Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Beautiful Life, or: 'The Estate We're In' - a BBC documentary on the story of West Hendon

Barratt Project Manager Nathan Smith and Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius

It is a curious experience, watching a film that features people you know, or have met, retold in a documentary, made for television, following the events of their lives through a sequence of events already familiar to you. 

Such a story, if you are lucky, in the hands of a gifted director, may become not just a process of documentation, but something else, a piece of work that reaches beyond the unfolding narrative and outline of the facts, and the sequence of events, and reveals something not seen before, or not acknowledged.

And this is what you find in watching  last night's BBC documentary,  'The Estate We're In' - the story of the destruction of a community in West Hendon, directed by Fran Roberts, and shot with assistant Alexis Wood - shot over a period of more than a year, during a crucial stage in the so called 'regeneration' of a council estate, by the side of the beautiful Welsh Harp. 

I've written many posts about this subject, but perhaps The Last Betrayal will give the best background to the film itself.

Faux regeneration: nature imitating art

The cinematic quality of the film at times creates a sense of unreality, as if the story were fiction: a drama, whose ending you could not predict, and which just might end more happily than you knew it would: than you know it did. 

And throughout the film, you wish desperately that the residents whose lives you follow could achieve a better outcome: a decent ending, if not a happy one, that recognised what is after all a basic human right, enshrined in law: not the right not to housing, but to the peaceful enjoyment of your home. 

This story is one that needed to be told, and told now, just before the London elections, not just because it is the story of one council estate in West Hendon, or a development that illustrates the merciless policies of one Tory authority, but because it tells the truth about the single most important issue facing our capital city.

That is of course the London housing crisis - and the myth of 'regeneration', that is devouring the social housing stock of our capital city, and creating vast profit for developers, at fatal cost to any community that might be in their way.

'The Estate We're In', filmed by a team of two women, focuses largely on a group of female residents, all of whom tell the story of West Hendon with great articulacy, expressed in the way that only comes from living in a time of heightened emotion, in the most distressing circumstances. 

Tenants, some of them, secure, and non secure - most tenants moved onto this estate over the last twelve years have been deliberately kept there on non secure agreements, so as to minimise their rights to rehousing, and only a few long term residents have security of tenure which was supposed to guarantee them homes on the new development. Supposed to. It didn't. 

The story of West Hendon, in Broken Barnet, is the story of broken promises. 

In the end, secure tenants were herded into an ugly building outside the luxury development, that denies them a view of the waterside, of course, and instead leaves them encircled by busy roads, and looking onto the backyards of kebab shops, and respray garages. 

Trying to exploit the motif of birds, an annexation that is so central to the virtual appropriation of West Hendon, down there, by the water's edge, Barratt London, who refused to take part in this film, have until recently refused to acknowledge the local history of the area, and named the new build properties after the birds who live around the harp, and whose protected status must be something the local residents view with envy.

And that is how the holding centre for the inconvenient secure tenants they cannot so easily dispose of became 'Bullfinch House'. Unsurprisingly, the building is better known to residents as 'Bullshit House'. It is also now plagued by an infestation of rodents, according to local councillors - the Labour members curiously annexed by the Tory leader as proof of the council's consideration for the people of West Hendon. 

Also featured in the film are leaseholders, former tenants, who bought their properties in good faith, encouraged by the local Conservative council - and who have now been utterly betrayed by that same Conservative council, offering them below market values for the compulsory purchase of their homes, which meant, conveniently, that they could not afford the shared equity purchase of new properties on the Barratt development, agreed in secret by the council, built on land given away for £3, despite being worth £12 million ...  

Another broken promise, having assured them they would have 'like for like' properties to replace their former homes.

Jacqui P

The estate itself is - was - on the edge of the waterside of the Welsh Harp, a Victorian reservoir, and a place of rare beauty: rare in the urban sprawl of North London, and here only yards away from the ceaseless traffic and and increasing dereliction of this part of the Edgware Road. Yards away, yet there, hidden away, a place of seclusion, bordered - until now - by trees and green spaces, the silent waters drawing the eye, from every angle, watched over by the geese and swans, and moorhen, and all the other species that make this location a site of Special Scientific Interest, and part of the uniquely lovely landscape that made this such a special place to live, for the residents in the film.

In truth, therein lies the reason for their eviction: the West Hendon estate was too beautiful for them to be allowed to enjoy, and in a time when everything has its price, such beauty must be inevitably be reserved for the exclusive use of those who can afford to buy it.

