Monday 16 March 2015

Sweets Way: another round of evictions, another occupation - and a visit from Russell Brand

Greetings, friends from the MoD. Maybe use a proxy server, in future - slightly more discreet.

As you will know, Mrs Angry has a pet theory about the curious, seemingly unstoppable sequence of extraordinary events, here in Broken Barnet: one that depends on a pysycho-geographical interpretation of the world, charged with the power of a legacy our Tory politicians would rather deny, and destroy. 

Our history, and our heritage - the story of the people who have lived here, and left something that survives and defies, somehow, the new order of things in this borough: the selling of our land into bondage to profit, a hostage to market forces, and the easy prey of private development.

The small rebellions which occur, from time to time, seem to take place in strategic points of the map of our borough. West Hendon, caught between Watling Street and the Welsh Harp: the occupation of the People's Library, Margaret Thatcher House, on the road that cuts across from Barnet to Finchley: the downfall of Brian Coleman, the occupation of the Bohemia, on the Great North Road ... and now on the same route, the evictions, and the occupation, of Sweets Way, in Whetstone.

Whetstone itself is of symbolic significance, of course: you can still see the stone itself, outside a public house, some say it was where the men fighting in the Battle of Barnet sharpened their swords. A more prosaic explanation is that it was a stepping stone for travellers from the coaching inn that once stood there. But as in all these things, the power is in what people believe, rather than what is true.

On the eastern side of the Great North Road, in Whetstone, a Mr Sweet once had a large hothouse nursery, growing grapes and tomatoes, and cucumbers, having been apprenticed to a Mr Kay, whose nursery in Squires Lane, along the road from Mrs Angry, has disappeared except for the high brick wall that once sheltered his own vineyard. 

According to one account from 1901, the young Mr Sweet used to look up at the trees at Hampstead Heath, and feel that if he could not become associated with Nature in a more or less intimate manner, he would not succeed at anything. Eventually he settled in Whetstone, built his glasshouses, and became known as 'father of the modern hothouse nursery business'.

During the second World War, this land was requisitioned by the army, and post war became the site of a housing development for military families, an estate in modest grey brick, but fringed still with a number of trees, which soften the effect of the subdued architecture, and lend an air of quiet to the area. Are they Mr Sweet's trees? Hard to tell, but it seems as if they might well be. And Sweets Way is a community of roads built on a human scale, family sized houses: exactly the sort of housing we need for families in need of a home, at an affordable rent, in our borough.

Evicted residents of Sweets Way, and Jasmine Stone, from E15

In which case, you might reasonably ask, why have these houses been emptied of their tenants, in some cases their belongings forcibly removed, by bailiffs, thrown on the streets, the properties secured and the families who lived there left without homes to go to?

Well, yes, of course: this is Broken Barnet, and Sweets Way is one of the last enclaves of social housing, or indeed any realistic definition of affordable housing, in the hugely affluent ward of Totteridge, represented by ... the local Tory council leader Richard Cornelius - and his wife. 

The housing itself is owned by Annington Homes, a company which in 1996 secured a deal with the Ministry of Defence in which for £1.6 billion, it acquired 57,000 homes used to accommodate serving members of the armed forces and their families, leasing them back to the MoD, and selling on those homes considered surplus to requirements. This agreement was to prove somewhat controversial, over the years which followed, with complaints about the standard of accommodation and cost of renting back the properties, and becoming the subject of a parliamentary report  in 2007.

Sweets Way has been used in the last few years as social housing for local families, some on long term temporary accommodation arrangements, of the sort we have seen at West Hendon, denying people the full protection of secure tenancy, and making them easier to dispose of - to 'decant', when they themselves become 'surplus to requirement'. 

Their homes are now to be demolished, to make way for a new development approved by Barnet Council last December, after a previous one, a very similar one, was turned down just a couple of months before the local elections of last year. 

Barnet Council has had plenty of time to arrange for the families of Sweets Way to be given alternative accommodation, but has failed to do so with any semblance of competence. This has led to terrible outcomes for some families, mercilessly evicted like tenants in the Irish famine, emptied out onto the streets, their possessions dumped there by bailiffs, the residents left to fend for themselves. 

