Friday, April 03, 2009

Basildon Echo hatchet job on Town Centre lights

Our local paper, the Echo, has run an appalling article on the Council's project to improve the lighting in Basildon Town Centre. This work is funded via English Partnerships, now the HCA, as part of a £2m package we agreed for improvements to the town centre, and has been nearly two years in planning. The thrust of the article is that there is popular and political dissatisfaction with the investment and that it should have gone to other 'community projects', there is also an underlying theme that the lights are too 'flashy' and a comparison is made to some piece of public art in Southend, which is a different Council some miles away. In evidence the journalist turns to the always reliable method of vox-popping, that is asking people in the street. Of course, we don't know what question was asked, or how many people were asked. What we don't get though, even from that form of research, is any impression that there is some widely-held belief that there is some particlar critical investment that should have been prioritised over this. This speaks to the basic journalistic integrity of the story itself. If there is no popular feeling then there is no story. All there is the fact that some people when presented with an unknown question would like the money spent on something else, hardly the stuff of front pages. One of the vox-pops was even from Benfleet, which is part of Castle Point Borough next door.

It should also be pointed out that when this item came up before the Council's cabinet, which is all-party, it went though unanimously. So, there is broad political support too. Once again, no story.

Worse than all of this, the article presented a false choice. The funding was for improvements to Basildon Town Centre. It can't be spent on anything else. One of the options suggested in the article was education, which is not even a District Council responsibility. Now, people in the street might be forgiven for not knowing this, but the reporter did know, which shows a further failing in the basic integrity of the article.

The reason we are putting in improved lighting is quite simple. Basildon Town Centre is too dark at night, not a matter of opinion, light levels are easy to measure. This means that it can look threatening, especially in winter, and contributes to the lack of an evening economy in much of the town centre. There are also basic and quite obvious public safety issues associated with poor lighting levels. Of course, the article didn't mention any of this. On the matter of the quality of the 'flashy' lighting, than I will make no apology. The current light poles are nondescript and tatty. We want something better for our largest town centre. The Echo view is that second-rate is good enough for Basildon, well I profoundly disagree.

I don't know why the Echo chose to spin this story this way. They could have just reported the facts and left it at that. They could even have talked it up, as most people would regard investment in our public spaces as a good thing, especially when it acts in support of hard-pressed local business. Instead, they ignored public safety, treated the funding as usable for any purpose, and supported their position by no evidence beyond quotes from a public who did not evidence any general popular feeling in favour of any other project.

It was a very great shame to see it on the front page.

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