Translation: Daniel Zylbersztajn: Abriss von Sozialwohnungen sorgt fuer Streit
originally published in German in Taz, die Tageszeitung, Tuesday, 16th February 2015
(translation Daniel Zylbersztajn) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (taz.de 2016 / Daniel Zylbersztajn, 2016)
Great Britain: In the London area of Tottenham, a concrete social housing estate, erected in the 1960s, is to be demolished. They are supposed to be locations of social tension and drug dealing. The residents are scared of higher rents and being pushed out in the end.
Reporting from London, Daniel Zylbersztajn
In the centre of the estate with its many multi storey houses in Corbousier style, stands a playful concrete terrace block. The Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, London, counts approximately 1100 housing units. Bad water pipes and some darker corners reveal that the concrete estate is worthy of an upgrade. A renovation should have been carried out years ago.
But rather than renovating the estate, it appears that it is going to be “bulldozed down.” Not just that, no body lesser than the Prime Minister David Cameron has taken charge of this task. The 1960s buildings “with their dark alleys would be,” in his words, “a present for criminals and drug dealers and a poverty trap.” Decisively he argues for the bulldozing of the houses and the erection of totally new houses.
Arguments of that kind are not exactly new on the British socio-political landscape. In the 1960s many Victorian social housing units were demolished with similar types of justifications. Earlier, in the 19th century, large chunks of the London East End were “>>sanitized<< “for the welfare of the poor.”
One of the long standing residents of Broadwater Farm is Clasford Sterling, 57. His mighty appearance and deep voice give him a natural flair of authority. “Broadwater Farm’s image is historically conditioned”, he argues, and continues, “that this has not much in common with the reality.”
Sterling, decorated with an OBE from the Queen, was born in Jamaica. Even back in the 1970s nobody would dare to bully him, he says. With football and pots full of colour, in order to rejuvenate some of the houses, he encouraged many of the young people on the estate, who had lost hope and direction, to take their lives back onto a positive path.
In spite of this, the estate entered national headlines in 1985, when young people from across the area became entrapped on the estate,following a march against police brutality. The police cattled the youths in, which caused bitter fighting to emerge between police and the youth. The result was the brutal murder of a policeman.
It was only in the 1990s and under John Major’s government that the estate would receive a renewed injection of help, with 33 Million Pounds worth of investments. A community centre was built, the local primary school rebuilt, and later, thanks to lottery funding, the adjacent park completely renovated, offering a huge amount of leisure and sport facilities.
As a result the crime statistics of the area is below the London average for many years. Sterling reports, that the transformation is so remarkable, that he has received countless visits from national and international delegations. Broadwater Farm became known as the success story in terms of social estates that once experienced a rough time.
Admittedly, there are a few residents who are now in favour of the demolition of the concrete houses, but they are the minority. Most residents, especially those in the less fancy blocks, seem to be happy. In fact, quite a few have chosen to invest in them, and now own their flat as leaseholders. It was Margaret Thatcher who allowed the purchase of social housing units by social tenants.
In spite of this, Haringey the local council, intends to knock it all down. Even the smaller garden houses at the edges of the estate, as well as the school, are to go. If the council is able to sell the area to a property developer in a good deal, it may fix some of the holes, that the 30 percent austerity cuts from the national government has caused to their local budget. But the sell to such a developer would also have an extra bonus, by freeing the council from the burden of the administration of the estate.
Examples of this kind exist everywhere in London. On the Heygate Estate in the South-East of London 1200 real social housing units were replaced with but 300 new ones, after the old estate had been knocked down. The remainder was offered on the private market or on much higher rents up to 80 percent of market rate, known as “affordable housing.” Officially it was argued, that the well off residents would pull the less well off up. This so called >>win-win situation<< rarely set in however. With new and much more affluent neighbours most local prices in the area also rose.
This also worries people on Broadwater Farm Estate. They fear that sooner or later they would have to settle in regions far away from here and out of town. Facing such prospects, the community has decided to put up a fight to rescue the estate. The responsibility for the actual implementation of the sell off lies with the City Council of Haringey, a Labour borough, and it currently supports the measure wholeheartedly.
Sterling is unable to comprehend what on earth is supposed to be wrong with the estate. With a tired stare out of his office window, he insists that, “there is no good reason whatsoever, why this community should be destroyed. It is not criminally inclined, nor is it a poverty trap,” he says. The political winds of austerity rid Broadwater Farm of many of their former community workers. Sterling is now doing many of their jobs without pay and alone.
For my report in taz, I also visited other estates. I felt that Broadwater Farm summarized what I found elsewhere. So above was the full published article. But for those, who like to read more background, here is the remainder of my research.
