Exodus: the latest
A New Deal Down on the Farm?
The Exodus Collective of Luton have been making a name for themselves as a movement for people-led social regeneration over the last eight years. Now a multi-ethnic housing estate, on which many of them were born and live, is coming together in a New Deal for Communities bid which could secure £50 million of government money. Jim Carey and Tim Malyon catch up with the Collective.
“It is ordered that the defendants must not do any of the following acts: holding, causing to be held, organising or permitting the holding of, or participating in, or otherwise assisting in any manner whatsoever, any entertainment, party, concert or other gathering…… between 9pm 31 December 1999 and 11am on 3 January 2000 (inclusive).”
So read the Millennium message of goodwill sent to three key members of the Exodus Collective by South Bedfordshire District Council.
However, with entry prices going through the roof for millennium new year events, Exodus were keener than ever to facilitate an affordable celebration for people in the Luton area. They’ve been organising community events for the last eight years – from raves to estate family fun days, and for all of those years they have put on popular and free Xmas and New Year dances. So, despite the above worded injunction and despite warnings from local police, Exodus persevered with the festive party in a disused warehouse near Luton. Thousands of local people danced in the next millennium – without being fleeced.
“If I hadn’t met Exodus and hadn’t moved into the Manor or gone to the raves, I’d be in prison now because I would have carried on crime. It would have caught up with me in the end.”
The Exodus Collective, as regular readers will undoubtedly be aware, have claimed headlines for reasons far wider than rave. Throughout their eight year history they have also become known for the stance they make on behalf of social welfare and community regeneration. From the moment they set up speakers in the woods back in 1992, the Collective have always maintained that the lack of opportunity and affordable activity available to Luton youth has played a major part in the growth of a destructive boredom. And Bedfordshire knows it.
Whilst the national average rise in crime last year registered at 2.2 per cent, Bedfordshire’s rise weighed in at 12 per cent. The unemployment rate on Marsh Farm housing estate on the edge of Luton is seven times the national average. Interviewed on the night of an ‘Exodus dance’, a 16 year old from nearby Houghton told Red Pepper: “If it weren’t for Exodus, everyone’d be at home watching videos or getting into trouble. It’s either this or nick cars, get into trouble, do crime. This stops us getting onto crime because it’s better.”
Thrown out of his Luton home in his early teens, Dave moved into HAZ Manor (a derelict hospice now renovated by Exodus) after becoming a loyal attendant at Exodus’ parties: “If I hadn’t met Exodus and hadn’t moved into the Manor or gone to the raves, I’d be in prison now because I would have carried on crime. It would have caught up with me in the end….All I was doing was sitting about all day with nothing to do. Yeah I was a thief, not cars and not yards, not houses, I don’t really know why I didn’t get into them, ‘cos all the people I was around were into that. But I was like nicking from shops, full on, everyday. And then come the weekends I werenít nicking because I was going to the raves. It was something to look forward to.”
And yet Exodus’ largely successful attempts to apply themselves to these widely identified problems have consistently attracted a multitude of police operations, local authority injunctions and countless court appearances. Over the last eight years it’s been an almost constant shower of poison arrows.
One of the worst occasions – and there’s a few to choose from – was in 1993, when the bungalow at Long Meadow Community Free Farm was raided by police on the night of a planned Exodus rave in an operation code-named Anagram. Exodus had only just signed a tenancy agreement for the property after originally squatting it a few months before. Some 4000 party people promptly surrounded Luton Police Station, demanding the release of the 36 Exodus members taken into custody in a demonstration which remained non-violent throughout. Two weeks later, Bedfordshire Police suddenly announced they had found a stash of ecstasy inside the bungalow, next to the personal belongings of Exodus member, Paul Taylor. “This case stinks,” commented Taylor’s barrister, James Wood, at the trial. “It stinks of a plot.” The jury agreed and found Taylor ‘not guilty’ after a series of contradictions and irregularities in police procedure were exposed in court. (background material on www.squall.co.uk).
