Tuesday 3 February 2015

A matter of perception: the battle for West Hendon draws to a close

Cllr Devra Kay, Dan Knowles from Sawyer Fielding: residents Jackie and Kalim

The West Hendon housing Inquiry wound up on Friday, with closing submissions from Dan Knowles, from Sawyer Fielding, residents' representative Jasmin Parsons - and finally from Mr Nigel King, QC, for Barnet Council and Barratt London.

We shall return to those closing statements later, but let us note a remark made at the end by Neil King QC, in reply to a comment by Jasmin Parsons, at the end of her final statement, explaining how upset she had been by the behaviour of certain representatives of the development partners present throughout the Inquiry, who sat while residents gave their statements, laughing, on their phones, or even, in one case, falling asleep. She had found that, she said 'very, very, very offensive'.

Mr King said he was sorry, if she had found the behaviour on the part of some - not quite sure who, he said, had been inappropriate: not intended, he remarked.  He appeared to be quite sincere in his apology, which was only right, after all, because Jasmin was correct - we all had observed such behaviour, throughout the days of the Inquiry, notably by some officers from the Capita run council services, one of whom in particular appeared to be deeply amused by the proceedings, and apparently regarded it all as a sort of game, smirking throughout, and joking with colleagues. 

Neil King, QC, with Zack Simons

Another senior officer had actually slept through some of the statements made to the Inquiry: Mrs Angry had considered poking him with her pen, to wake him up, paid as he is, after all, by the tax payers of Broken Barnet, a handsome salary to stay awake and at least pretend to take an interest in the proceedings - but the temptation to leave him there, with his coffee dangerously poised on top of his laptop keyboard, risking the loss of so much outsourced crapitorially managed data, was too strong, and she left him to carry on, oh dear: caught on film by the BBC camera present throughout the hearing.

This lack of respect for residents, and the terrible situation they find themselves in, the loss of their homes, and their community, was evident throughout the long years of the so called regeneration: there was never any likelihood that this would not have become embedded in the culture of the local authority, now staffed by Capita.

The men from Barratts, by and large, and in contrast to some of the other parties, sat still throughout the Inquiry, impassively, their expressions devoid of any expression: watchful, attentive to detail - unmoved. Calculating, of course, and during the course of the Inquiry attempts were made to appear to improve offers to leaseholders. Why now, at this point - so late, and so little? Because at last the developers, if not Barnet Council, had realised the impact that the Inquiry would have, if not on their plans for Hendon Waterside, in terms of reputational damage.

The real impact of the Inquiry is there, right there where it really hurts: the full glare of publicity and media interest on the testimony presented by the residents of the estate who have been so badly treated in the course of this development. 

To some extent, some of the blame for this, seen from the point of view of Barratts, might be thought to be in the hands of Capita, who have been in charge of the valuation and purchase of the leasehold properties, and Barnet Homes, whose officers had responsibility for tenants, many of whom have made very serious allegations about bullying and harassment in the course of the process leading to their eviction and forcible removal from their homes: allegations that we must ensure have full investigation. 

But it is in the power of Barratts now to mitigate at least some of the terrible injustice served to the people of West Hendon as a result of the development which they have imposed on them, excluding them, making their lives utter misery throughout the process, and dispossessing them, disenfranchising them, effectively, from any part in the new scheme. 

Only since residents have dug in their heels, engaged in direct action, and made their voices heard, have any concessions, such as they are, been made, or efforts to address the needs of some of the residents in really awful personal circumstances. But it is too little, too late.

Barratts have been given public land, and allowed to do exactly as they please by a council indifferent to the consequences for the residents of the estate, indeed at times appearing to be acting as the agent of the developer rather than properly fulfilling its duty to residents, whether in West Hendon, or anywhere else in the borough. The problems of conflict of interest caused by Capita's stranglehold on this authority's services, and its part in the final stage of the current phase of development are as yet unaddressed.

The real cost of this development, in terms of value for money for taxpayers, the considerations of financial loss due to the 'transfer' of public land to a private developer - we cannot evaluate that as yet, while Barnet Council continues to withhold the viability study. But the cost in human terms, the effect on the people now losing their homes: that was clear to see, and painful to listen to, over the long days of the Housing Inquiry. Clear to see, and painful to listen to, if you were not asleep, or playing with your phone -  or, yes: exchanging jokes with your colleagues.

