On a clear day, you can see the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf from the top of Epsom Down. But the six hundred or so participants in the weekly Epsom Park Run don’t live in the capital: Epsom & Ewell is very much its own place, a community where sports clubs, local campaigns and support groups flourish.
But as in other places, a failure to connect the dots and work together, rather than compete and overlap, was apparent from our packed-out community workshop in the local college. For many participants, this lack of communication and joined up thinking, along with a dearth of money for civil society, mean too much competition for too little funding.
There was also a concern that simply because people have capacity, volunteers are being taken for granted. For-profit businesses are now contacting the Volunteer Centre to ask if they can advertise for volunteers – a notion which many felt conflicted directly with the very premise of civil society.
Another common concern was that Epsom & Ewell is in need of a local forum to put ideas forward and leaders to make things happen. There are lots of skills and lots of willingness and capacity to make things better, but there’s little coordination.
This is unlikely to be solved just by putting stuff online: ‘What’s on in Epsom’ is one forum (it was the first in the now nationwide ‘What’s on in my town?’ franchise) with 15,000 Facebook followers in the borough. It displays events and news articles, but it is reliant again on using ‘the community’ as reporters, rather than paid journalists. The Epsom Guardian, meanwhile, is now running on a very tight budget. It does not have designated reporters and apparently relies on the community to send in stories and photos.
And as these media spaces disappear, Epsom & Ewell also lacks physical spaces for people to congregate. As with other places we visited, the number of new-build gated communities was striking.
Dorothy: “A lot of statutory funding is being pulled away and that is… putting much pressure on grassroots organisations and creative ways of continuing, but what it also means is… (there are) collaborations happening… the only way you are going to… continue is… creativity, its collaborations, its partnerships. It’s not about one organisation riding off to the sunset because that is not the reality and no one organisation can deal with the scale of things. So, there is a kind of a little bit of light in the silver lining in the cloud.”
There was a real desire to understand what the identity of Epsom & Ewell is and will become over the next ten years, and a determination that these independent towns can’t simply become part of the sprawling London metropolis. This was central to their sense of who was part of civil society and how they come together as a community. Will it be a centre for retail, a market hub, a commuter town, a destination for tourists visiting London or a thriving hub for young professionals and students? (there’s a branch of the University of the Creative Arts here) Could more creativity in the town involve the students/young professionals? How do they encourage commuters and short term visitors (e.g. students) to get involved in local life so that people get to know each other better?
Margaret: “I think we have got a very strong local community… but we also want to think about how we feel about central government imposing things upon us. Not that I am anti-central government, it’s about the balance… I think we have got such a lot of ownership about what is going on here and what we want…”
But the biggest threat to this sense of community comes from the cost of housing: very high house prices lead to increased privacy and fencing off from community. There’s nowhere for key workers to live. Nearly 3,000 homes are being built on old hospital land sold to developers, but none of it is genuinely affordable or social housing. More expensive real estate brings less contact with each other and more exclusivity. One key question is whether the community will support new housing initiatives on some of Epsom & Ewell’s greenbelt land – which currently constitutes 50% of the land in the borough – to meet demand?
Russ: “The biggest concern I have is that we still talk about me instead of we… We all build our own little empires, we all have our own little gates at the front of our houses, we are all very protective.”
One example of successful civil society organisation in Epsom & Ewell was the recent blocking of the construction of a new Aldi supermarket and campaigns against other chain stores dominating the high street. (There are interesting comparisons here with other places we have run workshops: in Shirebrook and Mansfield communities raised the fact that the supermarket they had been promised had not arrived. In Sunderland it was viewed as a positive sign that a KFC had recently opened in town.) Where people come together and effect change, confidence grows and a sense of civil society is felt.
Sue: “One word which I came with… is justice… somehow… the vision… to be fulfilled is to seek for justice for each group. Be it young people who are struggling to find identities, or people brilliantly coming from abroad or people who are vulnerable, somehow, together we need to seek justice to enable each person to have the opportunity to flourish and become themselves. So, each person can be unique with themselves with their own gifts but somehow as a community, we lose perhaps, an independent spirit, perhaps whatever it is, which stops us coming together to really thrive as a town together.”
Many in the room mentioned the importance of accepting and welcoming diversity, and particularly being open to refugees (the organisation Refugees at Home organises in Epsom). There needs to be more coming together, more collaboration, more understanding and more openness and inclusivity. Others talked about the lack of diversity in Epsom contributing to a lack of creativity, unlike much of London for example.
Despite its relative wealth many of the same social problems persist. Loneliness and social isolation for many, particularly older people was a major concern, and because of austerity, the majority of local day centres have closed down in recent years.
In many ways, Epsom is a powerful analogy for much of the country: economic forces are sucking it towards the city of London, but it’s striving to develop its own identity. How that struggle plays out – between England as a hinterland for a once imperial capital, and England as a country in its own right – could be vital to the future not only of this one town, but of the whole country.