Posted in Highbridge on Thursday 31st October 2013 at 8:10am
It’s possible on a brisk autumn evening, when the car headlamps sparkle in the dusk, to feel uncharitable about writing a piece on my current, but soon-to-be former hometown. There’s a bustle of evening traffic, and a steady run of people trudging home from the railway station – bringing a little life to the place which isn’t always evident here at all. But reflecting on eight years of living here, which have been for me relatively calm and stable, is a tale of depressing inevitability which won’t betray many surprises. I’ve wanted for a long time to write a ‘state of the town’ speech – a single summation of how a place full of character and potential has been ground down into a dusty insignificance over time. It’s never seemed right to do this from within, and I’ve never felt entitled to speak for such a disparate population, who can rarely speak with a single voice. But now, perhaps it’s a little easier. A parting shot, with one hand on the door already, might seem cowardly – but it’s long overdue.
I moved to Highbridge just little over eight years ago. It made sense for lots of reasons – I was living in a pretty unsatisfactory property elsewhere, and the family were all assembling here after a few difficult illnesses and a newly born child. We were coming together via an unspoken gravity which focused on my parents who lived away to the edge of the town in a quiet close near the Radio Station. My sister and her growing family overshot the southern boundary and ended up in the fringe hamlet of Alstone – a neat little family home with space to grow. But with my less pressing need for space and greater need for economy, I ended up here in the centre of things. Well, perhaps formerly the centre – because there are few businesses left on Church Street, save for hairdressers and take away food stores. My flat was perfect – a short walk to the station for my frequent escapes, a stone’s throw from good beer at The Coopers Arms – it was just the bolthole I needed. In reality I’d spend little time here – edging around a triangle centred on home, supermarket and railway station on the whole, and making regular escapes to what many here would consider ‘foreign parts’ elsewhere in the country. But it wasn’t possible to remain on the edge of the debates about the future of the town. Like always, I just had to get involved.
It’s easy to be critical of Highbridge – alongside many hundreds of places across the country which haven’t made an easy transition from their mid-twentieth century golden age to these more prosaic, straitened times. But in the case of Highbridge, its easy target status has set in train a descending spiral which feels almost impossible to stop. Industrial decline is a tough one to tackle in itself, but here successive waves of ill-planned development have bolted new problems onto the town while simultaneously stripping away its public infrastructure. Traditional industries – bricks, bacon, railway vehicles – have gone completely. Light industry is being pushed out of town by more lucrative housing plots, and the motorway hugging strip of vast aluminium distribution centres is big on space, but light on people. Where do people here go for work? Increasingly, they just don’t. Highbridge tops the table in terms of unemployment and deprivation – serious statistics which are easily ignored in a world of numbers, but which here on the ground are self-evident in the faces of people sitting outside their homes in the middle of the day, watching the traffic thunder by. I’ve often asked myself why it ended up this way.
It’s all too easy to be fatalistic too – and to suggest that the decline of towns like this is inevitable, and none of this can be remedied. However, there is a more self-evident reason in the case of Highbridge – and, while I know this will be controversial in some quarters, this has a lot to do with Burnham-on-Sea. Burnham is on the face of it a genteel, benign neighbour - a fading Victorian seaside spa which spans a stretch of muddy estuary but delights in big western skies and the views of a broad sweep of beautiful coastline from its windy esplanade. The secret here though, is that Burnham is dying too – just a lot slower than Highbridge. The Town Centre is seeing its retail core crumble away – not precipitated by de-industrialisation like Highbridge, but by apathy and inaction. Independent retailers turn into charity shops, which eventually close. The few national chains who are here offer a downgraded, second-string service. At 5pm each day, the shutters come down abruptly – and for some shops they never come up again. Business-folk spit inexplicable vitriol in the local press – blaming the internet, or the townsfolk for not caring – never looking to the economic reality or their own refusal to move from ancient business models. But as Burnham declines steadily and the Town and District Councils struggle to manage its retreat, they use Highbridge as a defence mechanism – an urban buffer zone which can absorb the mandated social housing and the necessary evils of badly planned supermarkets. There has always been a grim-faced bitterness about this here in the Town: “Highbridge is a dumping ground for people they don’t want”. It’s not entirely untrue – it used to be an expression of hugely exaggerated class prejudice, but now it’s just chillingly accurate demography. Interestingly, voicing this particular gripe – even when it perhaps wasn’t entirely the case – opened the door for policy and practice to completely make it so. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the policymakers must have cocked a surprised eyebrow at just how easy it was in the end. It’s almost like some people here in Highbridge wanted this to be the case perhaps?