As reported here, a few weeks ago, Mrs Angry by chance met two residents about to be evicted from Sweets Way: one was Peter, a very nice, elderly man with complex health problems, who had suffered a heart attack at the end of last year as a result, he said, of the stress caused by the looming eviction, and his worry about finding a new home. He had accepted alternative accommodation, only to find housing officers had given the property to someone else, and then told him he must take up a place in Hanwell. 

The other was a lovely woman called Shereen, who had two teenage sons.  


She showed me photos of the accommodation she was expected to move to by Barnet Homes: a flat on another 'regeneration' estate, so clearly again for another limited tenancy - but this place was simply foul: appalling.

Filthy, damp, squalid: with broken windows, uninhabitable.

Sweets Way was home to around 160 families: all to be evicted, as we have seen, with no real consideration of the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation for them to move to.  Only ten families remain. Eviction, court orders, bailiffs: all arranged with logistical efficiency. Rehousing? A matter of indifference, it seems, to Barnet Homes. Families uprooted, given one choice of accommodation, suitable or not, in any location, and in any state of repair. 

By now the story of Sweets Way was beginning to make itself known: from the first tweet, denied by Barnet Council, claiming that the children of some evicted family had been taken into care, to the scenes witnessed and filmed by local housing campaigners of bailiffs evicting tenants and their possessions onto the street, what was happening here was now the focus of wider and wider attention, from the local media and beyond.

Sweets Way, of course, follows the course of much of what we have seen, are seeing, in West Hendon: tenants and residents in the way of private development, becoming in many cases the responsibility of Barnet Homes, for rehousing, with all the humiliation, desperation and vulnerability that entails: a dependence on the goodwill of housing officers, some of whom, as in the case of West Hendon, appear unable to communicate clearly to the residents their rights and options.

In the case of Sweets Way, as we will see, it seems only the media attention has brought any pressure to bear on the need to find homes for some of the evicted families that are anything approaching an acceptable standard of suitability. 

And then last week, matters took another turn entirely: one of the houses that had been emptied of its inconvenient tenants was taken over by occupiers, in order to make a protest about the mass evictions. Among those taking part in this event were some faces familiar from other occupations in the borough, notably the reclamation of Friern Barnet Library. 

On Saturday, Mrs Angry was invited to come over and visit - as well as one or two other people - and duly went, arriving on the edge of the estate, walking through the streets of a ghost town, an extraordinary silence hanging in the air, the sound of homes that are no longer homes, but merely buildings divested of their significance, their purpose: as redundant now as the nursery buildings abandoned here by Mr Sweet, from homes for families to hothouses of speculation, and profit. 

Hard not to spot the occupied house: there it was, the fences draped with banners and posters, and there they were, our friends from Occupy, Bohemians Daniel, Mordechai, and Petra.

Bohemian Occupiers: Petra, Mordechai and Daniel

Another face familiar from stories in the media: Jasmine Stone, from the E15 mums group and housing activist: and most importantly families who had been turfed out of their properties, but returned to make a stand at what they - and so many other supporters - see as a terrible act of injustice: the loss of their homes.

The day before had seen a visit from a large number of police. It was explained to them that this was a political protest, and on those terms it seems there was no criminal act being undertaken. The police waited, pointlessly, until the children came home from school, and got on with their homework ... and then left.

We went into the house, and talked to some of the mums and children staying there. I asked about the two people I had met, trying to ask the courts to stop their evictions: what had happened to them? Later on that afternoon, I had the answer to that question.  

In the kitchen, stuck to the window, was a notice: a notice to vacate, stuck on the outside, so as to be read inside. 

After taking a photo of this, I turned round, and standing behind me, in surreal fashion, holding a cake box, was Russell Brand. Hello, he said, putting out his hand. Oh ... hello, I said, slightly caught by surprise, and unsure of the etiquette on such occasions ... Erm ... I write one of the local blogs ... Oh: cool, he muttered. Short of anything else to say, I admired his selection of tupperware, which he was very worried about, as it wasn't his, and he had to return it.

