Tag Archives: regeneration

Estate: A Reverie

This film has been so long in coming, and I have been there for a small piece of its journey. It has been an honour.

Once upon a time I lived in Bow, and out for a long wander up the  Regent’s canal one day, I saw this:

Haggerston Estate

A wondrous thing. I had passed other estates with windows boarded up yet signs that people still clearly lived in them. This left me both angered and confused, as housing is in such short supply for us, and this is our housing standing empty. These are homes that people love in the midst of desolation. Here I could tell someone was fighting back, ensuring they were visible and not simply to be silently swept away.

I met Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson (part of Fugitive Images, those who had put up these pictures with fellow residents) a few months later, the three of us on a panel put together by This is Not a Gateway at the Tate Modern (the Tate Modern! I called home, ever so proud).

This photo installation, i am here, was only the first part of a longer exploration of the process of decanting an estate against its resident’s wishes. This, a protest against the estate’s abandonment in preparation for regeneration. It sat alongside endless meetings, letters, petitions, protests, lobbies to preserve and improve the housing for those who lived there and loved it.

The second was the book, Estate, a combination of personal essays, photographs,  and political-economic contextualization. I loved it. You can buy it here, from Myrdle Court Press.

This film is the third, and perhaps the most powerful of the three. especially as the Haggerston Estate is now gone. I have been away or working during previous showings, but finally got to see it as part of the Open City Doc Festival. That is how we came all the way to the West End and discovered this gem of a place — the Regent Street Cinema:

Regent's Cinema

Built in 1848 and housed within the Polytechnic Institution on London’s Regent Street, the cinema was the first in the country to show moving pictures. In 1896, the cinema showcased the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe to a paying audience, and, as the curtain fell, British cinema was born.

Regent's Cinema

Go there. Enjoy.

I had seen various versions of the film — in snippets, and bits of pieces. A work in progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the full feature.

(After going through the foreclosure with my mum only a year ago, a replay of losing the house they built when I was a teenager, I feel I have lost a home twice, and this drew upon all the neverending grief and anger that such experiences leave inside of you. I don’t know if anyone else dripped tears throughout.)

Inspiring and heartbreaking both, it does two things wondrously well.

It shows the residents as they were, neighbours getting to know each other, the ways they had chosen to decorate their rooms, children playing and growing up, a father and daughter being forced to move, the elderly over time as they grew sicker and sicker. It is the most honest view of Parkinson’s I have ever seen. It brings the people of Haggerston Estate into your heart and they will never leave it. It does not does this with a bright and clinical gaze, but with the warm compassion of someone who has shared space with them for fifteen years. That sees people as they are for good and bad, and thus can love them truly.

You know exactly what suffering the lack of repairs has caused and what the loss of this community will mean. Something planners and housing managers and city officials somehow never understand.

This film could only have been made by someone who had lived there, fought for it, loved it.

That is why it captures the magic that also happened here. Slated for regeneration, the council stopped caring what people did here. Relaxed the patronising and controlling sets of rules that controlled behaviour. You hear a woman recount a story of her grandfather moved here when the estate first opened from the slums. Removed from his home and patch of ground and his animals, when they tried to force him to get rid of his dog too, he gassed both of them in the apartment.

This film is full of dogs. It is full of colour. People didn’t run riot, they painted logs and made seats, they painted goal posts on the wall for the next-door kids, they planted flowers and vegetables. They had barbeques and built a fire pit and sang songs to welcome in the New Year. They helped each other. They told stories.

They put on regency dress and discussed and acted out Samuel Richardson’s novels, whose heroines provide the names for the estate’s buildings.

Councils never did quite figure out that poor people weren’t the enemy, and the slums weren’t their creation, did they. But oh, the things people on estates can build when left alone to come together as a community.