Barnet Council has apparently been trying to oblige the BBC to give them a preview of the film, which was refused. One can understand why they were so worried: not because of anything done by the production team, but simply because of the utter foolishness of the remarks made in the course of the programme by the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, seen below laughing with his Tory colleagues, at the impassioned address made to them in the council chamber by a resident of West Hendon.

Cornelius looms over this film like a Victorian landlord, who sees slums all around him, and castigates the poor for living there, forgetting that the conditions they live in are his making, or at least the result of a Tory council, over many years, neglecting the maintenance of the buildings, so as to try to create the myth of a 'sink estate', worthy of condemning, or more importantly, ripe for development.

Barnet Tory councillors, including Barnet & Camden candidate Dan Thomas, left, and Leader Richard Cornelius, awfully amused by the speech made by a West Hendon resident.

'The buildings are grotty down there, he announces: They need rebuilding, there can be no doubt ...'

Yes, Councillor Cornelius, there can be doubt: there is doubt. They needed renovation, not demolition, and your council refused to consider that, and preferred to facilitate a luxury development, in its place, which has evicted and displaced the residents who lived there, has destroyed a happy, stable, and united community.

And what is 'grotty' to a Hatton Garden diamond merchant, who lives in well heeled comfort in Totteridge?  ... oh, hang on: not just grotty, actually no less than ... ghastly ...

'It is not an option to leave something ghastly for people to moulder in ...'

If the estate really were something 'ghastly', you fool, that is because your Tory chums have allowed it to become just that. And show some respect: you may not recognise the definition of 'community' in this context, or elsewhere - but you are talking about people's homes, their lives, and their families.

'One of the satisfactions of being a councillor is when something actually gets done, he says, in that self congratulatory way of his, on being shown round one of the new properties'.

'This is what makes it all worthwhile, seeing someone's new home, and comparing it with the former estate, and it's very important that people do have decent homes ... and this is an achievement ..'

Does this man really not understand what he and his Tory colleagues have done? That the people who are losing their homes, being evicted, watching them demolished, cannot live in these new properties? 

Only eight of the former residents, after a huge amount of protest, and publicity, have managed to be rehoused here, on latterly improved shared equity plans, and subject, after the end of capped agreements, to massive yearly charges which most of them will probably not be able to afford.

The film also interviews one of the new residents of West Hendon: 'Nicholas', a man of evidently substantial means, who looks like someone who features in Barratt's rather amusing sales brochures, in fact -  who bought one of the first penthouse flats on the waterside development, and has a property with a fabulous view. In fact he loves it so much, he bought another property. Lucky man.

When he belatedly becomes aware of the dispute which has involved the residents of the estate, he tries to be sympathetic, but says: 'they're living in accommodation which is clearly in disrepair, and falling down, and they are going to be moved into places which are bigger and better, and much more modern ...'

No, Nicholas, they are not. Read on.

They call this a slum, says Leigh, bemused, at the beginning of the film ... she has lived there for forty five years, and is a remarkable woman: intelligent, charming, sensitive, hard working: one of the many residents you see portrayed here who confound the offensive Tory demonisation of people who live in council estates.

Leigh, in her home of forty five years, now lost

Watching her forced from her home, with nowhere to go, is unbearable. I thought I had experienced every human emotion, until now, she says. 

It'll never, ever leave me ... it's just gone far too deep.

As she leaves for the last time, she leaves two roses on the floor of her home, and closes the door. How does that make you feel, she is asked? She cannot say. 

Because there are no words

Meet the two Jacquis: older women, with fierce determination, quiet dignity, and a slow burning fury that slips, at times into palpable distress, and deep sadness, that they should find themselves in this intolerable position, at this point in their lives.

Jacqui P, in the course of the film, visibly resigns herself to the merciless machinery of the 'regeneration' process, accepting, in the end, a one bedroomed flat, after being driven into ill health by the stress of the year's wrangling. As you will see from this post, she took part in the recent commemoration of the bombing of this part of West Hendon, and was clearly very upset when she read out the names of family members lost in the events of that terrible night: her roots in this community are far reaching, but this counts for nothing, when her presence here becomes an obstruction to the process of profit.

Jacqui S, a soft spoken, thoughtful Irishwoman, speaks sadly of her dilemma, watched over by an image of Christ, the light of the world, and one of a Polish saint, whom she trusts will deliver her into safety, in the end. She talks about those broken promises, and the cat and mouse treatment of residents by the developers, whose agents, it must be said continued what one residents referred to as 'psychological warfare' until the very end, when deals over properties were reluctantly agreed:

'... they prefer to slowly build in front of you, and torment you as they go along, torment you with the building work, torment you with the noise, torment you with the lorries, torment you with the dust and the grime that you have to breathe in, then torment you with threats: if you don't move, the CPO's going to come in and we're going to take your home from you .. how can you trust anybody after that? You can't trust them ...'

