Sunday 24 January 2016
The Last Betrayal, or - the breaking of West Hendon, and the making of a latter day myth: 'sink estates' ...
Left by a resident of West Hendon, on moving out of a compulsorily purchased home
I've lost count, now, of the number of posts I've written about West Hendon, and the eviction of a community from the place they call home, down there, by the waterfront, on the edge of the Welsh Harp.
The residents of West Hendon call it home: or they did, but the local Tory councillors see the place where they live as not a community, but a business opportunity, and under the pretext of 'regeneration', and despite a promise to residents of a better housing on the same site, handed the publicly owned land to Barratt London for a private, luxury high rise property development.
The land was worth £12 million, but was given to developers for £3, so as to allow them to maximise profits on their investment, conservatively estimated last year at a mere £92 million.
And now the monstrous new towers are growing higher, and higher, in West Hendon, violating the skyline of north London for miles around, while residents must watch their estate demolished, piece by piece, as they remain, trapped in the middle of a building site, waiting to be removed, 'decanted' and dispossessed of their homes, driven out of West Hendon, probably out of Barnet, and very possibly out of London.
Is that 'regeneration'?
Only if you see a piece of land as a commodity, an empty space; bereft of social value, and history, inconveniently occupied by people whose lives are to you nothing more than a matter of indifference, and worse: a barrier to the possibilities of profit.
And this is, after all, then, the story of West Hendon, and now the story of Tory London, and a housing crisis created by arrant greed, in the face of real and desperate need, by too many, for access to truly affordable, decent housing.
Tory housing policy in London, a subject to be fought over by aspiring GLA members, and mayoral candidates, is made manifest, here in West Hendon.
The promise of 'regeneration' is a lie. It means redevelopment, and new homes for the rich. It means: the people who live there now will not live there in the future.
But Londoners are beginning to understand that this lie is indeed just that: that numerous former estates are being cleared, demolished and redeveloped, and overseas buyers flocking to buy up the housing that ordinary residents of the capital can only dream about. High profile examples like Heygate loom large in public consciousness now, and yes: the game is up, but nothing must come before the enormous profit still to be had for the big time players involved and on the look out for more and more potential sources of speculative development.
So there is now a need for a change in tactics: a gearing up of the political engineering that drives, or at least enables, this massively profitable business. As always, what is tried in Tory Broken Barnet is proof enough for the rest: what worked in West Hendon will do for the rest of London, and elsewhere: the demonisation of social housing, and the destruction of council estates, on the pretext of problems that do not exist, or at least not on the scale some would have you believe.
Yes: we are talking about 'sink estates', a term readopted with such glee by David Cameron, in his recent declarations about housing, in the new Tory war on the very idea of social housing; an approach which sits comfortably with mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith's pronouncements in a revealing interview with the Camden New Journal:
And when asked about the potential loss of social housing, Mr Goldsmith said London’s percentage of social housing is unusually high, and that the balance needed to be “rejigged” in order to increase the amount of homes available for “those in the middle”.
So 'sink estates', then: knock them down, and the social deprivation which Tories think are synonymous with such developments, will just disappear, will it? Well: of course it is progress, perhaps, that they at least seem to acknowledge that there is significant social deprivation to address, but: no. It won't. Buildings don't create poverty. Ah: well then, what about things like ... crime? We all know that all council estates are rife with criminal behaviour, and, yes, that should scare the rest of us into thinking a Tory government is quite right to knock them down, with no further delay: ghettoes to be cleared, and sanitised: socially cleansed.
This issue was the subject of some reporting and debate on the London section of the last but one episode of the BBC Sunday Politics show. And guess which Tory MP was invited along to speak in defence of the new Tory housing proposals, and answer the question - is it the architecture, the building, or the people who live in it that is the 'problem' ? (You can see the programme here, the London section about 38 minutes in ...)
Local MP, member for Hendon, Matthew Offord.
Offord explained in a seamless flow of virtually unchallenged assertions that in his constituency he has not one but two 'sink estates', that is to say, West Hendon, and Grahame Park.
He spoke of West Hendon in particular, 'we're rebuilding that', regenerating it: it had become 'a success story in itself', thanks to Barnet Council, the Mayor and the government - only later did he make a general reference to Barnet working with the private sector, such as Barratts.
He referred to Grahame Park, which he said had been built 'just after the war'. He boasted of taking Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne there, and thought this might have influenced their policy making. Really? Did you take them to West Hendon?