Packington Estate in Islington. Solutions for broken pipes and broken lives
There were supposed to be many social problems affecting the original 540 residents of the original 1960s Packington Estate. In deed some families were living an endless life of crime over several generations. When it emerged in 2003, that there were also problems with the gas pipes of the houses, the landlord, the city council of Islington, decided to sell the entire estate to a housing management company and developer, tasked with its rebuilding.
What is different on this particular estate, is that there was an insistence that the majority of the former residents should get rehoused here after the rebuilding had ended.
Bad Construction and Banned from town.
Many of those who already moved into new units, state that they are more or less happy, even though moving itself was a painful and difficult process, that lasted much longer than hoped and promised. Georg Smith, 80, argues that his new basement flat is rather beautiful. Still, he is not the only one, highlighting the fact, that the old units may have been chilly, but at the same time much were more solidly built than these new houses. “These are rather cosmetic”, he judges. “I am certain that they will have to be renovated again in 20 years, as the walls are totally thin, whilst the old houses were built of solid bricks.”
Another occupant, she is mother of three children, knows, that the schema was also used to rid the estate of >>bad families<<: “Residents who were known to be anti-social, were rehoused out of town,” she reports and adds “That is neither fair, nor does it solve the problems these people had,” But referring to the block with the private residents, she continues, that it would be the wealthy, who broke the lift recently, after a rather wild house warming party.
Packington Estate finds itself in an area of London, that once was poor and derelict, but where a studio flat today can cost up to 750.000 Pounds. Units that are sold on the open market are therefore very profitable. Every year the new estate takes longer to complete, the market price goes up by an average of ten percent. The developer is in no hurry, the completion already about five years overdue. Soon it will be like in the South-West of London, where property prices are sky rocket high.
South-West London: Wandsworth. Profit 40 storey high avoided!
South of London’s busiest train inter-junctions, Clapham Junction, lies the huge Winstanley Estate. It too has many social buildings erected in the 1960s and 1970s. For quite a while the local council has intended to profit from the location in the name of regeneration. Eight years ago, they intended to built two 40 storey-high private residential towers next to the station. Local residents up in arms about the proposals, were able to prevent it in a long and protracted campaign, aided by the financial melt-down. But Wandsworth continues to take up the argument of “rotten buildings and anti-social people.”
After years of battle with the local government, Cyril Richert, 43, of the Clapham Junction Action Group, has lost any hope of being heard by the council. “They do not listen to us,” he notes. This forced him and others to seek allies from the outside, in order to indirectly put pressure on the council. Occasionally there are even little victories, like when the investigation of Transport for London and established, that yet another tower Wandsworth had planned, stood exactly where a future exit is to be. Still, Richert accepts, that the total destruction of Winstanley Estate South of the station can not be halted any longer.
Good Life between murder and garden-houses
If one looks closely, there are but three eight storey blocks on the massive estate, that are in a real bad way. Occupants talk of bad windows and pipes, and yet report many outstanding and trustworthy neighbours. Many of the other houses are two storey high, and many even have generous gardens. Violent crime, even murder are not unheard of though, and still not a daily occurrence. The last murder happened three years ago. All this is not as bad as it was over 15 years, when it was, people say, really rough. But security measures such as cameras, security operated doors, and fencing stopped most of that.
All claim, that the community spirit and life is good here. The feeling of it being a bad estate, residents say, is but a feeling by external visitors, who mostly do not know the estate and its people. That sounds very much like what Clasford Sterling said about Broadwater Farm. Accordingly high is the amount of people on Winstanley Estate who bought their own council flat. “Poverty Trap?”, asks a 30-year old lady, when she learns of Cameron’s arguments to knock down 100 of the worst estates, including this one. “I grew up and went to school here, and today I am a medical doctor.” She adds, that it would be wrong to idealise life here, even her brother was mugged here not so long ago, “but it isn’t much worse than elsewhere in London,” she insists.
At the same time the 102 Million Pounds that Cameron wishes to spend to enable renovations on 100 estates are not much money at all, unless one makes deals with property developers.
Secure Tory Votes
In parts of Chelsea and Kensington the majority of councils homes these days are private property, courtesy of Margaret Thatcher’s >>Right to Buy << schema. That appears to be the dream of Wandsworth too. Winstanley is not that far from lucrative regions such as Nine Elms or the stretch along the Thames. The station itself is a good selling point. Tony Belton, councillor of the Labour Party for over 40 years and representing Winstanley, believes it is all but a political game. “The amount of social housing units relate directly to how many people will vote Labour or Conservative,” he explains. Cities with less poor and more private properties ensure secure votes for the blue party, so he believes.