On Tuesday morning, for example, we heard a submission from resident Shahnaz, who spoke quietly, but with great courage, supported by Jasmin, of her situation, living, as she said, in fear, since she first received the eviction notice.

Shahnaz, who has health problems, was desperately worried about where she would live: would she end up on the street? She dreaded a future without the support of her neighbours, isolated again.

She said that she felt 'harassed and bullied' by a Barnet housing officer and as she spoke about her treatment by him, began to cry. She bravely continued, but cried again when claiming she had been further harassed by a council officer's phone calls, and had become too frightened to open her post. The same officer, she said, had had the audacity to state in court that a housing assessment had been arranged - for the very day of the court hearing.

Other residents have also alleged that they were duped into not attending court hearings, on the advice of a housing officer. Those that did not attend, as advised, received eviction notices, of course.

Jasmin held her arm as she continued with the admission that she had nearly taken an overdose, as her anxiety had been exacerbated. She spoke of the constant noise and pollution caused by the construction, from 7 in the morning, to 6.30 pm at night: she is unable to rest during the day.

Shahnaz spoke with gratitude of the support from her community, and especially Jasmin.

Barnet Council, she observed, seems only to care about profit.

The next speaker was Hodan, a woman whose testimony, delivered with evident distress, but great dignity, was impossible to hear without feeling enraged - and needing to fight back tears of your own.

Hodan, who has lived at West Hendon for more than two decades.

Hodan told the Inquiry she has lived in West Hendon for 23 years, in a community of neighbours , she said, who have lived together for decades. She has three children, and works as a carer. She described how, as neighbours, she and others would often meet while their children played on the swings and slides of York Memorial Park. This has sadly ended, she said, because of the building site, the constant noise, the pollution, and for safety reasons. 

We were all told we would be 'regenerated' and would all be back together, if we so wished, she said. She stopped here, for a moment, overcome with emotion, before explaining, with Jasmin supporting her, that her toddler was born with multiple congentital abnormalities. He suffers with recurrent chest infections and breathing difficulties, and this has meant that she is unable to have any windows open, because of the dust and pollution. 

The council are trying to move her family, she said, into a building where the bedroom windows faced onto a garage, and which is right on the Edgware Road, with heavy traffic, and pollution. Her current home is suitable for her family's needs, a comfortable maisonette, that looks out on to the beautiful Welsh Harp, with all of its wildlife: and York Memorial Park.

The accommodation for secure tenants, outside the luxury development: with a view of the kebab shops and garages of the Edgware Road

When her child is ill in the night, which is often, she is able to take him downstairs, to nurse him, and calm him, without her two other children being disturbed.

Like other residents, her family had been promised 'like for like' accommodation in the new housing, but they had been excluded, and individual circumstances ignored.

Mr King had the grace not to put questions to either of these valiant women. Indeed what could he ask, without appearing to be appallingly insensitive? It was noticeable that as the sequence of similar statements continued throughout the week he built a wall of cardboard boxes between his table and the witness seat. Who could blame him? 

Mrs Angry wondered once or twice during the Inquiry how it would be if he were presenting the case for the residents, rather than the developers and Barnet Council, and what a great shame that his skills as counsel were not matched by an equally robust barrister for the community being torn apart by the development.

No questions, but in his closing submission on the last day, Mr King informed us that Hodan had been offered a property on the estate at Gadwall House, which has been assessed as 'suitable for her needs' by Barnet Homes Medical Assessment Team, following a 'detailed review' of her medical evidence. Good news: but why now, after leading her to expect her lot was to be shoved with the rest of the unwanted secure tenants on the gyratory system by the Edgware Road?

Later that morning Jasmin read out a statement by Katrina, another resident with mental and physical health problems, on a temporary tenancy of five years, who said she had had not had a proper assessment of her housing or medical needs.

Another statement by resident Kirsty, living in sub standard conditions, obliged to throw out her baby's Moses basket, due to mould caused by damp: finding out that as a non secure tenant she will be 'decanted' perhaps to another 'regeneration' estate.

Katrina's mother Sandra, had lived on the estate since 1992. Her fate, as a 'privileged' secure tenant? Moved to the building on the gyratory system, outside the new scheme, overlooking the kebab shops & toxic fumes of the Edgware Road.