Jacqui C

Both Jacquis, in the end, are two of the lucky handful of residents who manage to force the developers into upping the offer to the minimum level that would enable to have shared equity in a flat in the new development. Nice, shiny new properties with a view: but not what they were promised, and at what cost in terms of the battle to achieve justice? 

Jacqui S looks around at her new home and observes, in a deeply moving remark that perhaps might serve as an epitaph for the community of the West Hendon estate, that a beautiful home does not make a beautiful life: friends and family, she says, do that. 

And that is the message which this film leaves, for those who can read it: the support of neighbours; family networks, and friendship are what have helped these residents through the ordeal they have been forced to endure: but the forging of those bonds was in the old estate, and in a sense of community built up, in some cases, over generations. And that has been destroyed by the development as effectively as the bulldozers knocked down their old homes in Marriotts Way, the residents scattered in the new diaspora of the dispossessed, evicted, moved away, and largely driven out of the borough.

But let's not forget those who remain to continue the fight - such as the indefatigable Jasmin Parsons, who has fought the 'regeneration' process with everything she has, and represented residents at the CPO hearing, as you will have seen. 

This was a process of staggering inequality, with developers and the council fronted by a hugely expensive QC, whose patrician manner you may witness in the film, dismissing out of hand, in his summing up, when he could not be contradicted, allegations in what he described as 'political' complaints made to the CPO about the way residents were treated, claiming falsely, he said, that their views were ignored, and that bullying and harassment had occurred. 

These allegations are simply not accepted, he says, as Jasmin looks on, silently, her expression unwittingly revealing the vulnerability which lies beneath her bravado, and apparently limitless resourcefulness. 

Jasmin Parsons

As someone who sat through all of the days of this Inquiry, it seemed to me that there was on the contrary, plenty of evidence of all of those claims: certainly the perception amongst residents was that they had been excluded from consultation, and as in the case of Jacqui S, threatened and intimidated by the process imposed on them.

Consider now the case of Dorothy, also featured in the film: shocked to find she and her nine year old daughter had no security of tenancy, or rights, when it came to re-housing, other than to be summarily evicted, and wake up one morning to find a complete stranger in her house, with keys, and power to throw her out, with only an overnight bag, and a direction to emergency accommodation. 

If you want to talk about grotty housing, Richard Cornelius, or even slums, you might find a better definition here, in the squalid bedsit you assigned to Dorothy, and her little girl. 

Except Dorothy's daughter could not be allowed to sleep there,  in a damp room, with a hole in the skirting board gnawed away by rats, and only her mother was left to sleep in the unfurnished rooms, with not even a duvet, or pillow,  a pot or a pan to cook in, while she was denied access to her personal possessions, for three long weeks.

Dorothy, allowed back home to West Hendon to pack her belongings, after three weeks

And do you know, Richard, the most heartbreaking, gut wrenching thing of all, about this hard working, 'aspirational' mother, that you condemned to this pitiful end? 

After recalling the pride she felt in moving into the home from which she was evicted, she tells us, in the film, 'I don't want to be a member of society that's unable to support myself ' ... And as she leaves her home, with her few belongings in a small suitcase, she says she only ever wanted 'to make myself somebody in this world ...' 

And here it is, neatly nailed, by Dorothy, and Jacqui S, and Jacqui P, and Cindy, Katrina, Joe, Jasmin and all the others: the lie that is at the heart of the Tory ethos, more bullshit than could ever be accommodated at Bullshit House: the pretence that they are acting according to some sort of moral principle, that they emulate the ideal, created by Margaret Thatcher, of an aspirational, property-owning working class that seeks to become socially mobile, to work towards a better future.

There is nowhere more fitting than here in Broken Barnet to witness this ideal being destroyed, by the same viral infection that Margaret introduced into the laboratory of political experimentation. It cannot be contained: mutating now into an uncontainable crisis, spread by the rampant greed of the right, the unstoppable progress of market forces, and the worship of profit, it threatens now to undermine the foundations of Tory ideology - and could bring the whole edifice crashing down.

The property market in London, the rental sector, and now the cost of housing: all has become unsustainable: an unregulated market is turning our city into something similar to how the Hendon MP, Matthew Offord would like to portray the community of West Hendon, and other estates in his own backyard: a no go area for ordinary people.

