Published

14 October 2021

University of East London academics Dr Tony Sampson and Dr Andrew Branch have brought together residents in Essex to hear the case for community action to improve their locality. 

The academics, along with Giles Tofield, of the Cultural Engine Community Interest Company and other partners, delivered a debate in Rochford, Essex, in September on the question of localism in action. 

The event forms part of a project called Free Market Radicals (FMR), funded by the National Lottery's Emerging Future Fund to examine the role of the marketplace as a driver of localist initiatives in Essex market towns. 

The event in Rochford received further support from the School of Arts and Creative Industries, including the employment of two postgraduate research interns to work with the organisers.

Mr Tofield told the audience, gathered at the Rochford Women's Institute, that localism - the practice of devolving power to communities - had seen government support but results had been patchy.

This was particularly true, he said, when legislative changes, such as the 2011 Localism Act, were not accompanied by locally controlled budgets. In light of these challenges, he said, it was necessary to explore the best mechanisms to encourage initiatives, the need for longer-term thinking, and the importance of positive projects, moving away from a strategy of simply tackling problems. 

Mr Tofield asked attendees what sort of initiatives they would like to see in their town and residents suggested several promising avenues for work. These included highlighting the town's extensive history and links to Anne Boleyn. Another option was to focus on the biodiversity of the River Crouch and River Roach.  

While some worried that the town would become busier, Mr Tofield said: "People in Rochford have said that things have changed for the worse. The answer might be that we maybe need to do more to develop heritage. Maybe it's more about piecing together a local agenda, carefully and quietly." 

One community representative spoke in praise of the work that Free Market Radicals were doing. He said, "I've seen the potential of Rochford for many years and I'm excited that FMR are involved." 

The FMR team committed to investigating the proposed ideas.

After the meeting, Dr Sampson, reader in digital media cultures and communication, said, "The issue of the revival of communities has gained new significance because of the Covid-19 lockdown, with people seeing what’s about them and wishing to live in a vibrant and viable community that pulls together.  

"While top-down approaches can act as catalysts, only by motivating local authorities, like parish councils, and putting the people in the lead can true sustainable change be achieved. We will be further exploring these ideas in an academic publication co-authored with our two interns, PhD students, Jessica Adams and Erica Masserano."

Dr Sampson, along with co-founder, Mr Tofield and UEL senior lecturer Dr Branch, lead the Cultural Engine Research Group (CERG), an award-winning UEL community engagement initiative. The other key partner is Hundred Others, a company that aims to create opportunities for the public to engage with arts, culture, heritage, and the environment. 

To find out more about the project visit the FMR website, or get in touch with Dr Sampson (t.d.sampson@uel.ac.uk).