Urban Planning is an arcane art, and its exponents go largely without thanks for what appears on the surface at least, to be a boring, clerical function. Done well of course, planning shouldn’t feel obvious – but here it has become a weirdly public activity that excites unhealthy interest. In short, Highbridge is in thrall to two or three major developer/land-owners who vie for a finite amount of public funding. They do so by buying cheap brownfield land and proposing schemes which offer tenuous and untestable benefits in the future. They put planners in the impossible position of trying to anticipate future moves – a game of chess for which the prize is jam tomorrow. Of course these schemes are always just beyond the electoral horizon too – so approving them holds no immediate fear for the politicians in most cases either. So, if you believe any one of these visions, we’re due a marina, a cultural zone, a rejuvenated retail area. But the truth is that any crumbs that our largely indifferent District and County Councils might drop here have been theoretically spent over and over again. The Councils are complicit in these games too, buying ransom strips of land on silted riverbanks, knowing that if the grand schemes materialise their tiny investments will sit squarely where someone else needs to build. But just like chess players, no-one needs to make their move hastily. It can wait. Highbridge will still be there, and will be a little more desperate the longer the horizon is pushed out. This stalemate is played out behind Olympic-blue fences, in burned out hotel plots and in strips of scrubby land in otherwise developed parts of the town. Planning here isn’t a distant and administrative process at all - you can see and feel it slowly eating away at the place.
Of course, the only defence is to object – and some in Highbridge do, often very loudly and with the support of some dedicated, informed local voices. But resistance in Highbridge is tribal and patchy – not nearly as slick and well-managed as the middle-class retirees of Burnham pull off again and again. Groups form here, and swiftly crash as a few dominant and depressingly resigned personalities bring them down. Associations form around bids and funding grabs, and swiftly retreat into their own little territory. There is no coherence, no sense of a town wanting to work together to get out of the doldrums. There was, many years ago, a bid to separate the Town Council into two. It fell, among dire warnings that Burnham was propping up Highbridge, and that we couldn’t live without the guiding hands of our betters. These patriarchal, conservative (in its truest sense) attitudes from the Burnham centred Town and District Councillors are bucked by a few voices of reason here in Highbridge – but they’re barely heard over the roar of organised, directed anger when similar issues crop up in Burnham. Take a tale of two formal applications – planning for a petrol station on a crowded, ill-planned supermarket site in Highbridge, and licensing for a Convenience Store in Burnham Town Centre. Both raise serious traffic and environmental issues, both will impact on other businesses in the area. The first is supported – it’ll increase competition for fuel prices and the noise and traffic won’t hurt too much. The other is contested vehemently – it’ll increase competition on local businesses and the traffic will be unbearable. I’m fairly sure I know how this will pan out – and recent decisions about the Tucker’s Garage site, which isn’t so different to the Highbridge Hotel in some ways, go further to prove how skewed the decision-making is across the two towns.
I can’t leave this rant without at least some glimmer of hope, can I? There’s always a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, surely? Well – as it stands, no there simply isn’t. While national policy turns the screws ever tighter on many of the people who make up the town’s population, and while regional and local policy fails to recognise that it has taken all it can from the town, things are spinning out of control here on the ground. So what can be done?
None of this is easy – and perhaps writing it down in this way is a little glib and self-serving? Maybe so. But I can’t leave this place without hoping that somehow people will find their voices, form their opposition and fight their battles. I tried for my part, and didn’t get very far – but there are brighter and more dedicated people than me in Highbridge for sure. Good luck everyone, and don’t let the developers win!
