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ROBERT HARDMAN says forget Catalonia, think of Canvey

Both have sandy beaches, an obsession with football, a proud culinary tradition, a fiercely protected identity — and a very punchy independence movement.

And, in both places, matters seem to be coming to a head.

In the case of Catalonia, in north-east Spain, the catalyst was the violent suppression by the police and paramilitary of the latest referendum on a divorce from the rest of the country.

In the case of Canvey Island, in southern Essex, the flame of independence is now ablaze thanks to a run-down local community centre, some new housing and problems with the Christmas market on Furtherwick Road.

A motorist drives past a welcome sign on Canvey Island, Essex, a small island community in the Thames Estuary that voted massively for Brexit is now looking to distant Catalonia as inspiration for its own plans to separate from the mainland

Tempers are running so high that there is serious talk of a Catalan-style referendum here, too. There’s even been a Spanish TV team on the island in recent days to report on this simmering rebellion in the Thames Estuary.

True, the 40,000 souls packed onto Canvey’s seven square miles do not pose quite such a threat to national unity, let alone the Eurozone, as the nationalist urges of 7.5 million Catalans. And while Canvey has plenty of excellent pie and mash, its cuisine is not quite as exalted as that of Barcelona, with its Michelin stars and acclaimed tapas bars.

Nor do Canvey Islanders have their own language or an Olympic stadium or world-famous architecture — though they like to point out that the Labworth Café on Western Esplanade was designed by the same man who built the Sydney Opera House. And, just like Barcelona, this lot are football-mad, too — though Barca’s Lionel Messi is unlikely to have heard of non-league Canvey Island FC and arch-rivals Concord Rangers.

It all helps explain why so many Canvey Islanders are behind the Catalans when it comes to going it alone. It also comes as no surprise to find this part of Essex had one of the highest Brexit votes.

Canvey, it must be said, has no plan to secede from Britain or England. Indeed, the last census revealed this is the ‘most English’ place in the entire UK, with 77.5 per cent of the population defining themselves as ‘English’. The Cross of St George is the flag of choice here.

A man waves a stelada (pro-independence Catalan flag) amid a team of protesters marching for Catalonia's independence from Spain

A man waves a stelada (pro-independence Catalan flag) amid a team of protesters marching for Catalonia’s independence from Spain

Nor, as yet, is there much appetite to remove Canvey from the county of Essex — or, as the locals call it, ‘the mainland’.

What they do want, though, is to free themselves from what they regard as the tyranny of the local borough.

They want to be free to make their own decisions on planning, on council tax, on issues such as the development of the Admiral Jellicoe pub and the future of the Thorney Bay caravan park.

If Catalonia has Madrid — the imperious citadel of national government since the 16th century — Canvey Island has Benfleet, seat of Castle Point Borough Council since 1974. And the locals want out.

They are, at least, likely to be spared the same fate as those voters in Catalonia who were beaten up by military police for exercising their democratic rights. Indeed, I don’t see a single police officer in Canvey all day.

I think Canvey can probably have an unconstitutional referendum at any time it wants without so much as a telling off.

So, is talk of Canvey Island separatism a bit of a joke? Actually, it is not. And this is no idle threat.

The Canvey Island Independence Party has been in existence for 14 years since being set up by former Labour councillor David Blackwell. Today, it is the main opposition to the small Tory majority on Castle Point council.

Until the local government reforms of 1974, Canvey Island had its own district council. Then it was subsumed into something called Castle Point.

Though the castle in question, Hadleigh Castle, dates back to Henry III, the new borough was an artificial construction. And the distribution of electoral wards has always ensured Canvey Island can be outvoted.

Now, 15 of the 17 council seats on the island are held by separatist councillors. It was pressure from the Independence Party that led to the creation ten years ago of the Canvey Island town council — to deal with more parochial matters. Its supporters make up 80 per cent of that council. Every Canvey Island seat on the county council is held by insurgents, too.

A couple sit on the sea front in Canvey Island, where the local Independence Party are gaining an increasing presence

A couple sit on the sea front in Canvey Island, where the local Independence Party are gaining an increasing presence

All of which means that, when it comes to democracy, the Canvey Island Independence Party can legitimately claim an even greater popular mandate than the Catalonian coalition government.

Though you can circumnavigate it at high tide, Canvey might not look much like an island to the average visitor. But attitudes change the moment you leave Benfleet, cross the bridge over the muddy waters of East Haven Creek and land in rebel country.

Once there, I drop in on the weekly gathering of the Smallgains Social Club. They are having a £2-a-head pie and mash lunch for 150 followed by a presentation of ‘thank you’ certificates to Canvey Island veterans.

There is warm applause for a former Desert Rat who saw action (75 years ago this weekend) at the Battle of El Alamein. Members have also invited a trio of Chelsea Pensioners, in full scarlet rig, as guests of honour. A pianist belts out Cockney favourites on an electric piano. You would be pushed to find a more patriotic, less rebellious crowd anywhere in Britain. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dame Vera Lynn turned up at any moment.

The compere is Peter May, 59, who represents the Independence Party on the borough, town and county councils. I ask if the people of Canvey really want to pull up the drawbridge. So, before the raffle, he asks for a show of hands.