The targeting carried on for years and reached such an overt level by 1995 that Bedfordshire County Council voted to support a public inquiry into “the activities of Bedfordshire Police and others against the Exodus Collective and others”. The inquiry has yet to begin, with the process currently stalled at the Home Office, but the evidence to be aired when the inquiry finally happens has mounted throughout the ensuing years. Despite the hail, Exodus, ‘movement of Jah people’ did not stall and the value of their emphasis on youth entertainment was to be dramatically proven.
In 1995, the fermenting social discontent in Luton exploded into three days of rioting. Hundreds of youth spilled onto the interlocking streets of the Marsh Farm Estate as the Metropolitan Police riot squad sped up the M1 and steamed in. The warren of walkways and stairwells on Marsh Farm Estate meant that, despite heavy handed riot tactics, the disturbances were not quelled. After three days of indiscriminate burning, looting and fighting with police, a rave organised by Exodus served to redirect local anger, emptying the estate for a night, and bringing the rioting to a close. Exodus publicly accused police of inciting local people to riot “by the use of new tactics, behaving more like an occupying army than a police service.” Local councillor, Tom Shaw, described the dance as playing “a major part” in quelling the disturbances, though Bedfordshire Police spokesman, Chief Inspector Woolf, was less forthcoming: “There was what is known as a rave away from Luton on the Saturday night and that may or may not have had an affect.” “They got youngsters off the Estate and got them dancing to the music,” confirmed local Cllr Larry McGowan. (See ‘To rave or to riot’ SQUALL feature)
And yet despite the demonstrable benefits of Exodus’ activities, deliberate obstacles continued to be cast in the Collective’s path. On Mayday weekend 1999, Bedfordshire Police mounted their largest move against Exodus since Anagram. Code-named ‘Canterbury,’ the £25,000 operation involved a police helicopter and some 140 officers whose stopping of vehicles was deemed unlawful in a subsequent court case. Three arrests made for obstruction during a peaceful sit-down protest were subsequently thrown out of court – “no case to answer.” Beds Police also confiscated the Collective’s sound system but, with no legal leg to stand on, were forced to give it back the following week.
“I’ll be pleading guilty to involvement in the organisation of the festival because I was honoured to be.”
Similarly, far from facilitating, local authorities have been quick to sling their own poison arrows at every available opportunity. The Free the Spirit Festival, hosted by Exodus for the last three years at Long Meadow Community Free Farm, is now widely acknowledged as one of the best free festivals in the UK. According to Lord Howland, son of the Marquis of Tavistock and overseer of his father’s 135,000 acre Bedfordshire estate, this year’s event was well run. After visiting the festival site at Exodus’ invitation, he told SQUALL: “It was great to see…very peaceful, relaxed, happy, all the children running around with the parents happy, content, and confident that they were safe.”
But South Beds District Council disagree. They are currently prosecuting Exodus Collective spokesperson Glenn Jenkins and fellow Exodus member Paul Taylor for being concerned in the organisation of an unlicensed event, and for failing to comply with a noise abatement notice. The charge, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison and/or up to a £20,000 fine, is due to be heard in court imminently. An undaunted Glenn Jenkins told SQUALL:
“I’ll be pleading guilty to involvement in the organisation of the festival because I was honoured to be. But we maintain that we did not break noise levels.”
The Collective have every intention of facilitating the fourth annual Free the Spirit Festival this year. But for the first time it will not be held on the farm. Other plans for the land are now well under way.
