Monday 22 February 2016

Strawberry Vale: a new battlefront in the war on the poor, in Broken Barnet

Barnet and Camden AM Andrew Dismore and local councillors witness Red Cross deliveries in Strawberry Vale

Look at this picture.

It is a photograph of a Red Cross vehicle bringing food to a community in need.

It is not in a battle zone, or an area of the world affected by a natural disaster.

It is not in a country struggling to cope with a movement of refugees fleeing war or persecution.

It is taken in the UK, in the Tory run London Borough of Barnet, which boasts some of the most affluent residential areas in the country, one of them only a short distance away, at the other end of East Finchley.

So yes: now let me take you down, because we're going, to ... not Strawberry Fields, Forever, but to ... Strawberry Vale: a housing estate blessed with a name of bucolic splendour, that speaks of the distant past of what was once a part of Finchley Common, and one of the last remaining farms in this area, as the urban sprawl encroached further and further into the sequence of villages strung along the Great North Road, leading out of London into rural Middlesex. 

This estate, largely Brutalist architecture in form and style, was built by Barnet in the late seventies, to a design by 'Bickerdike Allen Bramble', a formidable construction described latterly by Pevsner:

"long curving five-storey barrier block, part of a high-density mixed housing development ... sheltering behind, tightly packed clusters of low houses with abrupt monopitch roofs, all in the same monotonous brown brick ..."

The estate, now comprising not just tenants, but leaseholders and freeholders, was taken over in 1998 by the Peabody Trust, now one of the oldest and largest housing associations in the UK, founded in 1862 by the nineteenth century philanthropist George Peabody, an American banker who invested wealth in the cause of improving the living conditions of those living in his adopted country. Peabody, according to its own stated 'vision' sees itself as the architect not of buildings, as such, but of 21st century communities: 

  • where people feel they belong 
  • where people have homes that meet their needs and are suitable for the changing circumstances of life 
  • where the landlord’s service is tailored to the individual 
  • where no child is living in poverty 
  • where all residents are supported in their daily lives and in their longer-term aspirations 
  • part of the wider, local area 
  • a sustainable environment

George Peabody

Very fine principles, and ideals: but the truth is, at least in Strawberry Vale, that many children now do live in poverty: the estate is listed as the most socially deprived area in Barnet, and is in the top percentage of such areas on a national scale too. Just across the other side of the High Road there is a foodbank operating at the weekends, run by local churches.

Only last November a new Housing Association was formed on the estate by residents. Shortly afterwards an issue emerged which has proved to be the first test of this new body: a disruption in the supply of gas to residents, leaving them without cooking facilities, and in the case of a few households, even without heating. Christmas was a miserable time for some tenants, unable to cook their lunch, and for some time meals had to be provided in a community centre. And as we see from the photograph above, emergency supplies have been supplied by the Red Cross.

One resident, a mother of five, has been struggling with no heating or hot water: she was eventually supplied with small electric heaters, which were not safe to use at the same time, and very costly to run. An electric shower was made available only days ago, after more than a month of no access to hot water for washing. 

Residents without cooking facilities were given two ring electric portable gadgets, but clearly these are entirely unsatisfactory for use over a period of weeks. 

The cause of the failure in the supply of gas, according to residents, was a maintenance problem, swiftly resolved. When Peabody then announced that gas would not be restored to the estate, and that residents would have to switch to electricity, there was complete confusion, and widespread anger: electricity is so much more expensive than gas, and many fear that they will not be able to cope financially. 

Offers of free cookers clearly do not address the long term issue of rising costs for people struggling on low incomes. And these residents have been placed in an intolerable situation, through no fault of their own: what can they do now? 

Why is a Housing Association being apparently so intransigent, and so determined, without consultation, to impose such a radical change on residents? Is there some unacknowledged motivation, separate to the temporary technical failure? 

There is one obvious course of action now, and that is legal challenge: and lawyers Hodge Jones & Allen have now been appointed to act on behalf of the people of Strawberry Vale, stating that they are "... seeking a court injunction compelling the housing association to restore the supply immediately or produce evidence as to why this cannot be done." The case will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice, on March 4th.

As usual, in the continuing drama of life in Broken Barnet, there is always a hidden history, a forgotten history, lying beneath the layers of social injustice heaped upon our blighted landscape. 

And this part of the borough, this part of Finchley, is brimming with historic ironies that perhaps bear further contemplation.