Leaseholder Kalim spoke now, in two statements, one with a neighbour and fellow activist, Mr Siddiqi, explaining the lack of consultation, the refusal of Barnet Council to disclose the viability scheme. His own statement, which in the interests of transparency, Mrs Angry will disclose she helped him to complete, was a powerful indictment of the sense of betrayal felt by not only leaseholders and tenants alike. 

Kalim objected strongly to the use of the term 'decanting', for the removal of non secure tenants:

... as if the individuals concerned were some sort of liquid commodity, disposable: it is a demeaning term, dehumanising, reducing the lives of men, women and children to nothing more than that of an object, a pawn in a game, to be moved around, at the whim of the council, powerless, without rights, without dignity. It is an abominable way to treat us.

He referred as all the residents do, to the fierce sense of community felt by the residents of the estate, leaseholders, and tenants alike, to the fact that their campaign group was called 'Our West Hendon' so as to reclaim a sense of ownership over their own futures. The word community, he said, is not one understood by the London Borough of Barnet,

Where we see a community, they see nothing more than a collection of individuals, representing a problem to be resolved: an obstruction to be removed. 
He accused them of engaging not only in social cleansing, but gerrymandering. He is absolutely right, of course.

After lunch, resident Alex made his statement. Another non secure tenant with health issues, dependent on the support of his community: friends, and neighbours, but also, like so many of the residents with their own needs and vulnerabilities, genuinely worried as much about the impact of the new development on the Welsh Harp, and the wildlife there, as their own fates. Alex did express the real fear that he would end back on the streets, where he used to live. He has turned his life around, with the support he found in his neighbours, and his community: what does the future hold for him now?

It should be remembered that many of the non secure tenants moved to West Hendon over the last decade are vulnerable in some way: some believe this has been a deliberate policy, moving in residents who are easier to exclude from any obligation to rehouse, and less likely to be able to resist the process of being 'decanted'. Again, the human cost of such contempt for the housing needs and human rights of those more vulnerable members of society is extreme: it must be acknowledged, and put on record. 

What has happened at West Hendon, in my view, in regard to these residents is outrageous, a cynical act of exploitation, trading in lives as if they were expendable, and of no consequence. 

As Cllr Kay remarked, there is something rotten in the estate of West Hendon - and it is, in Mrs Angry's view, a sickness we need to eradicate, spreading as it is from the Town Halls of  all the Rotten Boroughs of this country, and beyond, eating into the fabric of our democracy like the damp and rot left to devour the concrete buildings of the estate itself.

Also making a statement that afternoon was Father John Hawkins, the vicar from St John the Evangelist, West Hendon, who has lived in the parish since 1999, and has had a role more recently as Chair of the residents' partnership board. He is an admirable man, Fr Hawkins: a minister who has no difficulty at all in doing what he should do, as a pastoral leader: tell the truth, and support the people of his parish, speaking out with authority - and courage: rumour has it that he told one local politician exactly where to go, when he tried to admonish him for daring to undertake such a role. 

Fr John Hawkins, and fellow board member.

At the Inquiry, on behalf of residents on the Partnership Board, he gave detailed criticisms of the way in which the new development was affecting local residents.

He spoke of broken promises, 'diluted' pledges: to provide new homes to residents, not to build on York Memorial Park. Of the broken promise in 2009 by former Tory council leader, now MP, Mike Freer, to turn non secure tenancies into secure ones.

He spoke of the lack of consultation: of decisions involving significant changes to the scheme, put to the board too late for any meaningful input from them. Of the failure to get senior councillors such as Tom Davey and leader Richard Cornelius to attend meetings with residents, or even to acknowledge the invitations. Of the confusion caused by the processes such as valuation of property to residents, many of them vulnerable, and already feeling 'disempowered'.

It should be noted, of course, that no Tory councillor had the guts to attend any of the Inquiry, to defend their own iniquitous housing policy, or even witness the proceedings - whereas Labour councillors attended every day, all day, gave statements to the Inquiry, and supported their residents, especially Devra Kay, and Adam Langleben.

Father John was asked by Mr King if it was not in fact the case that the original pledge had not promised to leave York Park untouched, but referred to it being 'redesigned'. Ah. Oh really, thought Mrs Angry: and how does 'redesigned', Mr King, become interpreted as 'will be given to developers to build on'?