Tenants since December 1992, Exodus bought Long Meadow Community Free Farm in December 1999, all 17 acres with a bungalow at the top and outline planning permission for a new farmhouse and barns at the bottom. They were loaned £105,000 by Triodos Bank and £50,000 by ICOM, the Industrial Common Ownership Movement; interest to be paid from the housing benefit of those living on the land. Plans for an eco-farmhouse, built from hemp bricks, using the latest appropriate technology for insulation and power generation are even now being drafted. Power will be both solar and wind driven. Over the last year, the Collective have been planting fruit trees and applying for a license to cultivate hemp for fibre and paper and Exodus members have been attending courses in permaculture and organic modes of food production. Sandwiched between the M1 and the main London to Bedford railway line the land was once used as a rubbish tip during its years of dereliction. Long time Exodus member, Arms, is now in the forefront of the agricultural planning initiatives for the farm. “You can grow plants that will take the pollutants out of the air and the soil,” he explains. “Willow for instance along by the motorway and railway. It grows really fast, will act as a sound and sight barrier and help take pollutants out of the air.
We can show the world how to grow food in this situation so Sainsbury’s will be out the window. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere. You’ve gotta extract positives out of negatives.” Arms embodies this principle, having served nine months for being “pissed and fucking angry” during the Marsh Farm riots. Now he has built a home with his partner and two children at the Housing Action Zone (HAZ) Manor, a former derelict old people’s home on the edge of Luton rebuilt by Exodus, initially using money from the dances and then by pooling housing benefit. Squatted in 1994 then licensed from Luton Borough Council, HAZ Manor now houses forty people with workshops and a permaculture garden.
The communal creche which has thrived at the Manor for over two years gives parents time off and stimulates Exodus’ children to acquire basic reading, writing and recognition skills by the time they enter pre-school nursery. All this work has been carried out without wages, facilitated by training offered by the local college.
Since 1997 Exodus have been exploring ways of meaningfully co-operating with the government’s ‘Welfare To Work’ proposals, or, as Exodus asserts to be more important, “Welfare To Meaningful Work”. Most recently plans were afoot to set up a New Deal placement scheme at the Manor. The Collective went through an extensive process of certification involving the Employment Service, Luton’s Barnfield College, the County Training Group and The Training Network. All that remained to do before placements could be activated was to install fire extinguishers and fire exit signs and repair the Fire Alarm System. Everything was set for a radical repopulation of the New Deal concept. And thereís little doubt the area needs it.
There are four options for people entering New Deal – a full-time job, full-time education and training, working in the voluntary sector such as Oxfam shops, and joining an Environmental Task Force (ETF). Within the Bedfordshire Region up to November last year, 1049 New Deal participants had obtained jobs, 423 were in full-time education and training, 46 had joined the voluntary option, 34 the ETF’s, and an extraordinary 514 – almost a third of those who had originally joined – had completely disappeared. Some of these might have found jobs and not told New Deal, but a large number are disappearing into the ‘grey economy,’ working for cash, drug dealing and other covert activities. One New Deal district manager is reported to have commented: “With the amount of people working in the grey economy, we could probably slash our register by half.”
“It is hard to think of a more appropriate and locally beneficial use than that which Exodus proposes, and which would maximise job and opportunities creation for the people of the Marsh Farm estate.”
The Environmental Task Force is the least populated option of all, according to a Regional Employment Service spokesman. “Our priority whenever somebody joins New Deal is to get them into work. But if somebody comes along who’s never worked before or they’ve got a problem with time-keeping, the ETF would be a better option to bring them up to the level of other people. New Deal advisors also face a bit of a battle trying to explain to people that the ETF is a valid option and they’re gonna get something out of it.”
This is hardly surprising. One Exodus member on an ETF spent five days picking up leaves and rubbish. Exodus’ New Deal proposal would have created the largest ETF provider in the county, enabling the long-term unemployed and homeless to renovate derelicts and thereby rehouse themselves, – not just work but “meaningful work.” Participants, initially Exodus members and some long-term unemployed who might otherwise have actively avoided New Deal like the plague, were to undertake training in a range of skills from bricklaying to permaculture to designing solar heating systems; literally building their own communities, initially at HAZ Manor and Long Meadow Community Free farm, then taking it further. The concept is replicable anywhere where there’s disused buildings and unemployed people. “We’re not just doing it for Luton,” commented Exodus spokesperson, Glenn Jenkins. “We want to turn on a light for other people, to enable a widening regeneration of derelict buildings and derelict souls.”