Posted in Highbridge on Tuesday 5th June 2012 at 12:30am
A long time ago I thought about creating a site focused on where I lived, keeping my identity secret. Not because I had anything particularly controversial to say, but because ultimately I wanted the freedom to cut through the politics and frustration inherent in living in Highbridge. Instead I figured I'd have the courage of my convinctions, and conceived the only half tongue-in-cheek Highbridge Psychogeographical Association as a vehicle for my ramblings. I've not used this part of the blog quite as frequently, or even exactly how I intended - real life, a dabbling in politics and other writing about things a world away from here all taking their toll on my drive to write about home. But just now, things aren't altogether great here. In short, there is a huge stunt being pulled somewhere and there are plenty of people who are working hard to dust over the tracks of those involved. Yes, this will sound like the paranoid ramblings of some sort of local lefty - but in this case at least, it's genuinely not. Some of these people who are content to have the public entirely excluded from this process selected me as their candidate a year or two back, because they knew damn well I understood localism and community development better than they did. I can only say I'm glad that circumstances conspired to prevent me standing for them.
The whole situation hinges on the wretched, unloved Highbridge Hotel once again. It's become an unwelcome bargaining chip in a bigger game which stretches right from the River Parrett shoreline to the meadows which sit alongside the River Brue. In a nutshell, the Planning Committee is being asked to consider an application for parts of the former boatyard site on the basis that the developer will provide flood defence improvements which will unlock the ability to build on the other sites. This huge commitment of cash will effectively exempt them from any Section 106 contribution for the more traditional issues such as schools, transport and so on. So, the Planning Committee is being asked to take a 'double or quits' style gamble. Give the go ahead to the Boatyard, get the sea defences for free, and bank on the 'unlocked' development sites providing the infrastructure for the whole set of separately developed sites. We now enter a sort of quantum world of chicken-and-egg causality. The defences are needed because of the development, but the development can't be built without them. The relationship of the defences to the rest of the site is far less clear, and indeed there is no easy way of considering them together. Right in the centre of this maelstrom sits the Hotel. Still collapsing, still shaming our sister town up the road, still echoing a community's growing disconnection from the democracy which represents it.
For starters this breaches all sorts of rules and regulations, and is technically illegal. When the Committee considers an application it is required to do so on the individual merits of the case, with some consideration of how it fits with the strategic plan for the area. And that is captured in the Local Development Framework. This captures how the Council thinks the whole district should develop over the coming years, and has been subject to a ton of expensive consultation too. But its been largely discarded in this case. So, we've got a bunch of officers who are reluctant to talk to the public because they fear reprisals for their inaction, a group of councillors who (save for a notable couple) are intent on getting the deal through to rid them of an issue and cement relationships with developers, and a population which - although divided on what should happen, are increasingly alarmed by what actually is (or indeed isn't) happening on the ground.
Sometime last week, the graffiti above appeared on the hotel, complete with painted jubilee bunting. Its innocent, childlike curves beg for an answer from those who have it in their power to offer it. Is a once proud build making a pathetic bid for it's own survival? Can you put a value on collective memory and shared ideas of space when they're pretty much all a community has to use as foundations for it's future? This simple message speaks louder and clearer than most others who've considered the Hotel site in recent times - and certainly improves on the planned, heavily corporately influenced plan to put a mural on the boards. The fate of the hotel, of the last historic building standing in the old centre of the town lies in the hands of a political gamble.
I only wish I had some confidence in the steadfastness of the players...
Posted in Highbridge on Thursday 20th October 2011 at 4:25pm
Once again on Monday, a pair of apparently disaffected local youths set fire to the remains of the Highbridge Hotel - this time in broad daylight on a busy weekday evening. It was again a pretty serious fire, which given the sodden timbers of the interior must have been generously accelerated to reach the intensity which it appears to have. A huge amount of damage was done to the remains of the interior and the roof. At present, it's not known if any further structural damage has occurred.
