Tuesday, 21 February 2012

# 52 Building a Community

In our modern age we are increasingly isolated from community. We live further apart from our families. The internet and the breakdown of the family unit have caused us to drift apart in all directions, at all ages. I can remember a time when things were very different, even though I have no roots where I live now and am the furthest away from my family I have ever been.

New Ash Green from the air
I come from a small village in Kent which these days is better pinpointed by mentioning its proximity to the Ebsfleet International station (the one that goes to the Channel Tunnel) and the Bluewater shopping centre.

I was two years old when I moved with my parents and baby brother to a large modern built four bedroom off road end of terrace with a garden front and back and a double garage. 'New Ash Green' or 'SPAN Kent' as it was first named, and which sat alongside the ancient village of Ash, had been the realisation of an ideallic suburban dream by Span who's radical building designs were unique and eye catching to say the least.

Populated by '2.4' families with fathers who commuted the 40 minute train ride to London and mothers who stayed at home and raised the kids it was the perfect 1970s set up for families escaping the rat race trying to give their children a better upbringing.

One of the 'neighbourhood' area plans
The village or 'estate' (a poor description since there is nothing 'council' about it) got its initial planning permission in 1964. The idea was that the village would be broken up into 19 individually styled smaller 'neighbourhoods' each named after fields that dated back to the old Tithe maps of the 18th century.

Span had a vision‘This Village is planned as a ‘whole’ place created for Twentieth Century living and providing for Twentieth Century people’s needs’.  Residents were served by their own purpose built shopping centre which had everything from a post office to a baker and a supermarket. There were schools for every age group, nurseries, a youth club, village hall, a village green called Over Minnis, rugby club, sports fields, play parks and a bus route which took you into the nearby towns. It was a social experiment.

Despite SPAN running into problems in 1969 resulting in fewer than the proposed 2000 houses being built, the village was still a success. It was taken over by Bovis Homes in 1971 though by now New Ash Green was a community thriving. There was a solidarity and the villagers pulled together. And for a long time it served its purpose.

Part of the shopping centre - radical design
But then something went wrong. It was in part due to the deliberate neglect of offshore owners of the shopping centre who have in recent years used it as a way to get past tax laws and have no interest in the upkeep of the buildings or the welfare of residents.

As a result the place went to rack and ruin. Buildings became dilapidated, the shopkeepers moved out, the vandals moved in, and pretty soon so did trouble kids and drug addicts. Before long it was a no go area and the heart of the community was lost. Whilst businesses do still operate there it is a very far cry from what I remember.

It's been a terrible shame and I've been very sad to see it crumble in the years since I have left the village. Whilst many residents now have cars and drive further afield for shopping there is still a community dependent on the shopping centre. These days the village has lost much of its heart. It is pretty much just a collection of quirky looking retro houses but I still love it and I'm glad I was a part of the experiment.
Every house faced with a green and pleasant land

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