Thursday 30 March 2017

The promotion of well being, or - The Order Lands: another Housing Inquiry in West Hendon

The venue for the second West Hendon housing Inquiry could not have seemed more inappropriate, at first. 

Why on earth would you hold it at the RAF Museum, in Grahame Park, rather than the previous location, the obvious location, at Hendon Town Hall? Apart, of course, from a favour owed, as a result of an inexplicable act of generosity by Barnet's Tory councillors, who closed our one local museum on the pretext of austerity, and yet who, while slashing local services, and saying they have no money to run libraries, managed to find half a million quid to hand over to the Museum - which is very well resourced in terms of funding, and indeed embarking on an ambitious programme of expansion.

The Museum site is pretty inaccessible in terms of public transport, hidden away in the badlands of Grahame Park, caught between the mainline railway track, and major roads. Holding it there was always going to deter casual attendance by members of the public. Ah. And of course that is the point, isn't it, in line with the finest traditions of Broken Barnet? If you must pretend to be engaging in the ritual of consultation, hold the proceedings in as grudging a fashion as possible, to remind participants of the hopelessness of their case, and their rightful place, as unworthy supplicants kneeling at the foot of a quasi-judicial process.

Whereas the first Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of properties on the original West Hendon council estate, poised to be swept away to make room for the massive luxury Barrett development, was held in the oak panelled committee rooms of the Town Hall, here we were, on Tuesday, shivering in an unheated room in the Museum, with nothing in it except a few rows of seating, and a casual arrangement of folding tables, hastily draped in funereal black tablecloths, as a gesture to the departed hopes of residents, now the focus of an inquest, held like a hastily convened Victorian post mortem in the nearest public house: a gesture of process that would establish nothing, but allow for the burial of the dead, under the foundations of the looming tower blocks of Hendon Waterside. 

Walking up to the Museum on Tuesday morning was an effort in itself, the entire area being now a massive building site, with ground churned up by huge excavations, the air thick with dust: not so different to West Hendon, after all, then. 

Outside the building, a few stalwart campaigners stood along the entire length of the entrance, holding a banner. A member of the Museum staff asked anxiously about how long they would be standing there: an association with political protest clearly not part of the package agreed with Barnet Council, in return for the handout. Hard luck, chum. 

The Inquiry this time round is being overseen by Inspector Siân Worden, and here again, representing the council and developers is Mr Neil King, QC. Representing the residents who have made nuisances of themselves, by formally objecting to the annexation and destruction of their homes for the benefit of Barratt shareholders is no one - other than the redoubtable, unsinkable Jasmin Parsons, resident and campaigner. Jasmin is courageous, and admirable in her absolute refusal to be defeated by the development- but clearly this is a process whose fairness is completely undermined by the absence of counsel for those residents whose interests are at stake. 

The history of the West Hendon development is marked by such inequalities, from the very beginning. There was never any hope of any justice for the tenants and leaseholders, once developers had set their sights on such a lucrative opportunity. They were an easy target.

Residents betrayed by false promises by Tory councillors, duped over a period of years into believing their estate would be subject to improvement, not demolition. They were not told, until the secret deal emerged at the last Inquiry, that the council had given publicly owned land to Barratt London for the development - an asset then worth £12 million - for £3. 

Residents in social housing cannot afford to hire QCs to defend their interests, when under attack from developers. And watching a community representative struggling to address the Inquiry on their behalf, rather than witness any real challenge to the development's counsel is a painful, infuriating experience.

Jasmin Parsons

A weighted and unequal process, but a necessary process: and without it, and the campaign by residents, there would have been no concessions made in terms of alternative housing for tenants, or reasonable valuations of properties for leaseholders. The woeful publicity for Barnet Council and Barratt London that ensued as a result of protest, the Inquiry, and the BBC documentary 'The Estate We're In', shown last year, has won a better deal for many residents. But after so much argument, opposition, and injustice.

This Inquiry, in contrast to the earlier one, was sparsely attended: a result of the lack of advertisement, the inaccessible venue - and a sense of alienation, by many residents, from any role within that same process. It was left to the few that did come to witness the actions of those going through the motions of a predetermined decision.

Mr King rattled his way through an opening read-through of the reasons for the acquisition and destruction of homes in the estate. It seemed an important consideration was ... 'The Promotion of Well Being'. 

Marvellous things would appear, to benefit the people of West Hendon: schools, nurseries, 'new and improved retail and commercial provision'. 

Except of course the people of West Hendon likely to benefit from these things would largely not be the people who live in West Hendon now, ie the residents of social housing, and leaseholders. 

Those who would enjoy the promised marvellous things are those bright young things featured in the Barratt sales brochures: young professionals enjoying a latte in the sunshine in - oh ... Flask Walk, Hampstead? Surely they will be giving their patronage to the greasy spoon cafes of the Edgware Road, no? Enjoying the scented air of the re-spray garages, and the view of the backyards of the kebab shops? 