The first chance to widen the concept came quickly. A 120,000 sq ft warehouse fully equipped with kitchens and bars and located in the centre of the Marsh Farm Estate fell vacant after its occupants, Coulters Electronics, were bought out by a US company. Exodus immediately saw its potential as a community regeneration centre on the estate. Ian Campbell from The Civic Trust’s Regeneration Unit – the UK’s biggest inner city regeneration charity – swiftly concurred. “The building could provide the nucleus of a community regeneration trust…it is hard to think of a more appropriate and locally beneficial use than that which Exodus proposes, and which would maximise job and opportunities creation for the people of the Marsh Farm estate.” Then the plug was pulled.
On September 18 1999, the Collective took part in an episode of BBC 2’s ‘Living With The Enemy.’ The theme of the programme was cannabis legalisation. Exodus have never hidden their views on the legalisation of cannabis. They see it as an essential first step in resolving the drug issue across the board. However, a twenty three year old former chair of Cambridge University Young Conservatives Association and current member of a right-wing think-tank on family values had other ideas when he came to HAZ Manor to stay for a week. With BBC cameras tracking the extraordinary exchanges which ensued, James Hellyer lasted for just three days before deciding to “ahem, grass them up to the police,” as The Sun put it. Although Luton Police took no action, on Sept 26 Chief Constable Michael OíByrne used Exodusí position on cannabis to publicly query the Collectiveís application “for the use of public funds or public resources.”
On September 27, the Employment Service’s district manager, Dave Sutherland, sent Exodus a letter terminating the New Deal employment partnership because of Exodus’ “open support for the legalisation of cannabis.” Exodus wrote back pointing out that “the film does not show people smoking cannabis whilst in the workshops or in the work sites as all residents, smokers and non-smokers, know this would be unacceptable…As part of the formation of our partnership with New Deal we have received several visits and Health & Safety inspections by representatives of different relevant agencies. I think it is highly unlikely that these agencies would have passed our site as acceptable had their inspectors witnessed the widespread smoking of cannabis in or around the work site…the personal use of marijuana at home by some residents at HAZ Manor does not represent a Health and Safety risk to the project.”
However, a regional Employment Services spokesperson told SQUALL: “Exodus had quite clearly come out as being a group of people that were supporting the legalisation of cannabis…if they’re actively promoting and supporting something which the government doesn’t agree with, for us to give public money to that organisation to deliver a contract would have been a problem.” Exodus spokesperson, Glenn Jenkins, could hardly believe it: “Projects of this nature need encouraging and duplicating in other areas suffering similar problems to ours rather than being banned for nothing other than purely political reasons.”
“We were told the message had come down from upstairs to push us into what to us was meaningless work. So there were demonstrations in the pipeline.”
Margaret Moran is Labour MP for Luton South. Ironically she is also Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mo Mowlam, appointed by the Prime Minister in December 1999 to “co-ordinate policies aimed at tackling social exclusion across government.” Quoted in Luton News on 22/9/99 Moran said:
“There is no way New Deal could do anything for Exodus. Nothing that Exodus is doing fits the criteria for New Deal.” Moran never made any contact with Exodus and never replied to a subsequent letter from the Collective. In contrast, Angela Sarkis from the Social Exclusion Unit has visited Exodus and praised their work – joined up government?
It got worse. As Exodus spokesman, Glenn Jenkins, explains:
“As soon as the New Deal office put a ban on our partnership, everybody started experiencing harassment from their advisors. We were told the message had come down from upstairs to push us into what to us was meaningless work. So there were demonstrations in the pipeline.”
Stopping benefits to one Exodus family for four weeks provided the spark. Collective members organised a non-violent occupation of the Dunstable Job Centre, causing it to close for half a day. Responding to a written complaint from local Conservative MP, Sir David Madel, the Employment Minister, Tessa Jowell, wrote: “Liaison arrangements between the police and Employment Service locally are also being strengthened and plans are in hand to set up a cross-agency forum to investigate the impact of the Exodus Collective on public services more generally.” Madel passed this letter on to the Luton Herald and Post who promptly published it. What with this and concerted attempts by police and council to stop the parties, confrontational obstacles were mounting against Exodus.