It would be so easy, with the fire coming just two days before a public meeting to discuss the site, to invent conspiracies. It might not even be inaccurate to do so, but if yesterday's meeting needed to do anything, it needed to break the three-way impasse between community, developer and Local Authority if it was to move things forward in any sense. The meeting was, in fairness, rather a shambles. A proposed 'drop in' session of three hours, organised during the working day and thus fairly inaccessible, became a formal meeting of just two hours. So I ended up blundering into the room around an hour before the published end of the meeting to hear the chairman say "well, lets start wrapping this up then...". To be frank, I'd been in two minds about attending after the "behave or else" warnings on the town's internet forum from the chair. I didn't think people would be able to articulate what they felt without anger - and I also thought it was important that Council Officers heard it. The developer, less so - he'd already had his serving and seems impassive in the face of it. But after all, the bit of the meeting I caught was temperate and fairly interesting. I also arrived in time to find the thoughts I'd provided for one of our Town Councillors being read to the meeting by someone who did so much more articulately than I would have. I'll reproduce it here, because it continues to sum up what I feel, and I think it struck a chord - however minor - with the SDC officers:
The debate about whether to clear the site or rebuild the hotel is fundamentally not the right one to have. The public should press their council and the developer to come up with a range of proposals for the site, with or without the hotel. We shouldn’t be asked to make an impossible choice based on blind faith that “something” will be done with the site in the future – that way we could lose a huge asset to the town without any guarantee of a scheme which will benefit us. If SDC are serious about building positive momentum, real costed proposals for the site with assessments of impact on the area are a start to rebuilding Highbridge’s relationship with the council.
We need a solution for the site which links to the economic regeneration of the centre of town. Housing of the right form, quantity and quality quite rightly plays a part in this. But only if the proposal for the site can sustain employment at least for those moving into the homes, and ideally to others already seeking work in Highbridge, is it right to progress it. An unsustainable development which adds to the burden on stretched infrastructure without contributing economically to the town is simply not an option for Highbridge now.
With respect, a community facility is just not needed. We have many such facilities already, and the idea that a building or centre could repair the damage wrought from years of poor planning decisions is frankly insulting. Given that the lead time and partnerships for building schools, health facilities etc. is simply not available I can only think this means a meeting hall. We need to move beyond 1970s views of community development work and start to engage with the evidence about what the community needs – in the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and elsewhere. The damaged hotel site has galvanised more community spirit than any specific action SDC has taken in years – there is a strong message in that about the value the town places on the site, and the approaches SDC are using to the community.
So, will this lead to change for the site, and more importantly a new attitude to Highbridge? Will a revival of the regeneration partnership manage to side-step the usual political footballers and move the site towards a development which has what Highbridge almost universally told Sedgemoor District Council it wanted (retail, jobs, economic viability) rather than what it expressly doesn't (flats, takeaways, more community halls). What kind of people will volunteer for the partnership? It needs to be a mixture of the usual stalwart local volunteers, and people who can slalom through the obstacles of governance and planning without losing heart or feeling overwhelmed. No mean feat, and potentially a thankless and incredibly time-consuming task.
This of course leaves one final question - what of the building itself? Sadly, I sense the tide is turning and the developer is winning the apparently recession-imposed war of attrition. Plenty of people think he's almost redeemed himself because he's letting the local kids (some of whom he confesses he'd lock up!) paint the new wooden hoardings. Thus, the will to knock it down if it will be expedient is strong. Still though, the building hovers as a pale grey, sinister presence on the maps of the proposed 2008 development which were paraded again tonight - almost defying it's own deletion. Quite whether it will survive the efforts of casual local hooligans, let alone the professional ones is up for debate.