Wednesday at the Inquiry saw more testimony from West Hendon residents. 

Zubna, a resident with many serious health problems, and who uses a wheelchair, took her place at the witness table, and made what was clearly an enormous amount of courage to make her statement: her hand shook as she drank some water before she began, and she spoke with eyes, closed, with no little effort, but evident determination. 

As she had done with many residents, Jasmin Parsons sat with her for reassurance, her arm around her, and holding her hand. She remained sitting with her, in this position, during the adjournment, after Zubna had so bravely spoken of the extent of her medical condition, the complex, intimate details of her illness and disabilities. 

That a woman of such fragility and vulnerability should be compelled to come to a public Inquiry and expose herself and her needs to the scrutiny of strangers in this way, persecuted as she is in her own home, threatened with the loss of that home, speaks of the desperation and intolerable level of fear being experienced by residents over so many years, and now coming to the point of crisis as Barnet Council and Barratts and Capita conspire to force these people out of the way of the luxury development that has been agreed without their involvement, without their consent, acting with complete indifference as to the devastation that this will have on their lives. 

An adjournment was necessary because a sudden outburst of heavy drilling had erupted behind the room, and kept interrupting, drowning out Zubna's words, spoken with such difficulty, an ironic replication of the conditions in which she lives at home, trapped on a construction site, and of the way in which her voice, and those of the many vulnerable tenants on the West Hendon estate, is marginalised, ignored and ultimately silenced by the developers and the local authority.

Another non secure resident, Gazaleh, also coping with disabilities, has been moved three times in four years, and spoke of her latest removal from one 'regeneration' estate, Stonegrove, to the latest one here at West Hendon. 

She said that for a regeneration scheme to be meaningful, it has to be inclusive: but West Hendon was degeneration, not regeneration.

A statement was read on behalf of Peggy, an elderly resident too ill to attend the Inquiry. She spoke as all residents do, of her love for the park, and the closeness to nature; the peace of mind - all members of the community enjoyed such a lovely, open green space. 

Barratts, she said, look like they are only interested in those who are young, and working.

The elderly and disabled who were able to live in the flats provided for those on lower incomes: now it looks like such a way of life are just, she said: 'dreams of the past'.

Why should the poor, asked Peggy, be disadvantaged, just because other people can afford it? What happens to the rank and file, who have been living here all their lives, and still want to live here?

Jasmin, who had read out her statement, added that this tenant, as others have stated, had been told there was no need to attend court, that was a mere formality - and she now had an eviction notice requiring her to leave her home by March 31st.

Later that day we heard from another long term resident and leaseholder, Lee, who had taken nine days off work to attend the Inquiry, and sat quietly, steadfastly, all the way through, her beautiful, sad green eyes gazing on the witnesses and proceedings, watching the end of her forty five years in her home in West Hendon, minimised, trivialised, beaten down into a state of irrelevance by officers from Barnet, and representatives of Barratts, and Mr Neil King, QC. 

At last it was her time to have her say, and she sat at the table to read her statement, handwritten, and written from the heart: 

West Hendon, she wrote, was a little village, nestling in a small green valley with breathtaking views and such peace, the only sound you could hear was the sound of the birds singing.

Not so now!

Views have been destroyed by building works and bird-song replaced by the unbelievable noise coming from the construction site ...

When construction started at the back of my home in January 2014, what was once a small green hill, with trees and daffodils, was dug up and became at the time mountains of  earth.

On top of one of the piles, lay the daffodils, torn from their roots, just like we are all going to be.

March came, and despite laying discarded, those daffodils bloomed. 

They refuse to give up: and so do we.

As well as hearing from residents in this session, we heard from one or two non resident witnesses, that the council and developers, and indeed the counsel for council and developers may not have been awfully keen to hear from: such as Mr George Turner, a writer and campaigner who has a good deal of experience in fighting  'regeneration' schemes such as the Heygate scheme in Southwark.

He had come to talk about the issue of the refusal to disclose the viability study, disputing the claim by Barnet and Barratts that the reduction in affordable housing is due to a need to meet the requirements of a 'mixed and balanced' community, and because not to reduce the quota would compromise the financial viability of the whole scheme. 