In fact Grahame Park was not built 'just after the war', but in the 1970s, by a Tory council - but still, who needs to quibble about the facts, on the BBC, these days? And now followed some really outrageous claims by Offord, that really did demand a robust challenge, but one which unfortunately was not forthcoming:
These estates, he claimed now, are 'very much no-go places at night ...', offering in evidence of this that local police say it is 'very difficult there to maintain and enforce the law ...'
An extraordinary remark, and indeed a pretty extraordinary sequence of assertions, made smoothly, as if irrefutable fact, and accepted without question.
No-go areas? Mrs Angry made a note, in red, and thought this was something that really did need investigating. When had the mean streets of Broken Barnet become so dangerous that our police officers were struggling to exercise the rule of law, in certain areas of the borough?
Offord continued blithely with his litany of woe, delivered deadpan, still unchecked: yes, the 'walkways' and the 'physical attributes' of these places are the problem.
Walkways? What 'physical attributes'? No one asked him to elaborate.
Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey & Southwark, tried to bring some sort of human perspective to the discussion by reminding us the debate was about people's homes.
West Hendon resident Leigh, who has lived on a sink estate, without realising it, for more than 40 years
This is never a good line to follow with Conservatives, of course. A house, for a Tory politician, in 2016, is not a home, if it is defined as social housing.
And so we saw, as the debate turned to the question of 'tenancies for life'. Offord had strong views on this.
The big issue here, he said is just that, 'people living in properties (or livin', as he says, in that curiously archaic accent he has - to match the curiously archaic nature of his black and white political vision - talking out of the side of his mouth, like a chippy, but aspirational costermonger in a 1950s Ealing comedy, ... some sayin' well, they should be able to live there for life ... '
Now he went further: stating he was indeed happy with the five year limit on tenancies, he then declared, absurdly:
'No one has a right, even in the private sector, those of us that own our own properties ... we cannot guarantee, even ourselves who have mortgages, that we are going to live in that property for the rest of our lives ...'
Tim Donovan asked Offord now if he accepted that if you knock down these estates, what you put in its place, both in its nature of tenure, and the number of properties, will never be matched, which means people will be displaced.
Offord thought that you never can, because using private sector capital 'means you are going to have to sell some of those properties privately ...'
Some of these properties. All of these properties, in effect, with at best a token offer from the profiteering developers of a minimal amount of (non) affordable housing.
Look at the history of West Hendon: a 'regeneration' sold to residents on the basis of doing exactly what is looked on now as out of the question - improving the quality of life, for their families, giving them new homes, in their own community. Now they find themselves evicted, and in some cases, homeless, in order to make way for luxury accommodation, the majority of which, so far is reported to have been sold to wealthy overseas investors.
Let's ask the question again: is this regeneration?
Or is it, yes: social cleansing?
Offord was asked about that. He said he found the term 'quite offensive'.
'We're actually trying to socially improve people's lives, not only through the quality of their housin', but also through their ability to access transport, to engage in the work process - maybe to live in parts of London they'd not considered before ...'
No: really. That is what he said.
The feckless, ungrateful residents of West Hendon, you see, are having their lives 'socially improved', by their Tory council, which gave away the land they live on to private developers, and then informed tenants and leaseholders alike to clear off out of it, and don't come back: you can't come back.
No right to return, no compulsory purchase offer to owner occupiers adequate enough to enable them to buy shared equity on the new luxury development. A few lucky secure tenants shoved into a grim building outside the footprint of the new development, with no view of the waterside, looking onto the grimy backyards of shut up shops on the Edgware Road, the rest kicked out into more temporary accommodation on other 'regeneration' estates, refusal of which made them homeless. A community destroyed, displaced, eradicated. Kerrching.
And it was a community. And it was not some 'sink estate', or any sort of high rise, dystopian, Brutalist monster, creating a latter day Dickensian style rookery of crime and social deprivation. If only the Tory council had maintained the estate, and not allowed it to fall into disrepair, it would be a perfectly nice place to live, even now.
Local Labour Cllr Devra Kay and residents' representative Jasmin Parsons
Who wouldn't want to live in such a beautiful spot, overlooking the waters edge of the Welsh Harp? But beauty of location is now reserved for those who can pay a premium for it: and deliver profit into the hands of developers.
The West Hendon estate was built on a human scale, with low rise buildings, looking onto each other, with green spaces in and around it. The 'physical attributes' which their MP said had created a 'sink estate' had in fact done nothing of the sort.
The beauty of the surrounding landscape, and the simple architecture of West Hendon created a community, rooted in generations of local families rehoused, in the sixties and seventies, in homes which afforded dignity, decent housing, and hope for a better future.