Then out of the blue it came. With official condemnation threatening to curtail Exodus’ efforts to co-operate with New Deal initiatives, a dramatic turn of events reconfigured the entire local landscape. Just before Christmas, some of the residents and community groups on Marsh Farm – including Exodus – discovered that government regeneration funding under the New Deal for Communities (NDC) scheme had been earmarked for Luton. An area of between 1000-4000 households would be selected to receive up to £50 million over the next ten years. And what’s more, the criteria for securing the money strongly stresses that the visions and decisions should be resident-led. Marsh Farm Estate contains around 4000 households.
“I saw a poster for a New Deal meeting at the town hall on Dec 8, so about ten of us went down and listened to what was going on,” recalls Dave Crean, a single parent Irishman residing on the estate. “They were talking about different areas and asked whether there was anyone from Marsh Farm present, so we put up our hands. We went upstairs and explained the problems we thought were affecting Marsh Farm and we all gave our ideas. We were then told that, within a week, two Luton areas would be called forward to give a presentation to decide who should get the £50 million. We waited a week, didn’t hear anything then started to get worried. Then we were told just before Christmas that there was going to be a presentation at the Town Hall on Jan 10 and that Marsh Farm was one of the two areas chosen.”
“Seventy two per cent of crimes committed on our estate arise directly from two very common youth syndromes – boredom and being skint.”
The estate was an obvious choice, with 31% of its available workforce unemployed (national average 4%) and a recent history of riot and social unrest. But the picture’s not all negative down on this farm. Twenty two per cent of the 9430 population come from ethnic minority groups, though, as Levi, a Rastafarian and long-standing resident, puts it:
“I’ve seen lots of graffiti here, but never racist graffiti.” And the residents value their roots. At the south end of the estate, huge tower blocks overlook Wauluds Bank, a 4500 year old neolithic meeting and ceremonial site situated where one tributary of the River Lea rises. When Luton Borough Council first drew up maps delineating Marsh Farm Estate they left out Wauluds Bank. Residents complained, and it was reinstated.
With Xmas and Millennium celebrations cluttering an already tight deadline, an embryonic umbrella group of Marsh Farm residents and community groups, including local churches, tenants associations, sports societies and the Exodus Collective, went into overdrive. “We wrote to as many community groups as we could write to and got them involved from that stage forward,” says Crean. “We couldn’t get every single person on Marsh Farm involved at that stage because we only had two weeks to do it. There was about 14 of us who went down to do the presentation.”
A 30 minute documentary on Marsh Farm, broadcast by the local BBC station just after the 1995 riots, was edited down using rudimentary video software on a home PC. Bruce Hannah, a Marsh Farm resident, Exodus Collective member and acting secretary for the estateís newly emerging representative body, twiddled the keys and came out with a six minute introductory film about Marsh Farm which proved a powerful part of the presentation. Then, selecting the four main NDC criteria of worklessness, high crime, educational underachievement and poor health, four Marsh Farm residents stepped forward to give presentations before a panel of local authority officials, businesses and service providers. “From the moment I stood up to the moment I sat down I was shaking like a leaf,” recalls Dave Crean, selected to give the four minute talk on ‘worklessness’.
Delivering the presentation on ‘high crime’, Bruce Hannah, told the panel: “Seventy two per cent of crimes committed on our estate arise directly from two very common youth syndromes – boredom and being skint. Theft, burglary, criminal damage, drugs – these are obviously attempts to brighten up an otherwise dull and meaningless existence. Getting away with minor crime then leads to a belief that they will get away with more serious ones, so we urgently need initiatives to prevent boredom amongst the young.”