He discussed the London Plan, and the scale of the West Hendon scheme, which he said created its own community and therefore should in fact require the maximum amount of affordable housing: after all it was larger, he said, than the city where his mother lived, which had its own cathedral.

Mr Turner probed the interesting idea put forward by the development partners that there was an economic need for the scheme: he referred us to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, in the nineteen thirties, who suggested that if you dig a hole, and fill it back in again, that will promote economic activity. That seemed, to Mrs Angry, pretty much a perfect description of what was going on, down by the Welsh Harp, courtesy of Barnet Council, and Barratt London.

After a reminder of the accepted view that Compulsory Purchase Orders are by nature a breach of human rights, but must follow due process to ensure that there really is a public benefit that overcomes those private rights, with breathtaking audacity, Mr Turner moved on from a referral to a CPO process in Tottenham, and the Shell case now being considered in the High Court by Justice Collins, to the Doon Street case in which our very own Neil King, QC, had been involved, but, goodness me, one in which he had insisted on, and been granted, the production of the viability study. 

Mr King later said yes, well - that had been a planning matter: the implication being that this is a CPO Inquiry, and therefore the study was not relevant - but as we have observed right from the beginning of the hearing, Barnet and Barratts have constantly cited the viability study as proof of their need to proceed with the CPOs, and therefore it is reasonable to expect, in Mrs Angry's view, that this study must be seen and reviewed.

Another useful submission came later that day from a Labour councillor from Brent, Roxanne Mashari, member for Welsh Harp ward: the reservoir is shared between the two boroughs. She told us that it was important to note the scale and breadth of opposition in Brent to the development: there had been a unanimous, cross party agreement on the issue. 

Cllr Mashari made a very interesting observation about the planning meeting in Barnet which approved the plans, and which she had attended, having been at the time the Cabinet member for Environment. 

She said the presentation to the meeting had been of extraordinary length - 20 or 30 minutes - and described it as, well: not as balanced as you would expect from professional officers, who appeared to be clearly in favour of the development. 

It is certainly very difficult to see where in this process, in Mrs Angry's view, the balancing act in favour of the rights of the residents of West Hendon has been given equal consideration, and protection, measured against the huge degree of support given to the implementation of the developers' requirements, especially in the light of the change of emphasis from a scheme that included the accommodation of residents, to one that effectively excludes them. 

And there is now the added factor of the potential conflict of interest posed by the role of Capita in so many different capacities. We find ourselves now, in Barnet and no doubt elsewhere, beset by a diminishing capacity for scrutiny, accountability: transparency - all the fine aspirations of the Nolan Principles, the pretence and platitudes of the localism act, worthless in the face of such relentlessly anti-democratic, fawning accommodation of the needs of the private sector, at the cost of the public interest, even, as we see in West Hendon, of our human rights. 

Time to take a stand, I think, Mr Pickles, don't you?

Part of the day's proceedings was spent in consideration of the submission by Jasmin Parsons, who tried valiantly to present the case of tenants and leaseholders on the estate. She recounted the now familiar facts: not the same sort of facts so treasured by the counsel for the Acquiring Authority: useful conclusions that appeared to have no rebuttal, but a description of the view from the other side: where the evidence of injustice has no glib, facile presentation from a top ranking barrister, but depends on the humanity and resourcefulness of the residents themselves.

Jasmin began to summarise her statement: with a typically modest understatement she explained that the fight against the development had 'taken up a lot of my life'. The worry, stress and confusion that residents faced meant she was constantly 'on call', all week - as well as having to work - our lives, she said, have been put on hold, indefinitely.

As she spoke, one of the Capita men was laughing.
She talked about her love for the community where she has lived for so long, in the place where she grew up, played as a child, brought up her own family: faced her own challenges - and then began what was really almost a eulogy: a reminder of the history of West Hendon and the Welsh Harp, from its creation as a reservoir, to the pleasure grounds that featured in Victorian music hall songs, 'The Jolliest Place that's Out' ... the first greyhound races took place here, as did tests of the first tank and - oh so much more that no developer, or Tory councillor, or Crapita clone will ever care about. She talked about the wildlife, and the impact of the new development: will it, asked Jasmin, become the stone crescent desert that is Grahame Park, like the dark, concrete jungle of Colindale - or will it be the squandered wasteland of West Hendon?