The green spaces that surrounded this estate included York Memorial Park, a place of totemic significance to the residents there - a mark of ownership, central to the local history: the idea of continuity, and community - an area left in commemoration of the many civilians who lost their lives, some of them still buried there, under the earth, below the wreckage of the war time bombing of 1941, and now annexed by the developers for maximum profits from their investment.
There was a low crime rate, in fact, on this estate, until the council moved in so called property guardians into vacant flats, according to the remaining long term residents, and as for 'no-go' areas ...?
Well, then: Mrs Angry thought she would check this with the local police, who were more than happy to put the record straight.
A representative of the borough commander immediately refuted the idea that there were 'no go' areas in Barnet.
And then the senior officer in charge of policing for this part of the borough contacted her to say that in all the years he has served in Barnet, he has not known of anywhere in the borough that is 'no-go' ... day or night.
And he has kindly invited Mrs Angry on a 'ride along' tour with the police in West Hendon, to see for herself how they fulfil their duties on the estate and elsewhere (plus a visit to the station to meet him, and inspect the custody suite in Colindale, although hopefully not for an overnight stay, like one of our former Tory councillors ...)
Couldn't be clearer, could it? Offord's allegations were apparently ... without any basis. Got that?
No no-go areas.
In fact, in Mrs Angry's view, for an MP to make such a remark is utterly unfair to the local police, who work so hard to do such a difficult job, and maintain peaceful community relations, in the context of increasing budget restraints.
And it is insulting to the residents of the West Hendon estate, the vast majority of whom are not in need of Matthew Offord's programme of 'social improvement', but are already perfectly familiar with the work process, and keen to remain in their own community, rather than be introduced to the impossible task of finding any alternative accommodation in 'parts of London they hadn't considered before' - in a capital city gripped by a rapidly increasing housing crisis.
Offord's remarks have caused fury amongst many residents who saw the programme: but he has nothing much to lose politically in his own backyard, by what he said. There are few Tory voters, on that estate now.
There were some once, amongst the tenants who were taken in by another version of mythology, that is to say, the 'aspiration' encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, to join the property ladder, and buy their own council homes: the leaseholders, who were handed a £10,000 bill for work the council needed doing before they knocked down their homes, and which the leaseholders furiously rejected, saying if any work was necessary, it was clearly the responsibility of Barnet Council ...
These people were betrayed by Thatcher's heirs in Barnet, on the council, and in Parliament, not just over the demands for money, but at the point of compulsory purchase of their hard earned properties.
When the council's valuers rated their properties, subject to CPO, at less than a level that would help them reach the shared equity point, who helped them? Who spoke for them, at the Housing Inquiry? Did their MP even attend the Inquiry? No.
The appointed representative from Sawyer Fielding, Dan Knowles, not only put their case but acted as an unpaid advocate for tenants on the estate, to defend residents interests: an honourable thing to do, and absolutely necessary in this case, when the council and developers were able to promote their arguments with the help of a highly experienced - and expensive - QC, and legal team.
There is no doubt that the belatedly improved offers for leaseholders, and better offers of rehousing for tenants, were achieved only by the efforts of people like Dan Knowles, the local Labour councillors, and, let us not forget, the limitless determination, courage and strength of residents' representatives like Jasmin Parsons.
Oh, and all the attention generated by this story, locally, here and elsewhere and nationally, and all the negative PR blown back in the faces of the developers.
It should also be remembered that residents did ask their MP for help, and in desperation, even tried to lobby him at a constituents' meeting in a church hall, in their own ward: he hid from them, refused to speak to representatives, and then demanded a police escort home.
Luckily, it seems, the forecourt of St Matthias' church, West Hendon, is not in one of those 'no-go' areas, where policemen fear to tread.
Some Tory MPs apparently feel differently.
The constituents who had tried to speak to him were, Offord told a local reporter, a 'rag tag bunch' who only wanted to 'cause trouble'.
Next month sees the broadcast of a BBC documentary programme that has been made about the story of West Hendon, from the perspective of these 'rag tag' residents: the real history of West Hendon, in contrast to the mythological version preferred by Tory politicians, and their commercial partners.
The myth of the 'sink estate', and the smear campaign now directed at the very idea of social housing - this is a necessary part of the faux regeneration of London: that is to say, not a regeneration at all, but a commercial exploitation of easily accessible, bargain basement development sites, pimped to the private sector by willing Tory councils like Barnet, and a Conservative government obsessed with the demonisation of the working class, and the creation of a new, powerless underclass, easy to dehumanise, to decant and control, and reduce to nothing more than an unwanted residue, disposable and ... irrelevant.
A useful mythology then.
The truth, as with so many things, in Broken Barnet, is something else.