Having given it their best shot, the Marsh Farm pioneers left the town hall and spent the next few days waiting with bated breath. “We were not given the time to get everyone involved,” says Crean. “We got as much information as we could about different sections of the scheme and done the best we could. When it was announced we had won the right to bid for the money, we were delighted. I don’t think the estate can get much worse than it is. The only way is up.”
Indeed, with a potential £50 million to facilitate their visions, the residents and community groups of Marsh Farm are already coming out with a set of radical proposals which may yet change the face of community self-management in the UK. Emerging visions during the embryonic stages of Marsh Farm’s bid include purchase of the old Coulters site, the 120,000 sq ft of industrial warehouse situated in the middle of the estate, to be converted it into a multifunctional community centre and run by the Trust itself. Then thereís regeneration of the small shopping centre on the estate looted in the riots. Also at the beginning of February, representatives of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales visited Marsh Farm to conduct a feasibility study on using wind turbines and solar panels to provide low cost electricity for estate residents, free for pensioners. “Windpower for the people” trumpeted the pre-emptive front page headlines in an excitable local paper.
“Sixty four per cent of this estate are under 25. It’s a new way for them, my old way of thinking is gone. Black, white, indian, they’re all together now…We have to embrace the youth.”
Having only won the right to bid for the money, Marsh Farm now enters the crucial phase one of the scheme. By April 14, the estate’s residents and community groups are required to have established a fully representative Marsh Farm Community Development Trust capable of interfacing with local authorities, business and service providers. It’s no small task for an area of some 4000 households, neither formally defined by pre-existing council wards nor previously represented as a whole, working to a tight, some might say ridiculous deadline.
The boisterous process of forming a unified Trust genuinely representative of the multi-ethnic, cross-generational nature of the estate’s residents has begun with a series of Monday night meetings. Whilst the majority of residents express the need for positive unity, there are fiery exchanges and misunderstandings; old gripes over local politics and a smattering of people thinking the £50 million may mean money for their own pockets. But Trevor Adams, a local pastor and part of the group of residents who presented Marsh Farm’s initial proposal, reflected the majority mood on the matter: “When I was involved in doing the presentation it wasn’t just for one group, it wasn’t just for my church, it was for the whole of Marsh Farm.” His sentiments were echoed by the dreadlocked Cyril Wilson who replied to queries about whether the numerous ethnic groups on the estate would receive special treatment: “I don’t think it’s an ethnic thing. I don’t think we’re gonna single out anybody. Everybody’s gonna work together, whether you’re black, white or asian. It’s for the community and it’s gonna be run by us.” His Rastafarian colleague on the emerging development Trust, Levi, concords: “We need fresh minds, fresh ideas. Forget this old mind-game playing, there’s a whole new generation growing up. Sixty four per cent of this estate are under 25. It’s a new way for them, my old way of thinking is gone. Black, white, indian, they’re all together now…We have to embrace the youth.”
The engaging process of establishing significant forms of community representation and self management are well and truly under way. Then, of course, there’s the local council. With a responsibility to provide the conduit between government officers and Marsh Farm residents, Luton Borough Council are to act as mentors to the Development Trust. As the Trust passes through the necessary struggle for form and identity, there is a clear danger that council officers may demonstrate their unfamiliarity with genuinely resident-led, bottom up initiatives by supergluing their hands on the tiller.
However, according to Tony Blair, the proud father of the NDC initiative (he apparently attends every monthly meeting of Social Exclusion Unit regardless of other pressing appointments):”Too much has been imposed from above when experience shows that success depends on the communities themselves having the power and taking responsibility to make things better.”
This year’s New Deal for Communities money is the second round of the scheme, with 22 areas selected from around the country, including Marsh Farm. In a report on the progress of the 17 areas selected in the first round last year, clear problems were expressed in identifying “recognisable” communities. Of these 17 areas, referred to as ‘Pathfinders’, only two (Shoreditch in London and East Manchester) managed to prove they could form a unified representative body to administer the expenditure within the allotted time. A further 13 areas qualified after being given more time and assistance.