Thursday was set aside for members of the Inquiry to make a site visit, and there was no hearing in the Town Hall. 

Mrs Angry had made her own site visit on Sunday, with West Hendon councillor Devra Kay, in order to check out the evidence unearthed in the borough archives, which contradicted assertions made by the council and developers that there was no memorial association with York Park. Jasmin kindly made us a cup of tea, and took us around the estate and Welsh Harp: tracing the line of the roads destroyed in the bombing, and seeing where the park expanded, post war: an inconvenient truth ignored by the planning officers, whose curious failure to consult the borough's own archival records regarding the matter is still unexplained. 

A number of residents affected by the scheme came up to talk to us - including a grandmother who had lived there for thirty eight years; a single mother resisting the fate being assigned to her by housing officers. The sense of anger, and betrayal, was clear, as well as a feeling of stubborn resistance.

Back on Friday, though, the last day: merely to hear submissions from Dan Knowles, and Jasmin, and then, in closing from Neil King.

Dan Knowles is acting for 19 leaseholders in the course of the CPO process, but he is also acting, unpaid, as an advocate for tenants on the estate: a public spirited, admirable gesture without which many residents would have no access of any sort to any informed advice as to their circumstances. 

Measure their position against that of the developers, and council: and then, please:  tell me how this is a fair process, and not naturally weighted against the best interests of those without the means to pay for the best legal representation?

It was the last morning, the last day, and the end of an emotional two weeks for residents. For Jasmin, tired, and run out of time, it was clearly a difficult moment. As she sat and listened to the QC's final submission, to which there was no right of reply, she became upset, and left the room. 

Mr King, busy dismissing opposing views on certain 'facts', or presenting them as 'a matter of perception', had to be told by the Inspector to stop talking, as Miss Parsons was distressed, which had escaped his attention. 

He looked slightly abashed, and later had the decency to thank all the objectors, with sincerity, for their contributions to the Inquiry - as well as apologising for the behaviour of certain individuals out of his sightline throughout the hearing.

But who could blame Jasmin for feeling as she did, unable to counter what she felt were unfair points in his summary?

I was pretty cross myself, albeit on a rather smaller scale, noting that my own evidence about York Memorial Park, unchallenged by questioning earlier in the week, when it was too risky, was now, when it could not be contradicted, devalued and misrepresented: described as 'repeated but unsubstantiated accusations that the inquiry has been misled on the status of York Park', ignoring the evidence about the enlargement of the park, and the number of memorial services from 1941 to at least 1950 (only as far as I got in the short time available) wrongly dismissed as one event in 1950. 

 Part of Barratts encroachment on York Memorial park: a multi story tower

Not sure what Mr King's benchmark for substantiation is: but he advises 'the position is straightforward, and should not be contentious, if examined in an objective manner'. 

Ah: objectivity - that quality not required, it seems, in the valuation of leaseholders' properties - as we heard from Capita's Mr Paul Watling, who said that ultimately, it was his personal judgement that counted.

For Jasmin, to have to listen silently to the long sequence of rebuttal of her case was unbearable. Having been the support of everyone else in this Inquiry, and all the long years before it, now she was the one who was vulnerable, and in need of comfort.

The Inquiry hearing is over: now the Inspector, Zoe Hill - who presided over the proceedings with great diplomacy and fairness, it must be said - will go away and consider her findings, to be presented to the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles. The outcome is unlikely to emerge before the election.

In the meanwhile the residents of West Hendon live on, as they have done for years, in a state of fear and anxiety, leaseholders unable to sell or move, even if they want to, tenants facing either removal to the holding block on the gyratory system, or 'decantation' to wherever the council dictates. Those that continue to live there do so in the hellish conditions of a construction site. 

Last night the BBC's One Show included a very interesting item on the West Hendon story: watch Adelaide Adams describe her life as 'living in a prison', and cry when she explains how she only wants to live out her days in her own home. And then watch the ineffable Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, in his silk cravat, who described the properties for whom he and his Tory colleagues have had responsibility as landlord - the homes of people like Adelaide, and Zubna, Alex and Hodan, and all the others - as 'grotty', refuse to address the reality of what this development means for the community of West Hendon:


Adelaide and all the other residents, especially those who have lived here for so long, are being robbed of not just the homes they love, but the community they belong to: a network of neighbours, friends, a feeling of belonging and stability, betrayed by the council that is supposed to protect their best interests in favour of the facilitation of private development, on public land, handed over in secret, for luxury accommodation from which they are excluded, and very few residents of this borough will be able to afford. This is a simply scandalous situation, and has perpetrated a terrible injustice in the treatment of the residents of this estate.