No, Mrs Angry: the promise of regeneration will make the marvellous things appear, as if by magic. When? Not sure. In fact, when Mrs Angry had a guided tour of one of the first flats to be marketed, the estate agent could not say when the promised new shops would open, or anything else. 

Nurseries and schools? Seem to remember that, under questioning at the last Inquiry, it emerged that such things depend, ultimately, on factors such as 'child yield': most of the accommodation in the new West Hendon offers not enough room to swing a cat, let alone raise a family, so it may well be that these promises do not materialise.

The regeneration of West Hendon was necessary, we heard, yet again, because the estate was so 'delapidated', and in need of 'enhancement'.

If the estate was allowed to become dilapidated, whose fault was that? Who was the landlord? Barnet Council. Enhancement? Knocking down residents' homes, kicking them out, and only allowing some of them back, grudgingly, after the most almighty fuss, and after enormous distress had been caused to those whose homes were at stake. 

As the diggers and concrete mixers moved about outside the windows of the Museum, and we sat in the cold, grey, spiritless room, listening to the developers' cold, grey, spiritless, self justifying statements, it felt like an act of intimidation, to those of us inside: completely surrounded, as we were, besieged by the weaponry of development.

In the front row, a pair of shaven headed, bulky men in suits, agents of Capita, sat waiting. One of them jiggled his knees nervously all the way through the proceedings - nervously, or out of boredom. Hard to tell. The other sat with notes left casually open on the floor: COMMS & ENGAGEMENT - greatly improved comms & engagement with community ...

(Schoolboy error. Note for Capita executives: do not, when in the vicinity of Mrs Angry, leave notebooks open, or open your laptop in front of her. She will read over your shoulder, and take notes, of your notes. All is fair, in love, war, and outsourcing). 

Human Rights: Mr King was in full flow now. There was a balancing exercise, here. Ah yes. Of course. Rights of any sort, in Broken Barnet, are only ever conditional, dependent on your compliance with the best interests of commerce. Here in West Hendon, profit must come before all other considerations. Interference with your human rights will be allowed, if it is 'in the public interest'. Which public? You are not the public, if you are a tenant, or leaseholder: a member of the community. 'The public', in this case means: powerful, profit hungry developers, a local Tory administration consumed with antipathy towards the very principle of social housing, and a cohort of speculative overseas buyers, hovering at their backs, looking for investment. Their rights, in this case, are paramount, and the public interest will be their interest: your rights fall away, like a tedious argument in court, ground into a handful of dust.

Tenant evicted from West Hendon, as shown in last year's BBC documentary.'The Estate We're In'.

During the break, Mrs Angry fell into a brief conversation with one of the men from Capita, and mentioned that the Museum, which he had visited with family members, was formerly the site of Hendon Aerodrome. He looked surprised: clearly with no local knowledge, or awareness, of the history of the venue. But then: that is what you would expect. History, in the case of Broken Barnet, is a dangerous thing: an obstacle to development, as we saw in the previous Inquiry, where argument over the history of part of 'The Order Land', as it is referred to in these proceedings, centred round the forgotten history of the wartime bombing which once devastated the area.

When the break was over, we were treated to a lovely slide show by Mr Hendrik Heyns, representative of the architects of the new West Hendon development, Allies and Morrison. Allies, and Morrison? Amusing, to Mrs Angry, amateur student, as she is, of psychogeography, and synchronicity, that the wartime theme continues apace, with allusions to the allied fight against fascism, and - Herbert Morrison, the man who served as Home Secretary during the Blitz, and indeed after whom the home shelters were named ... 

Allies and Morrison, with the aid of what Mr Heyns, with no sense of irony, referred to as 'The Master Plan', are turning the former estate, a community by the side of the historic Welsh Harp, a site of Special Scientific Interest, into a conglomeration of relentlessly ugly blocks of 'luxury' housing, the highest blocks some 29 storeys high - and deliberately placed right there, on the waterfront: a phallic gesture, in brick, violating the skyline for miles around, squatting by the fringes of the beautiful reservoir: a monstrous statement of invasion, and occupation.

The softly spoken Mr Heyns went rather shyly through his slideshow, with becoming modesty, like a small boy at a show and tell session in primary school. We sat, lost in awe at the vision presented of West Hendon in the future: the massive towers of a modern Babel: happy, shiny people dwarfed even by the lower blocks, enclosing 'courtyards' like the secure wings of a remand facility, the architecture masked, in every picture, by a generous application of imaginary trees, so you could hardly see the buildings behind, for some reason.

 West Hendon architect Hendrik Heyns - Pic courtesy Allies &

We heard that originally the tallest towers were going to be overlooking the busy Edgware Road, but had been moved. Of course. Why miss the opportunity to ruin the appearance of the natural beauty of the waterside? He did not mention that the only people consigned to a place overlooking the Edgware Road are the few secure tenants who have been shoved into Bullfinch House (known as Bullshit House), outside the footprint of the private development. The undeserving poor must be taught, by their Tory masters, that a room with a view comes at a price.

