains Glenn. ‘It recycles and regenerates, rather than hoarding and competing with others.’

With schemes like these, the community of Marsh Farm has demonstrated that only direct democratic involvement and grassroots community organising can truly facilitate economic transformation. Going back to the old way of doing things, which left local residents destitute, is impossible.

‘For me, it’s the only way forward,’ says Robbie. ‘If you’re going to get change from the bottom up, you’ve got to reach the bottom. And you’re not going to do that sitting in an ivory tower somewhere, sending out surveys to people. You’ve got to reach them on the ground, face to face. Only by listening to those people and acting in their best interests will you create the change you want to see.’