A few days after the bombing of West Hendon, in February 1941, a memorial service was held in the centre of the worst destruction, and three thousand people stood in the midst of the wreckage, on the scattered debris, bordered by the remains of the many hundreds of houses that took the full force of the massive explosion, to mourn the loss of their loved ones, friends, and neighbours.

Amongst the local clergy who led prayers was the Rural Dean of Hendon, the Reverend Norman Boyd, who spoke eloquently and movingly of the terrible desolation of the scene before them.

Before serving the people of Hendon, Reverend Boyd had spent many years as a minister in Bethnal Green, where he was responsible for the spiritual well being of another working class community, noted for its resilience in the face of extreme hardship: a community whose close knit bonds became, post war, the subject of that classic study of working class life by Young & Wilmott: Family and Kinship in East London.  

This was of course a hugely influential work in twentieth century sociology, and standard text for A level students like me, all those years ago: sociology a subject in itself which was the basis for raising my own political consciousness, in the perhaps unlikely setting of an admittedly unusually liberal and academic Catholic convent school.

The central theme of Family & Kinship, the lament for a lost way of life, a working class culture of complex relationships, extended families, lost in the transition of 'slum clearance', from East End to the new outer London suburbs, and the alienation of life on a new housing estate, might seem sentimentalised, and outdated, to us now. At the time of reading it, it seemed to strike a chord with me, brought up in the emotional sterility of semi-detached life in Edgware, with an unhappy mother whose own family had been part of a rich culture of working class, largely Irish Catholic background in a north eastern mining town, living in deep poverty, but sustained by its own network of family, faith, friends and community. 

But here is the epilogue to Young and Wilmott's thesis, forged in the crucible of twenty first century Britain: the lesson learned, and another one ignored. The post war housing built in West Hendon, on this estate gave new homes for local people, and kept their community intact. 

The buildings were not some anonymous, alienating collection of tower blocks in the middle of nowhere, but built on a human scale, in a beautiful setting, where people's homes looked onto each other, and where they were able to form a new network of neighbours. 

Newcomers from a myriad of diverse cultures have joined them, and settled happily here, presenting a model of what we must become, if we are to progress at all: not a Big Society, but a small one, a community: a collection of neighbourhoods like the one now being torn apart, here in West Hendon. 

And communities take time to evolve, flourishing in the right environment, even in the worst of circumstances. Location, architecture: these factors play a part: what matters is that people are given the chance to form relationships, and treated with dignity, and respect for their needs. Everything, in short, that our Tory politicians, in government, and here in Barnet, refuse to countenance, in their desire to put private interests before the rights of the individual.

Now in West Hendon, the alienation of life in a tower block will be reserved for the wealthy investors, the off plan buyers, the affluent property buyer willing to pay for an exclusive view of the Welsh Harp, fringed by the trimmings of what was once York Memorial Park, and haunted, we might imagine, by the slightest echo of a fearful rushing noise: and the sound of silence.

Mrs Angry is now taking a break from blogging. Normal service may be resumed, as and when.


Red Sonia said...

Enjoy your rest but PLEASE come out of retirement just before the General Election if possible!

I'm having great fun already in my neck of the woods where, hopefully, the arrogant Tory incumbent will be consigned to the scrapheap!

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm, Red Sonia: first I have five years worth of ironing to see to - the pile in the kitchen is so high now, the cat no longer sleeps there, for fear of falling off. And then I must try to recover what is left of my sanity, and sense of purpose.

Red Sonia said...

Same here but I am giving myself (and others) one final push - and I have cancelled all diary entries for the whole of June - I plan to be a long, long way away for the whole month!

We are having a cracking time here.. can't (yet) say where but if we pull off what we anticpate electorally everyone will know believe you me!

Red Sonia said...

May I suggest 8April 2015 for a brief re-ignition! That's when regional and local newspapers go into (non) political purdah and blogs will be the only source of countering propaganda!