Just then, readers, it suddenly occurred to me what a strange course my life has taken, in what should have been my respectable middle years, standing in the kitchen of a squat with Russell Brand, discussing tupperware. 

In fact, at this point, Mrs Angry took a moment to text this thought to Miss Angry, who was at work, and primly refused to be impressed by her errant mother's misbehaviour, expressing some concern as to the likelihood of having to attend a police station, and provide bail cover. And: Yes but have you washed my white tights, she demanded, tutting, in her virtual way? Mrs Angry hadn't. The next day she received a lovely Mother's Day card, handmade, but expressing the wish that she might try to become a less embarrassing mother. And apply herself with more efficiency to her household duties. 

Some hope.

Russell Brand, of course, has given his support to the E15 mums, and also made a short film about the West Hendon development. He is mocked by some for his new found zeal for political activism, and his rejection of political orthodoxy, his cynicism: but there is no doubt that in this case, at least, his support and the attention he brings to the terrible injustice being perpetrated here, is hugely useful.

Amusing to watch him in action: undeniably charismatic, more than a little manic: witty, of course, very bright, yet somehow, between the cracks of his madly energised persona, watchful, detached: thoughtful. 

He loomed large in the house, tall and dark, loud and dominant - followed about by a troupe of kids, like the pied piper, particularly good with them: almost messianic in his insistence on speaking to them, rather than the grown ups: suffer the little children ... 

He listened to the families, held their babies, jumped on the trampoline outside, and went to the swings with a gaggle of children. 

Asked about the real issue of the day, ie the fate of Jeremy Clarkson, he yelled, from the swing, that he didn't buy into the automobilised obsession of Top Gear, and that the children should eschew that sort of thing, and prepare themselves to be 'radicalised' ... 

And he pointed out the folly of perfectly good houses like the ones in Sweets Way being knocked down to make properties for rich people. 

You're rich, observed one of the kids. 

And off he went, in his blacked out people carrier, driven by a man, as he explained, keen to get to the Arsenal game. He waved royally as he left. It was huge fun for the Sweets Way families, and a real boost to their campaign. But what happens now?

One thing that seems to be happening, in another echo of the Irish evictions, is that there are reports of houses being already made uninhabitable, to deter former residents from returning, or any further re-occupations.

Amongst the twenty or thirty residents, former residents who were at the occupied house, at last I had spotted Shereen. She hugged me and told me what had happened to her, since we had met a few weeks ago. She had now been sent to accommodation in Enfield, miles from her sons' schools - even though they are about to sit GCSEs. 

asked about the terrible flat in Grahame Park: officers from Barnet Homes had reportedly told a councillor that flats in such a state were only being offered with the clear promise that 
the property would be fully renovated, with new kitchens and so on, before the tenant moved in, on a temporary basis, of course, as Grahame Park is due for 'regeneration'. Was that right? 

No, she said. Only after she refused to go to such a filthy, substandard place did they say they would do it up. And based on the cases I heard at the West Hendon Inquiry, I can believe that is perfectly true.

Shereen and Russell Brand

Since the story had been widely reported, Peter, she thought - whose health problems, as he had explained to me meant that he needed to be close to Barnet General - had variously been offered somewhere in Bounds Green, moved to a studio flat in Wembley Park for a few days, and then to somewhere in Finchley Central, in a property she said had a heating system that was leaking.

I spoke to Rejane, another mother of young children, girls aged five and eight, who has lived in Sweets Way since 2009. She showed me, on her phone, an email from a Barnet housing officer which she had just received, telling her that she may have to wait weeks, or even months, for rehousing. She claimed other housing officers were pressurising tenants to go to the private sector, and relieve the authority of the burden of finding them the homes they so badly need.

Barnet approved this development, and knew full well the consequences for residents, in a borough in which housing policy is being deliberately engineered in order to exclude as many families in need as possible, and indeed to remove them from the borough. But they made no real effort to safeguard the well-being of families who would be losing their homes, as a result of the development they were suddenly, post local election, so keen to support.

