Building a community: Canvey Island

From one perspective, when a group of similar individuals all set up home in the same area – that becomes a ready-made community. From another perspective that’s considered an immigration nightmare, a population takeover – and when this happens in numbers large enough, the xenophobic among us tend to refer to this as a ‘ghetto’.

The truth is that us humans aren’t massive fans of change and it only takes a relatively small minority of people who are different to make the established community feel under threat – even when they outnumber the incomers by 10 to 1.

So what are the positives and negatives of instant communities? With calls for Canvey Island to declare independence from their local council, there’s an entirely different group of people who are currently being priced out of London and into this newly discovered paradise; it’s Columbus and the New World meets The Only Way is Essex; Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… the (future) Republic of Canvey Island.

According to a BBC article today: Canvey Island: Residents on why they want independence – BBC News, in the last 15 months, the Jewish Congregation of Canvey Island (JCoCI) has been established to find homes for people from north London’s strictly orthodox Haredi community.

Spiralling property prices within the capital have prompted some members of the Haredi community to look beyond their established area in north London and to look for potential residential areas that are cheaper to live in, receptive and friendly to visitors, and within close enough distance of their previous homes to maintain contact with other friends, family, and community members that stay behind. A tiny little rock off the Essex coast, connected by two road bridge, ticks all those boxes. 7 square miles and 38,000 people. Welcome to Canvey Island.

Fresh out of our nation’s capital, Haredi JCoCI trustee, Joel Friedman, says he could not have received a warmer welcome. “Other councils didn’t want us, but the attitude has been very different, both from the islanders and Castle Point. We need homes that are available and affordable, and the perception of Canvey has perhaps helped in that respect.”

Joel Friedman and his family were one of six original families that moved to Canvey Island in the summer of 2016.

There are now 28 families and about 200 people, and Joel estimates eventually there will be 70 to 80 Haredi families, making a community of more than 450.

Is this an invasion of one group on another? Absolutely not. This is yet another demonstration of how when native communities neglect and underappreciate areas, another group will move in, make it home, and improve it – it’s what you do when you value where you live. To be clear, we don’t mean that the Canvey Islanders have neglected their own Eden – But across the UK, our prime seaside communities have been left to rot since the 70s. Our previously light-industrial areas have only just come of (second) age, as the warehouses give way to warehouse-living, and the estate agents rebrand them ‘loft apartments’

It’s the age-old story of ‘gentrification’, it’s the squats turning into houses of multiple occupation, turning flats into flat-whites. It’s the growth of barbers and coffee shops at the vanguard of turning neglected zones into ‘up and coming’.

We have myriad seaside communities that have been neglected for years. Tourism dollars have failed to keep pace with the investment needed to fight off the sea air, salt, infrastructure, physical and mental health requirements that these coastal towns need.

Our advice to the islanders is to welcome all incoming communities. Ask them to integrate with you, and you with them – learn from each other and together create a new even better, stronger community.

Good luck with the independence. It’s what Canvey Island needs.