Only a little further down the High Road from Strawberry Vale, as it happens, you will find one of the most affluent areas in the borough, and indeed, again, in the UK: that is to say the Bishops Avenue, lined with mansions of the most indescribable vulgarity, housing affordable only to the most exclusive list of billionaire arms manufacturers, porn barons, and overseas dictators. History has yet to reveal if these latterday capitalists will feel moved to follow in the tradition of philanthropy set by George Peabody, and donate the legacy of their own wealth to their less fortunate neighbours, on the wrong side of the tracks, at the other end of East Finchley.

Bishops Avenue is surrounded by another visionary creation, of course: Hampstead Garden Suburb, represented by three Tory councillors, including Gabriel Rozenberg, who has an interest, in a purely theoretical way, it seems, in architecture, and often tweets rather defensively about his liking for examples of 'brutalism', and the need to conserve such buildings. His views on Strawberry Vale, in the Labour held ward bordering his own, are unknown. 

It seems an appropriate indulgence for a Barnet Tory: the admiration of architecture as a political statement: the reduction of housing to a matter of theory, and control; seeing the inhabitants as secondary to the functional aestheticism of its design, as a dormitory for an obedient underclass, a factory farm of labour.

Brutalism in design, and Brutalism in policy: both are evident in Broken Barnet, of course. 

The Suburb, however, remains genteelly in the past, preserved in a moment of time, a fantasy of early twentieth century Englishness as it never was, hidden behind a barrier not of 'ugly brown bricks', but of green privet hedges. 

Its residents quiver at the sound of Capita contracted leaf blowers, and attend local residents meetings to demand instant response to their endless whingeing about the intolerable noise, or impertinent outsiders daring to park cars outside their homes. And our fawning Tory councillors leap immediately to their assistance, of course. 

Yet the Suburb was created by another pair of Victorian philanthropists, Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, in order to provide that elusive thing, now adopted with such cynical zeal by developers keen to gain approval of their proposals: a model development influenced by the idea of a 'settlement', a mixed community, with rich and poor living happily together, in their neighbouring homes, creating a well balanced society, with mutual respect and harmony. The smaller houses were meant to accommodate humble artisans, and labourers, rather than interior designers and financial advisers: a brave experiment, but a failure in social terms, however triumphant and charming the architectural legacy. 

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett

Heritage, as such, and history, are of interest in Broken Barnet only when capable of being commodified, and yielding a profit. 

Other than that, they are abstract concepts, safely separated from their human context: a building is without significance, other than to be rated according to its potential for development. 

Buildings may indeed, like the council's only museum, at Church Farmhouse, be emptied of their contents, and occupants, and put up for sale. Whole estates are given away to developers to do what they want with, regardless of the impact on the residents.

In the last few weeks we have seen local Tory MP Matthew Offord refer disparagingly - and inaccurately - to two 'sink estates' in his own constituency, implying that the architecture of such places had created 'no-go' areas, criminality, and a lack of 'aspiration' amongst its feckless inhabitants. The only solution was to do as his own local authority, Barnet - of which he was deputy leader - has done: to evict the residents, knock down their homes, and give the land for private development, from which they are excluded. 

Offord's colleagues on Barnet Council are happy to support more and more of this sort of development, in fact: housing spokesman Tom Davey openly declares his preference for homes that will attract 'Russian oligarchs', and the better off sort of resident, rather than those 'dependent' on council services. 

Local Conservative policy, prefiguring the new brutalism of Cameron's national housing strategy, has seen the loss of long term secure tenancy in social housing, and the introduction of moral judgement as a factor in the dispensation of such accommodation, with priority reserved for those who can 'prove' a 'positive contribution' to their community.

Community, in Broken Barnet, is recognised by Tory politicians only when it suits them, of course. And when it does not suit them, they look the other way. 

Offord thinks no one has a right to live in a property for the rest of their lives, especially not in social housing - and nor now does the government. There is now a deliberate campaign of demonisation of the very principle of social housing, and a new assault on the system of provision of such accommodation to those in need. 

The result is clear, here in Barnet: as the recent Labour Housing Commission so well illustrates, we are in a state of crisis: our borough is no longer capable of providing homes for ordinary families on modest incomes, and is being reinvented as a playground for luxury developers. 

As the Report tells us:

Average property prices in Barnet of nearly £500,000 are 12 times the median household income, putting buying a home out of reach of local residents, and the median private sector rent of £310 a week is not affordable for half of the households in the borough.

Homelessness is rising: in the last three years, the number of families made homeless after being evicted by private landlords has more than doubled.