According to the report: “Involving local residents is vital. But in many areas, there may not be much community infrastructure in the local area with which to get in touch with people or seek their views….Pathfinders strongly emphasised the importance of building trust amongst the community. People may be suspicious of ‘another initiative’ and reluctant to get involved. They may distrust the council and other public agencies…As a general approach, it was important to minimise bureaucracy and keep the decision-making process as straightforward as possible.” “We’re trying to find a way to give it back to the people so that it stays that way for eternity,”
In order to populate this rhetoric, a well received proposal for organising the infrastructure of the new Marsh Farm Community Development Trust was laid before a meeting of residents at the end of January. Under the scheme it is proposed that 100 community co-ordinators be responsible for gauging the ideas and feelings of the 40 households around them. These co-ordinators will then represent those households on a panel which will also include delegates from community groups like the churches, ethnic minority associations, the Exodus Collective and Marsh Farm pensioners. Sixteen people from this panel will then be elected to the full decision-making body in partnership with eight representatives from business and service providers with whom the development trust are required to form liaisons. In this way the infrastructure set up from the start will ensure that the majority of the decision making panel will always remain Marsh Farm residents and that the visions driving the scheme are always coming from the well represented residents themselves – bottom up. The plan is undoubtedly radical and, if successfully executed on Marsh Farm Estate, could provide a revolutionary template for community-led regeneration around the UK.
Barely a few weeks old, the early prognosis for the success of the Marsh Farm Community Development Trust is good. Using a small part of the £10,000 made available by the NDC for the initial consensus building process, Marsh Farm residents have opened a community office in the old Co-op supermarket which had long stood idle with its grey steel shutters down. This vital component is designed to address a common problem of excluding residents unfamiliar or uncomfortable with formal meetings. As the report on the first year experiences of New Deal for Community Pathfinders notes: “Avoid too much formal process – it is time consuming and drives people away.” To counter such community ‘turn-offs’, the old Co-op is now a drop-in centre in the middle of Marsh Farm where residents – young and old – can come in their own time to present their visions for their estate’s regeneration or to view ideas already under consideration. The people they will be talking with won’t be bureaucrats but fellow Marsh Farm residents staffing the office on a voluntary basis. Even as this article is being written, volunteers from the estate are refurbishing the old Co-op ready for its new life. Such direct physical involvement with the process is already helping previously disparate groups on the estate to feel a new unity.
Exodus plan to transfer Long Meadow Community Free Farm and HAZ Manor housing schemes to the jurisdiction of the Marsh Farm Community Development Trust. “We’re trying to find a way to give it back to the people so that it stays that way for eternity,” explained Steve Sovereign, an Exodus Collective member and Long Meadow Farm’s representative on the Development Trust. “The idea is that in time the farm would be a giant allotment growing basic foods and some exotic fruit in polytunnels. The farm would be run by the Development Trust and the produce sold at low cost to the residents of Marsh Farm estate and nearby Chalton village.
Marsh Farm has just seen the arrival of some Bosnian families who have come over as refugees. All of them are farmers, so we’ve set up a meeting”
“Certainly if someone said to me, do you have a problem dealing with Exodus, I would say we had problems when we didn’t talk. But they are very easy to talk to, they talk perfectly good sense and I would recommend someone talking to them rather than doing it on a confrontational basis.”
The Exodus Collective have already part raised and part attracted £11,000 of separate funding to open a recording studio in a youth club on the estate. The group were approached by Luton Borough Council last year, after a questionnaire of local youth overwhelmingly expressed an enthusiasm for training in how to record music. Management of the studio will be passed over to the Development Trust once it is up and running. Following the riots on Marsh Farm estate in 1995, one local newspaper led with the headline; “Boredom rules among Luton’s rebel youth”. Never again perhaps.
With Marsh Farm winning the NDC bid for Luton, previous obstacles are starting to dissolve. When SQUALL contacted Tessa Jowell’s office for more information on the investigation into the “impact of the Exodus Collective on public services”, two spokespeople flatly denied she’d ever said anything of the sort, despite having asserted her statement of intent in a letter. Coincidentally, Luton Liberty had also contacted her office to ask “whether any investigation, of the kind you referred to, is a proper use of public funds and whether it is necessary at all.”
