Friday 14 March 2014

Once upon a time in West Hendon: or - Mrs Angry's guide to social cleansing, Barnet Tory style

Labour councillors canvassing in Tyrrel Way, with the new Barratt Homes development in the background.

At the last general election, many Tory candidates used a carefully crafted template of phrases to create their electoral literature. One favourite phrase of 2010, you might recall, was a boast that your Conservative candidate had strong feelings of sympathy for 'the great ignored'. 

Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer was rather keen on this line of approach, and so was our now deputy leader here in Barnet, Daniel Thomas, standing, rather forlornly, in Neil Kinnock's old seat of Islwyn.  Thomas was also concerned, incidentally, about setting a limit on immigration, which he said had got 'out of control' (in South Wales?), and promised that a Tory government would make sure that 7 out of 10 people would be better off. That went well, Councillor Thomas, didn't it?

The 'great ignored', though, in Broken Barnet: who are they? I think you know, don't you, if you have been reading this blog? By Tory definition, they are the silent but disproportionately influential minority, the comfortably off residents, whom Richard Cornelius and his friends imagine will be thrilled at the pre-election 'gesture' of a 23 pence a week cut in council tax. They are the people he really cares about, who must be protected from the terrifying prospect of a fair level of council tax, according to their means, regardless of their ability to pay, even if they live in the deserted mansions of Bishops Avenue, or, he, feared, their lives would be 'ruined'.

Well, then. Come with Mrs Angry now, and see the people who really are the 'great ignored', in our borough: the less privileged residents, who live in some of the worst areas of social deprivation, abandoned, forgotten, and about to be unceremonioulsy moved on, to who knows where, representing, as they do, an obstruction to the gentrification and gerrymandering development of West Hendon.

Yes: this is Broken Barnet, remember? We don't want poor people here, as Tom Davey, the Tory member responsible for housing, reminded us at the full council meeting last week: we want only 'well off' people. 

In West Hendon, he hopes for a resettlement of Russian oligarchs, in the new Barratt homes development, overlooking the Welsh Harp. This is because the young Councillor Davey has firm views on the undeserving poor. We do not want people here who are too dependent on council services. And in Broken Barnet, everything has a material value, and only wealthy people should be allowed access to a view of such rare beauty, in the midst of an otherwise urban landscape, access paid for by virtue of the price of a penthouse flat, and not seen through the rotting window frame of a home in a forgotten estate that is part of a social housing scheme.

Mrs Angry has been out canvassing a couple of times in the last week in this area of West Hendon, right on the edge of the Welsh Harp reservoir, in Tyrrell Way and Marsh Drive, an area of social housing run by 'Barnet Homes', the council's ALMO, with a mixture of tenants and private leaseholders, a scandalously neglected estate, due for demolition at some point in the very near future, while the residents' lives are left on hold.

Councillor Julie Johnson, standing down at the election, and new candidate Dr Devra Kay

At the last election this Labour stronghold returned three councillors: Julie Johnson, Agnes Slocombe, and Ansuya Sodha. Ah, Ansuya Sodha.

Mrs Sodha was not selected to stand this time, competing as she was with a particularly strong panel of new candidates, and now she has rather peculiarly decided that in order to try to retain a position as councillor, she must defect to the Tories, who promised to nominate her if she switched sides (being rather embarrassingly short of real Tory candidates in the Hendon constituency ....) 

After fifteen years as a Labour councillor, castigating the Tory government, describing them as a bunch of spoilt Etonians, (yes, Cllr Sodha, you really should have removed those embarrassing tweets rather sooner than you did) and castigating local Conservatives in Barnet for the iniquitous effects of the bedroom tax on the residents of West Hendon , she has now thrown in her lot with her former opponents, the same crowing councillors who used to laugh at her every time she spoke in the chamber.

Good luck to her - and good riddance, says Mrs Angry.

The new candidates, Devra Kay and Adam Langleben will make  outstandingly good representives for West Hendon, and are extremely bright, hardworking, compassionate. and deeply committed to the principles of social justice, following in the example of Agnes Slocombe, the formidable, long serving councillor, and her colleague Julie Johnson, who is standing down. 

Watching Julie in action on the doorstepping trail is something of a humbling experience, in truth. She really does know every one, and who lives where, and every one we passed seemed to know her, greeting her warmly. Her detailed knowledge of her constituents, and their particular circumstances, was quite extraordinary. 

Most residents, it must be said, were out at work, thus proving the lie to Tory prejudices about tenants in social housing being lazy scroungers who make no contribution to society: most in receipt of benefit being in work, and struggling on low wages is of no interest to someone like Tom Davey who likes to consider his own employment for a tobacco company as somehow morally superior to those who eke out a living on the margins of Broken Barnet, and who dare to rely on the support of council services.

Our Tory councillors' views on the undeserving poor and this is no simplification of the way in which they view such residents - means that  Barnet's housing policy is deliberately directed in order to punish those who they feel are not worthy of their approval. Like the English plantation of Ireland, with Protestant settlers being granted lands and rights over the native Irish people, in order to correct their moral failings, their tendency to rebellion and heretic faith, Conservative social engineering in this borough is transforming the landscape, both literally and symbolically.

