Planned in the mid 1960's, Marsh Farm is a mixture of private and public sector housing, with five schools, two nurseries, a shopping centre, lots of green open spaces and good community facilities including ‘Wauluds Bank’ the site of a Mesolithic camp that dates back as far as 3000BC. The estate makes up the Luton Borough Council ward of Northwell and is made up of:
- 3,200 households
- a total population in the region of 9,200
- a population biased towards the younger age groups, with 26% aged under 16, and 7% over 65 (compared to the national figures of 21% and 18% respectively)
- The community is very diverse and according to the 2010 census, the number of residents from black and other ethnic communities has risen to more than one third of the overall estate population,
In 1995 our estate made international news headlines after several years of niggling tensions between local police and groups of local youths erupted into 3 nights of running battles, involving hundreds of local people and hundreds of riot officers deployed from the Metropolitan Police in London. Marsh Farm had already endured several years of institutional neglect, with levels of worklessness and deprivation more than double the Luton average, and a population with very little faith – if any – in the integrity and good intentions of government at either local or national level. The events of 1995 only made things much worse, with local supermarkets closing down, unemployment levels soaring even higher as the name ‘Marsh Farm’ became synonymous with ‘trouble’ – both in job interviews and in the local papers.
In 1998, members of MFO who are also members a self help collective called the Exodus (now Leviticus) Collective began a campaign for use of the empty Coulters Building (a 120,000 sq ft former factory located right in the middle of the estate) as a Community Enterprise and Resource Centre (CERC). To make the case for the CERC (which was known as 'The Ark' we drew up a business plan demonstrating how the disused building could be transformed into a community owned centre where people could work, rest and play.
The campaign was very high profile, and we spent 2 years petitioning local people, gathering support (and opposition!) for the plan, signing up partners from local colleges, the job centre, the Civic Trust and others and generally raising the profile of the idea.
In 1999 we (and many other 'excluded' groups in the UK) were visited by representatives from the Social Exclusion Unit in 1998 who asked us to state what our main problems are and how The Ark could help to resolve them so it seemed that the government was at least serious about listening to the voices of marginalised people.
When a report based on these consultations was released (called ‘Bringing Britain Together’) we were pleasantly surprised to see that the SEU representatives had not only obviously listened carefully to what people had said to them, they were also advocating many of the solutions we and many others had proposed.
Some of the key solutions we proposed were:
Genuine empowerment of local people in making decisions affecting the community (for years our local councillors had not only failed to listen to the views of local people, they were renowned for being high handed and too remote from the people living here)
A 10 year programme of substantial funding which could make a difference instead of minimal amounts to be dispensed over 2 or 3 years (as was the norm at the time – Marsh Farm had been given £400,000 SRB money after the events of 95 which had made very little impact at all)
Funding to pay for set up costs for community businesses which could create local jobs for those most in need of them whilst ‘locking in’ the socio-economic benefits arising from the businesses (the multiplier effect)
Funding to buy the old Coulters building for use as a base for these community businesses, which could be housed alongside key service providers, space for small private businesses, a social club and community group offices/rooms.
In 2000 the SEU report led to the creation of the 'New Deal for Communities' fund. Marsh Farm was one of hundreds of areas invited to put together an intelligent plan which could be granted up to £50 million over a 10 year period. This was completely in line with the approach we and other groups had urged on the SEU so Exodus joined forces with 32 other Marsh Farm based community groups to work for a year with partners to turn all of our ideas into a cohesive strategy.
In December 2000 we all submitted a fully costed 10 year delivery plan called ‘The Phoenix Rises’, an ambitious plan setting out our vision and the strategies we would use to rejuvenate our local economy, to re-invigorate our local democracy and to strengthen the social and community fabric which was then – and still is now – the glue holding our community together.
Central to the Phoenix Rises plan was buying the empty Coulters Factory which was described as "The Jewel in Marsh Farm's Crown". In April 2001 Marsh Farmer’s were told that our bid had been successful at the first attempt, winning £48.3 million over 10 years to turn our vision into a reality, and after an in depth feasibility study, community buyout of the Coulters Factory was finally achieved in 2003 – 5 years after we had first started campaigning for it – and the 'Marsh Farm Peoples Property Company' was born.
We then faced years of major delays caused by underhand attempts by a local councillor to replace the proposal for a CERC on the Coulters Site with a plan to build private housing instead.
These plans were defeated when MFO organised a mass petition of residents demanding a referendum on the issue. As part of the campaign we drew up a business plan for an indoor childrens playground which was really popular with locals but resisted by the powers that be because it needed a big space for it to become a reality.
The referendum vote took place in 2006 and 64% of voters supported the original plan to use the site for a CERC, despite all the efforts of the powers that be. So in 2010 the old factory was demolished and construction of a brand new 65,000 sq ft Community Enterprise and Resource Centre called 'Marsh Farm Futures House' began on the site – a big victory for local community common sense over vested interests and old deal 'PoliTRICKS'.
The new centre opened for community business in 2011 including our beautiful community owned indoor childrens playpark 'Futures Fun Factory' which has seen more than 75.000 people using the building in it's first year of opening.
Other crucial parts of the plan like the Organisation Workshop project to bring about community wide organisational capacity, jobs and enterprises were blocked by local vested interests who are scared witless of a genuinely organised community able to make our own decisions.
However the OW never left MFO's periscope sights and is now scheduled to happen in March 2015.
A Luta Continua E Vitoria Certa