Posted in Highbridge on Monday 15th March 2010 at 7:05am
It's easy to look with justifiable anger at the recent removal of Burnham-on-Sea's boating pool from the beach. A gift from the Braithwaite family to give thanks for their sons' safe return from the First World War, generations of visitors to the town have played in it's murky depths. I have my own memories of digging miniature canals in the silted up pool, and of finding decaying eels floating in the water. Mostly though, its part of the landscape - it's origins largely unknown until the recent Sedgemoor District Council decision to remove the pool. And while it is dangerous to use an internet forum to take the temperature of a local debate - and especially one as given to dyfunctional babbling and pyrexic rages as burnham-on-sea.com, the reactions to these recent events have given me cause to consider how the 'heritage' game works around here.
The final straw for those who are claiming the demolition of the pool is 'desecration' appears to be the suggestion that a chunk of the concrete edifice will be retained to bear a plaque featuring words chosen by the Braithwaite's descendants. This appears from the reactions to be adding a gross insult to a grave injury - but why is it any worse than sending this last piece to the crusher along with all the others? I think it's all about the removal of context, and the simple fact that we lazily expect our heritage to come prepackaged for easy consumption these days. Consider the embarassment of riches from the Roman era available in Britain today. I've been dragged around many a windy hillside to see these - forlorn, but evocative. Suggestive of a flow of time, but not necessarily sparking an instant vision of our history. Until of course suitable context is provided in the form of a 'visitor center' or 'experience'. In this model of heritage, the consumer signs-up for a package deal of context-setting multimedia and the artefact or location is relegated to second place. The thing itself can never match the reconstructed environment - not even the thrill of touching two thousand-year old stone walls can compete with the carefully paced walk-through designed to deliver just the right number of visitors through the site.
The situation with the boating pool is a little different, but still relates to this disconnection between relic and context. Here, the context is absolutely gone - bulldozed already and crushed into dust finer than the sand which surrounded it. The relic, a rather odd looking and insignificant corner of the concrete pool, is useless in itself and has none of the qualities of the original memorial. It's no accident that religious terms like 'sacrilege' are employed - in the strictest sense this relic has indeed been robbed of it's truth and meaning. Of course, the replacement for this lost context - a suitable plaque linking then to now - will never quite deliver the reverent and solemn 'experience' required. In a new war nearly a hundred years later, and with a deepening gulf between the personal and political in society this act of destruction signals all that is bad at the core of politics. An administration has failed to listen and understand, and seems to have deeply misjudged the heritage gamble.
How does this relate to Highbridge? Well, our own heritage here is taking hit after hit and we are in danger of losing the context too. However, the context here is an authentic market town which can't offer an 'experience' to the visitor in any positive sense as things stand. What it can offer is a view of forsaken heritage - entering from the south, the charred skin of the Highbridge Hotel, shored by an exoskeleton of scaffolding, rears at the casual traveller. Descending towards town, and just feet away the town clock too is under threat of demolition due to a lack of repair. The historic shopping and industrial areas are slowly but inexorably transformed into residential developments of the most depressingly predictable kind. Our own war memorial crumbles and leans at a busy road junction. However, the same intemperate locals who rage against the demolition of the pool can barely raise an eyebrow at the widespread destruction in Highbridge. The best response seems to be a recognition at the fact that Highbridge stands as a embarrassing gateway to it's sister town of Burnham - and that fixing it is a similar window-dressing exercise to watering the flower beds on the distributor road. The worst though, is a cynical sneer at the town and it's inhabitants. It is worryingly commonplace to find the latter view nowadays among locals - and often, perplexingly, it is those who are shouting loudest about the boating pool or poor planning decisions in Burnham who are least concerned and most scornful of Highbridge. It is of course folly to believe that the events here will respect parish boundaries, and perhaps it's time for Burnham's champions to look long and hard at Highbridge and to recognise the trend.
So perhaps the heritage game really is a lottery, and no relic is worth more than the value placed on it's immediate surroundings? This certainly seemed to be the situation for Sutton House in Hackney until the National Trust finally intervened, and it seems true for Highbridge too. As for the boating pool, I'm truly sorry that a part of my own memory of Burnham has disappeared, but politics and history are never the most comfortable companions.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.