How many for independence from the borough? Arms shoot up all round the room. Anyone against? Just two people.

This event, arranged by delightful volunteers on a shoestring budget, is emblematic of a broader feature of Canvey Island life. It is among the most community-minded places I have come across in a long time.

Down at the Bay Café, I meet John Anderson, Canvey’s mayor, having a cup of tea with a team of volunteers. A few years ago, the authorities had allowed the beach behind the café to become covered in weeds, filth, dog mess and discarded needles. So, the locals started an action group and cheekily named it Baywatch.

Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhof and Californian surf do not instantly spring to mind as we potter about in the rain, the Thames Estuary lapping at our feet and the silhouette of the fuel storage plant rising through the gloom.

But the beach is spotless, the seawall has been painted bright blue, there are benches, tables and huge urns full of plants, all sponsored by local firms or individuals. The team are, justly, proud of what they have achieved. Visitor numbers have been soaring ever since.

‘It’s all thanks to community spirit, not the council,’ says Mr Anderson, as he reels off a long list of all the other improvements that are the result of local goodwill: parks and graveyards tended by volunteers, a ‘First Response’ vehicle funded by local businesses and run by volunteers.

Back at the Bay Café, customers nod firmly when I ask if they favour independence.

‘Every time the council wants somewhere to put something unpleasant — new buildings or industry — it puts it here,’ says Dot Palmer, a retired nurse from London’s East End.

Like many East Enders, she and husband Barry used to have a holiday caravan on Canvey and liked it so much that they retired here.

Picture shows Labworth Restaurant overlooking the sea front on Canvey Island

Picture shows Labworth Restaurant overlooking the sea front on Canvey Island

Café owner Heath Hillier, 50, was born on the ‘mainland’ in Benfleet but now lives on the island and is a passionate separatist. He thinks a change of name would help improve the image of the place, too.

‘Why can’t we be Canvey Island-on-Sea or Canvey Island-on-Thames — like Henley-on-Thames?’

He says Canvey’s generosity of spirit is not confined to the elderly, pointing out that when the Rotary Cub was planning a Christmas lunch, they needed drivers to provide transport. So, he looked for volunteers by going to a local lay-by popular with young ‘boy-racers’ — people he says who ‘don’t often get asked to join in’ — and 50 agreed to help.

Café manager Denise Field, was born here, which makes her a ‘swampy’ — as Canvey-born islanders are known. An independence supporter, she says: ‘The only way things get done round here is through volunteers, so why do we need the council?’

She says volunteers have transformed the area so much that many day-trippers prefer Canvey over the bustle of nearby Southend.

But there has been so much building, Denise says, that the place bears no relation to the Canvey of her youth. Hence the time has come for greater autonomy.

John Anderson insists they are not being ‘little islanders’, or even ‘little Englanders’ — not least because he is proud Scot whose accent remains unaltered. He moved here 35 years ago when his job as a Ford engineer brought him to Essex.

He is no fan of Scottish independence from the UK, he says, because it would harm Scotland. But as he and his wife, Doreen, take me on a guided tour of the island, he argues that Canvey would benefit from being its own boss, pointing out its main community centre, The Paddocks.

The council, he says, is deliberately letting the place fall apart so it can redevelop with yet more flats and houses. A recent local meeting on the subject saw a packed house and angry exchanges with council representatives.

There is a forlorn feel to the building as we look around, ahead of a weight-watching class in one hall and an Age Concern gathering in the other. Several windows are smashed.

The community centre manager says that days earlier, a gang of youths surrounded the centre and started hurling abuse at people attending an evening keep fit class and a meeting for the disabled. By the time the police arrived, the yobs had scarpered.

I walk through Canvey’s town centre to seek further opinions on independence, particularly among the young. Most are cautiously in favour, with a few undecided.

Little goes unnoticed here. As I canvas opinions in Long Road, a car pulls up and the driver asks what I am doing.

He turns out to be a Tory member of Castle Point Borough Council, which is useful as I have been trying to find someone who can argue the case against independence. He insists that I speak to the council ‘cabinet member for communications’, Colin MacLean.

‘There is a misapprehension that there is a lack of funding on the island,’ says Mr MacLean, listing recent council spending on new facilities for Canvey, such as £26,000 for a soft play area at the Waterside Leisure Centre.

He denies that more building development is planned for Canvey than in any other parts of the borough.

So why are so many islanders so keen to part company with the borough? He blames scaremongering by local councillors.

Heading for the seafront, I pass a sign for ‘Canvey Island Football Club’ (last home attendance 288) — not quite Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium (capacity: 81,000) which has become a potent symbol of Catalan independence.

Today, the clubhouse has been booked by the local bowls club for an indoor tournament. During a lull in play, I canvas opinion. Everyone says they’d be happy to see independence, bar one lady who says she doesn’t care.

Finally, I talk to the founder of the independence movement. Unlike Catalonia’s divisive leader Carles Puigdemont, David Blackwell, 70, believes that negotiation will be more fruitful than a declaration of independence.

‘What we are seeking is an equal say in decision-making instead of being treated like second-class citizens,’ he says.

If such demands are not heeded, he says, there will only one option: a Catalan-style showdown.

Borough Council HQ in Benfleet, you have been warned.



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