The private rented sector is unregulated, and unlicensed, and the council has no idea - or interest in - how many private landlords there are in Barnet. This may or may not have any connection with the fact that many Tory councillors themselves are landlords, and may object in principle to the prospect of regulation. It should be noted that there are so many landlords amongst their ranks, in fact, that they have adopted the custom of requiring the Monitoring Officer to award them 'dispensations' so as to continue to take part in committee meetings dealing with matters relating to areas in which they have a direct and declarable interest.

There is of course a chronic shortage of social housing in this borough, and deliberately so: in 20 years, the authority has built a grand total of ... three new council houses. Ideology and greed are the driving forces behind housing policy in Barnet, not need, or social justice. There has been a net loss of 827 social homes for rent: in Grahame Park there will be a further net loss of 352 units. 

A large part of the burden of housing those in need of truly affordable accommodation has inevitably fallen, therefore, on housing associations - and now it seems that burden is becoming an unwelcome responsibility for some of those bodies, who might appear to be moving further and further away from the charitable principles of their founding mission - a fundamental loss of purpose, closer to the practices of the market, and the management of a property portfolio, rather than the provision of support for those in need. 

As the Labour housing report points out, many housing associations now are pitching rents at 'affordable', rather than social housing levels. How is that justifiable, or fair?

Residents in Strawberry Vale have expressed the feeling that they are being thrust back into the nineteenth century, struggling to retain the basic right to heating, water, and the ability to cook their own meals. An indignity which the age of Victorian philanthropy thought it would end forever, and replace with decent housing and a fair standard of living for all. 

Here in Broken Barnet, of course, the cradle of Thatcherism, and the spawning place of easycouncil mass privatisation, the merciless materialism of Tory policies has created an environment in which the humanitarian ideals and ambitions of the great philanthropic benefactors, the legacy of the great pioneers of social justice like Carnegie and Peabody can only wither and die a lingering death.

In a neat return of perhaps the ultimate historic irony, we might consider the history of the land on which the Strawberry Vale estate was built. 

Now the estate is caught tight in an infernal embrace of the thundering North Circular on one side, and the unseen presence of a million Londoners buried in the massive Victorian cemetery on the other. 

But once this was an old settlement on Finchley Common, known as Brownswell, named after some natural springs there, beside the old Green Man inn, now demolished, whose name, rather incongruously, lives on in the new Community Centre, where meals for Peabody tenants have been provided, over the last few weeks.

Octavia Hill

Living in Brownswell Cottages, in the mid nineteenth century, just yards from the estate there now, was the young pioneering social reformer Octavia Hill, whose life's work was rooted in her promotion of the idea of social housing - then an entirely new concept, and a cause to which she dedicated much of her life.

Hill believed in social care in an holistic sense, not merely in the provision of housing, but supporting the right of ordinary people to live happy, healthy lives, with space and quiet places to think, green places around them to enjoy.

What would she have made of the plight of residents in Strawberry Vale now, or any of those in need in this borough, where the very concept of social housing is under attack?

Not so preposterous, perhaps, is it, that the Red Cross should be sent in, as if to bring supplies to a war zone? 

This is a battleground, in fact, in the war on the poor, in this borough, in this city: in this nation. 

And as other acts of injustice have shown, in this borough, from the reclamation of libraries from the hands of developers, or the defiance shown by residents in West Hendon and Sweets Way: the only victories, large or small, final or temporary, are hard won, by organised opposition, and having the courage to stand up for what is right: fighting back, locally, nationally, stragetically, politically: through the courts, through the media, through direct action - but always with unity, and determined resistance.


Anonymous said...

the one thing you failed to menation was that the heating and hot water in these properties are still getting a gas supply and the gas is incuded in their rent, obviously not a part of the rent that housing benefit pay but still they can use as much as they want so in the winter to get their home warm, unlike true electric only residents who get used to living in a freezing home with only electric storage heaters. yes the fact that Peabody did this with no warning or consultation is upsetting but they are simply being told to pay for their own electric for cooking only!!!! heating will still be gas and as far as I know there has been no disruption to this with any of the residents I know.
the heating will still be gas included in their rents so capped at a set price no matter how much they use. you should worry about the poor people living in cold damp electric only properties like metropolitan housing block in Barnet, westhorpe gardens.

Mrs Angry said...

Anon: not all residents are on the main gas supply, as I understand it, one of them a mother of several children having to use portable heating equipment & doing without hot water for some weeks. And forcing people to swop to electric with no choice is not fair. It is unclear what the future costs to residents will be in the long term future. But I sympathise with your position - I've lived with storage heating and it is awful.