Jasmin Parsons was interested in Mr Heyns's slideshow, and the promises it made, in the visual language of his presentation. Those happy, shiny people: where were the elderly residents, and those with disabilities? And the Inspector was interested too: would their needs be addressed, by this development?

Mr Heyns indicated that although the illustrations failed to include such people, all the buildings would be compliant with the necessary requirements in that respect. That's ok then. Of course the fact that there were no old or disabled residents shown was because ... these properties were never designed for a community with a broad range of needs. These properties are built for profit, and will be marketed accordingly.

Jasmin had also wondered about the profusion of useful trees, in the pictures. Who was going to maintain this forest of convenient, if imaginary, camouflage? Oh, you know, contractors. The landscape will be managed at all times ... No tree will be allowed to grow too tall. Too tall, one imagines, will be marked on a different scale of measurement to that employed for the purposes of softening the stark reality of the buildings on a slide show at a housing Inquiry.

The man from Capita Re sat down now to run through some corporate nonsense about 'regenerative uplift', and the very welcome news - quite a relief, in fact - to hear that although there could be no guarantee, it is expected that the developers - phew - will indeed make 'a return' on their investment. 

Yes: that £3 they spent? It will, after all, be likely to generate at least ...  £3.50, or possibly more, for the shareholders of Barratt London. Possibly a bit more, but we, the people who so generously gave them our land in the first place, are not allowed to know, because of - shhhh - commercial confidentiality, & all that. Fair enough.

As for the latest phase of development: since the fiasco of the first Inquiry, and all the embarrassing publicity, it seems, there has been 'further extensive consultation'. Oh, hold on, this is where the useful notes come in: efforts have been made to improve communication. A community hub had opened. There was going to be a canoeing club. (Eh?). Oh, and - Lessons Had Been Learned. Good, good.

The new development was going to wonderful for the people of West Hendon. Those that still had a home, that is. Not only in terms of canoeing clubs, and imaginary trees, but there would be the spending power of new residents (good news for cafe owners in Hampstead, anyway) ... and a 'significant' number of new jobs. Well, they always say that, don't they?

And on, and on, and so it continues: the same empty promises, the same corporate drivel: going through the motions of a pointless inquiry which will find, as did the previous one, no reason to stop the compulsory purchase and demolition of people's homes - the destruction of a community.

On the way out of the Museum, Mrs Angry wandered into darkness of the exhibition hall and stood below the towering Lancaster bomber, thinking about her children's grandfather, who, while German bombs were falling on West Hendon, flew so many missions over Germany in one of these planes, expecting to die, each time, surviving, against terrible odds - and, as that generation did, in 1945, voting for change, for a Labour government, and all the promises of a better life for all. What would he have thought of the state of the nation now, and all those broken promises? 

Outside the Museum, on either side of the fenced off pathway, the construction work continued, as it is everywhere in this area, Grahame Park, Colindale - and West Hendon. Walking back to the tube station was a route through an unfamiliar landscape, to someone like me, who grew up not so far away, in Edgware.

The Aerodrome became a Museum, and the land around it was developed for housing. The Police College will follow the same fate. The British Library's newspaper archives, a lovely Art Deco building, has been demolished, and a vulgar showroom already sprung up to sell new apartments to more investment buyers in the Far East. Likewise the old hospital, where my great uncle, gassed in the trenches of the first world war, eventually died of lung disease in the 1920's. Where I spent two terrified weeks, when I was four, having my tonsils out, abandoned by my family, or so it seemed. Where I had to abandon my  father, in turn, in his old age, and in the grip of dementia, for 'respite care'. 

All those memories, and all those associations: wiped out. Replaced by more and more housing: more and more profit for some - at the expense of the communities that have lived there, for generations, that grew up over time, rooted in common ties, schools, churches, the high streets, the small factories that employed local workers. 

All around our borough, we see the same picture: every building at risk, every piece of land: the Green Belt with no real protection, planning and enforcement by Capita a joke; all major developments, and almost everything else, waved through, simply because someone can see a profit in it. 

No point, really, for Mr Heyns, and his tower blocks, in hiding behind those imaginary trees. 

There are already trees, or there were, in York Park, in West Hendon. 

Trees planted to commemorate the residents killed that night in 1941, some of whom will still lie beneath the land robbed from their grandchildren, in the course of what they call 'regeneration': an act of betrayal, by Tory politicians, who see no value in the idea of community, or history, or sentiment, and see only the advance of profit, and self gratification, at the expense of others.

Why would they think otherwise? This is Broken Barnet, where history, and community, and sentiment are luxuries we cannot afford. 

The battle is lost, for West Hendon: but the spirit of resistance shown by Jasmin, and her fellow campaigners, is the real lesson to be learned, for other communities in this borough, in this city, in this country: fight back, keep fighting ... and never, never give in. 

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