The lack of alternative accommodation for those made homeless by the private developments encouraged and supported by the Tory administration is monstrous, but calculated. What they do not expect, have not expected, is the reaction from residents, campaigners, and the media. 

One thing is sure: the reputational damage caused to the companies involved in current developments in Barnet is profound, and increasing. This can be measured, on a small scale, by the number of PR agencies and companies who read 'Broken Barnet', clearly worrying about the impact of direct action on their profit margins, present, or projected. 

They should be worried: and their consciences, if they have any, should be ensuring that they feel a sense of shame for the trauma and disruption caused to the families who stand in the way of their lucrative development.

Today some of the evicted children from Sweets Way went to the offices of Annington Homes, and tried to speak to the Director, James Hopkins, who reportedly earns around £2.2 million per annum. It appears he was unwilling to see them, for some reason. 

The series of small rebellions that are taking place in Broken Barnet, the direct action: brave acts of defiance by ordinary residents, but these are events that ought to sound a warning sign to all political parties. 

The political disaffection embraced by celebrities, repeated by those frustrated and alienated by orthodox political campaigning is a symptom, not a cause of political failure. 

The parties which are not engaging directly with the people most affected by the surge in social injustice that has occurred in the course of the last Tory led government's administration, or the last two local administrations here in Barnet must learn how to listen, and not shy away from the real problems people are facing. 

As we move towards the election, and find our parties obsessed with their own campaigns, and worrying about how many kitchens are acceptable, or how many jobs, somehow they have overlooked the glaring fact that for many voters the challenge today is if they have a home to live in, or a job that pays enough to support their families. 

So: Russell Brand came to Sweets Way - good for him. At least he made the effort to show his support.

We are unlikely to see any campaigning Tory ministers dare to show their faces on this estate, or any other 'regeneration' estate in Barnet. So let's see a shadow cabinet minister get on the tube to Whetstone, or West Hendon, and show their solidarity with the mums and dads, the children and babies, who have no permanent homes to go to, tonight, or tomorrow, or maybe ever again.

And let's see Tory council leader Richard Cornelius, and housing chief Tom Davey, and the smiling, true blue suit of deputy leader Dan Thomas appear in Sweets Way, and explain to the people there their views on 'aspiration', and the plight of the feckless poor. 

Local Labour candidate Amy Trevethan has done her best to work towards a better outcome for the evicted tenants of Sweets Way. 

Exactly what her electoral opponent, the current Tory MP for Chipping Barnet - and Northern Ireland secretary - Theresa Villiers, has done on their behalf is unclear. 

Here is another neat synchronistic link: Villiers' illustrious ancestors include George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the period of the Famine: and the mass evictions of tenants which ensued during that era.

In the meanwhile, the occupation continues, and it seems there will be a sleepover, tomorrow night, at 60, Sweets Way. Rusty Rockets is supposedly packing his sleeping bag and heading over. Mrs Angry imagines that it is unlikely that Mr and Mrs Cornelius, Tom Davey, Dan Thomas, or Theresa Villiers will be doing the same.


Jackie said...

Good luck with your fight and the sleepover. I lived in Millson Close in the mid 1990s as an army family with my two daughters, one of whom went to Queenswell school which we loved. I always thought it was the smallest but best laid out army quarter I'd ever lived in and the location was fantastic. I had a lot of good times there with my neighbours, it will be a terrible shame if it becomes yet another area of housing not affordable to the majority.

Unknown said...

You have my full sport for what it's worth.

Adele Ward said...

An excellent piece. Thank you for raising awareness and giving us such a detailed view of the situation. It's quite incredible to see this injustice making news on TV and in the national press and still the council continues. Property developers should think about how this affects their reputation. Nobody with a heart would want to take any part in treating families in this way. I really feel for the teenagers trying to succeed in their GCSEs while being pushed around by the council. It's completely unacceptable and heartbreaking.