People in Tyrrel Way and Marsh Drive are living, through no fault of their own, in often pretty squalid conditions, in buildings where the very fabric of the structure is breaking down, or subject to damp, or flooding, or infestation  by rats - and in some cases still harbouring asbestos. It is as a result of years of uncertainty and neglect and lack of investment by Barnet's housing service.

One of the many rat traps lying about the estate, in areas where children play

The whole estate is clearly in urgent need of maintenance: peeling paint, rotting woodwork, including firedoors, evidence of persistent damp: this is prevalent throughout the blocks of flats: 

The effect of living in such an environment is hard to escape: dehumanising, a constant challenge. 

Many of the tenants have small children, and it is worrying to think of the impact on their health and well being. 

One tenant we spoke to has an eight year old child, has lived on the estate for many years, and is still without a secure tenancy. In the meanwhile, her flat was blighted by damp from constant leaks, and when asbestos was moved from a neighbouring flat, she says she was left unprotected and at risk of exposure. 

She had tried to interest her local Tory MP, Matthew Offord, in her plight, and he said he would help, but ... nothing happened. She wanted to know if we knew why the little garden she had made at the back of her flat had just been ripped up by council workmen. We guessed it was to do with the new development: she was very upset. Her daughter will now have to cross over to the other side of the Welsh Harp to find a green space in which to play: this side is earmarked for those who can afford to pay fro the privilege.

Many tenants here are in the same dilemma: the council does not want too many secure tenants, and to be weighed down with the responsibilities that might bring. So children are growing up in these flats, with no security, no assurance that they will be able to continue their education at the same schools, or even remain in their own homes. That will be decided on the suitable timing for redevelopment. 

It's called regeneration, but in Barnet, that is no promise of new life for a community, only a promise of social cleansing, and making way for a better class of resident. Gerrymandering, in effect, moving the poor Labour voters out of the borough,  and welcoming in the middle classes, who may just still be stupid enough to vote Tory.

The new Welsh Harp development, so warmly supported by our Tory council, along with its 29 floor storey blocks, is now underway, despite protests from campaigners objecting to the impact on a site of such ecological sensitivity. 

There will be limited provision for a few lucky secure tenants - but from further afield, and decanted into the rather less well placed, Edgware Road side of the development. None of the tenants in Tyrrel Way or Marsh Drive will be able to move there. They have no idea if they will even be allowed to stay in the borough.

In the meanwhile, therefore, those living on the estate remain in uncertainty, and rapidly deteriorating conditions, while a Berlin Wall separates them from the luxurious new homes being built on the other side. 'Hendon Waterside', it is called: look and admire , and try not to laugh at the sales pitch, encouraging would be buyers to think they will be socialising in Hampstead and Belsize Park, rather than walking home past possibly one of the most depressed areas in the borough, marked by the terminal decline of this part of the Edgware Road.

On the other side of the divide: an exciting new Barratt Homes development: exciting, if you can afford to live there, and backed, as it says, by Mayor for (carefully chosen parts of) London

Several tenants we saw spoke of the difficulty in getting Barnet Homes to deal with problems, and for those residents who are not tenants, but leaseholders, there is an even more pressing concern.

Despite the fact that Tyrrel Way and Marsh Drive are due for demolition, as reported

here in the local Times, Barnet Homes have sent residents each a bill for a staggering £10,000 for 'renovations', even though their homes are under a compulsory purchase order, and they could be continuing to pay off these demands long after the buildings have been bulldozed. 

Much of the work for which this money is being demanded is for dealing with matters such as asbestos removal, and electrical improvements, which should have been carried out by the landlords years ago: it really is nothing short of outrageous to try to extort this money from residents now, and at a point where they have such a short time remaining in their homes.

Just before leaving the estate, Councillor Julie Johnson took us into the Hanuman centre, to meet members of the Tamil community who worship there. Slipping off our shoes, we went inside the unprepossessing building to find the most amazing, surprising sight: a tiny Hindu temple, dedicated to the monkey faced god Hanuman. 

Around the room were several small shrines, lovingly decorated with offerings of fruit and flowers, and accompanied by the flickering light of tiny votive oil lamps - to a sometime Catholic like Mrs Angry, a curiously familiar practice. A woman wandered from shrine to shrine, hands clasped in prayer, and then a bare chested priest, with painted markings on his body chanted in front of Hanuman, the god who is the embodiment of courage, and selfless service.  

It was perhaps after all a fitting place to end the day, and a reminder that those qualities,courage, and selflessness,  in the best of people, who really do care about their community, just might make a difference to the lives who most need their support. 

Will the temple, a spiritual centre, in an awkward spot, right next to the development, survive the 'regeneration' of this area? 

Sadly, Mrs Angry rather doubts that it will. Spiritual regeneration is of no significance in Broken Barnet, when in the way of the pursuit of profit, as we know. But while it remains, and while there are still local residents still in occupation in Tyrrel Way, and Marsh Drive, there is still hope that West Hendon can retain some claim to a diverse community, and not an artifically planted development for wealthy outsiders.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

excellent piece - what the people of this estate are being put through - the stress and uncertainty of their futures is criminal - people are being treated like cattle to be shipped off to some indefinite place in the future - before you know it they'l be voting to cull us ! ( ps i may be wrong but i think thatcher abolished 'secure' tenancy agreements around 1990 and replaced any tenancies after that with 'assured' tenancies)