Barnet's housing spokesperson, Tom Davey, who wisely avoided being filmed for this programme, once said he was glad that places like West Hendon, with their monstrous towers of luxury accommodation, and penthouse flats, were being built not for local people, who would 'depend on council services', but for 'Russian oligarchs'. We want only well off people in Barnet, according to him.

Jacqui C's home

At least he was more honest than his group leader. It is reported that of the first 38 properties in West Hendon to be sold, the vast majority of them went to overseas buyers, most of whom will no doubt never live here, but have been bought off plan, in cash, for investment. 

Even by the Tories' standards, this cannot possibly be presented in any way as meeting the housing needs of this borough, or this city.

If Zac Goldsmith is elected as Mayor, or Dan Thomas, who speaks so glibly in the film about the 'success' of this development, is elected for Barnet and Camden; and if David Cameron's government have their way, every council estate in London will be subject to a 'regeneration' process similar to West Hendon. 

Sadiq Khan has commented on the documentary shown last night:

"I grew up on a council estate in South London which meant my brothers, sister and I had a stable and secure place to call home. We had a strong local community when we were growing up - the kind of community that, in Barnet, the Tory council is uprooting on the West Hendon estate.

"If I'm elected Mayor, I'll make sure estate regeneration only takes place where there is resident support - and where there are full rights to return for displaced tenants and a fair deal for leaseholders."

The plans - threats - to 'regenerate' the council estates of London by Zac Goldsmith, followed by vague assurances of rehousing for existing tenants, must be measured by the history of promises made by Tory administrations here, in Barnet: and the message is clear, then - if you watched this programme tonight, and it appalled you, as it should, remember this, in May, when you are at the ballot box. 

This is the future you do not want to see,in your borough, in your estate, or your community: but if we do not speak up now, the story of West Hendon, and every other regeneration estate in this borough, will be the story of London, and the end of social housing, in the capital city -  and everywhere else.  

All pics courtesy BBC/Two Step Productions


Mary said...

Your review of this documentary, one of the saddest I have seen, is very accurate and also beautifully written.

All we vassals can do, as we see all the worthwhile things in our country being dismantled by this cruel fascist government, is complain and comment. Our fathers' and grandfathers' sacrifices of WW2 have come to nought.

Thank you and love to those dear people dispossessed of their homes and community.

Mrs Angry said...

Thank you, Mary: unbelievably today one of the Tory cllrs shown in the programme, Dan Thomas, now standing for the London Assembly, tweeted that West Hendon is, or will be 'a success'. That tells you everything you need to know about the values of our local Tory politicians.

Mrs Angry said...

Anon 20.58 - I can't publish that, sorry! Have another go ...

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid this is the way things are going. Tory controlled and money grabbing. Community is a dirty word!

undead said...
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undead said...
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Anonymous said...

A phenomenal review of an extremely moving documentary. I cried at the end. I have no idea where this country is heading. I myself left in the Thatcher years, when my school was so ratecapped that we teachers were cleaning and painting our slum classrooms and mending torn curtains, while some teachers were bringing toilet paper for the kids. Our head ran marathons to buy library books. I could write a book about it. I and my socialist colleagues protested against the cuts in countless demonstrations all through the 80's until the miners' strike when, for once and for all, the working class was smashed into the ground. Then I left. To all those who vote Tory, YOU and only you, are responsible for the death of beautiful communities like these. And don't think the Labour Party under the Blairites will be much different. Read Dickens and reflect on where we are heading - right back to where we started - and all our struggles, bloodshed and courage in vain. People, stick together, think of the beautiful union banners, "unity is strength". We are the majority and we can beat them! Love to all of you on the estate, wherever you are now.

Mrs Angry said...

Anon: I'm not ashamed to say it made me cry too, out of fury for the indignity and injustice that has been served on the people who lived in this community, some of them all their lives. Betrayed by the Tory council, and then subjected to the sneering contempt of the current crop of Tory members, who want us to believe this development is a 'success' and still pretend it is providing new homes for local residents.

You are right to refer to Dickens, in this week above all others, when we are reminded of the rank hypocrisy of Tory ministers who have made a career out of preaching Victorian values, and now have found it necessary to cry crocodile tears over the political impact of their merciless policies. They have tried to drag us back to the word as it was before the age of Victorian philanthropy and the birth of the Labour movement laid the foundations of socia reform. Perhaps we have reached some sort of watershed now, and there will be a pause in the slide back into barbarism, but I think that is probably a delusion.