As for Margaret Moran MP, she refused to speak to SQUALL concerning her statement that “nothing that Exodus is doing fits the criteria for New Deal.” In a remarkable gesture of cross-party co-operation, she referred us to the Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire and vociferous Exodus critic, Jonathan Sayeed. “Her constituency does not cover Marsh Farm or any of the Exodus projects,” her Luton South office explained. Why she failed to refer us to her Luton North Labour colleague, Kelvin Hopkins, whose constituency covers Marsh Farm, remains a mystery. As does her reason for speaking out against Exodus in the first place. Exodus’ lawyers are now in the process of preparing a judicial review of the New Deal ban.
Even the police have given a little. In response to lawsuits by Exodus members against Bedfordshire police for assault and battery, wrongful arrest and false imprisonment, Bedfordshire Police spokeswoman, Jo Hobbs, commented: “We’ll go to court, so we’re not negotiating with Exodus.” The very next day in a swift volte-face, Beds Police agreed to pay out £35,000 in satisfaction of the claim, without admission of liability of course. Ironically, every penny is being paid directly into a Trust Fund to kickstart the public inquiry, due to be chaired by Michael Mansfield QC, into the long history of “the activities of Bedfordshire Police and others” against the Exodus Collective. In another remarkable turn-around, the local Luton On Sunday is now supporting the public inquiry, after years of antagonistic local press coverage of the Collective.
Another somewhat surprising source of advocacy is the aristocratic occupant of Woburn Abbey and manager of the 135,000 acre Bedfordshire Estate belonging to his father the Marquis of Tavistock. Having visited HAZ Manor in January, Lord Andrew Howland was effusive in his praise of the Collective’s achievements: “This is not meant to be rude in any way, but so often nowadays we take things at face value,” he told Red Pepper. “And because they [Exodus] might have long hair and dreadlocks and pierced noses and things like that, instantly you react away from them. When you actually sit down and talk to them they’re just the same as anyone else, very good values, very impressive. They’ve achieved a lot there.” Howland is currently negotiating with Exodus over the selection of a suitable piece of his estate land to be loaned for outdoor raves:
“Certainly if someone said to me, do you have a problem dealing with Exodus, I would say we had problems when we didn’t talk. But they are very easy to talk to, they talk perfectly good sense and I would recommend someone talking to them rather than doing it on a confrontational basis.”
“When it works on Marsh Farm it’s gonna glow like a candle in a dark place so other estates can emulate the same way.”
It has been a long hard road for Exodus to reach this point, and the possibility that they will promptly transfer their hard won assets over to the emerging Marsh Farm Community Development Trust is one which may surprise many. But Exodus’ support for the new people-led initiative is unequivocal and truly revolutionary. “Long Meadow Community Free Farm will be an autonomous unit serving the estate and owned by the Marsh Farm Community Development Trust,” affirms Glenn Jenkins, Marsh Farm resident, father of four children and Exodus spokesperson. “We didn’t struggle to take land to make it private to us. We’ve had ‘community free’ on the name from day one. All the early indications are that bottom up, do it ourselves, is gonna work on Marsh Farm. And when it works on Marsh Farm it’s gonna glow like a candle in a dark place so other estates can emulate the same way. It’s the time.”
There’s carpet in the new community office now and Marsh Farm folk are dropping by. Success depends on the whole community having power and taking responsibility. Exodus are a part of that community as well as experts in creating oneness and warmth out of dereliction. The mix is perfect and the Estate fits the New Deal for Communities criteria like a snug glove – ëOne Glove.í If this government is genuinely prepared to allow its New Deal rhetoric to be populated and can keep sticky official fingers off the tiller, then the residents of Marsh Farm Estate look set to establish a vital new form of genuine resident-led regeneration and community self management. Revolutionary stuff.