There is so much more to say, and I’m writing a fuller review somewhere else, but just a few notes on the wonderful Q&A that followed with Andrea:

Andrea talking about Estate

She highlighted that this was a film of all the things unseen, to explore what it meant to lose the place after so many years fighting to get repairs. She felt they had to do something after the financial crash, seeing the posters go up everywhere about benefit fraud with slogans like ‘we are coming to get you.’ The strong feeling that something must be done to challenge this image production that blamed everything on the poor who were least to blame.

This was always a collective effort.

She talked too about the transition period where they could do anything they wanted, a time when people were able to take the space and decorate it as they wanted, and it became a magical place. There were some questions about why this film didn’t show struggle, the fight to improve it and keep it.

Hard choices were made on this, footage exists of everything, but there are so many films of struggle, it is something we understand (even if we don’t yet know how to win — but that is my own aside). She chose instead to show the reality of people’s lives, explore not just what the estate and its loss meant to them, but what they were able to create there when allowed some freedom for creation.

(In a previous cut, I remember seeing people come back to the estate who had already moved on, bursting into floods of tears at seeing their old flats, torn in half between all the frustrations of living somewhere in such terrible conditions but also all of the memories that still made that space a home. It was so powerful but Andrea is right, it did not fit here).

She talked about the architecture, about how vilified it is yet in these passages in the sky you have to meet your neighbours, you see them every day, you say hello. New buildings are secure by design, you never see anyone, community cannot grow and people are lonely in them.

Something else we are losing. We still have a great deal of public space, it is important in this country, but home is still seen as private, insular. It’s an interesting observation. Early estates were built to try and help create community, with multiple shared spaces — perhaps not public space but community space. That is something that is disappearing, and surely we are losing something with it.

There is so much to think about here, the film so rich it will reward reviewing. Go see it.

[A version of this post can also be found at drpop.org]

For more on housing and estates…

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Aragon: Paris Peasant

93111Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:

I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.

It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)

I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.

This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:

Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)

But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.

“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)

What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than

…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)

Or the flows and experiences of it than:

At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)

He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.

He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:

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He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement

…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)

A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:

Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)

And a return to the Certa:

IMG_2479It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)

All gone.

This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:

You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)

We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.

And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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The Rum Factory Opens!

The wonderful Bow Arts held the opening of the Rum Factory today, studios filling an old warehouse that has held many lives over its 200 years. They are all present here, I will show them to you. But it was no small feat to open 90 affordable studio spaces in London this close to the city, and we also celebrated their 20 year anniversary, so it was a happy occasion. Prosecco in the middle of the day, delicious nibbles.

And oh the bite-size brownies topped with cream.

But above all was the building.

We arrived, were directed upstairs to join the rest, find the drinks

Rum Factory Opening

Marcel kicked it off with many thank yous and much happiness

Rum Factory Opening

Above the mic, you could hear — and these are the notes I made on my phone, I like their abbreviated poetry and I am finishing my damn novel agonizingly but surely so you get the notes:

Amazing noises hammering, sounds of waves — Long Good Friday showed such foresight we will be the capital of Europe, Olympics, but development in Wapping creating challenges, one is to artists and creativity residential land values pushing out other uses St George developers good in that studios not left to the margins but part of development

Sound of wheels metal rain draining dragging of materials of weight itself in construction forms across a metal roof. Rebeccas Brooks’ office as was down the end and behind me the times office with glass and blinds remaining and a white board full of figures and print schedules, Michael called it a ghost of what was. This space is two floors so you can look down, feel the expanse, we stand in the middle at the top a mix of people in suits people in beards Mark in his collar beside me some plaid shirts some diversity

Cuts coming still going we have to be more creative

I don’t think they intended irony there, but I was sad that funding for the arts should be left to third sector and intensive fundraising and enlightened developers. God knows I don’t believe in them.

Few remaining buildings of London docks still to be redeveloped did once hold rum and spirits

I am tempted to drop things on people.

Speeches are over and I am free to wander.

This was indeed the former offices and distribution centre for News of the World. Here are the ghosts of what were:

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

This is what it has become:

Rum Factory Opening

Beautiful and massive wooden beams, old brick with its curious arches and niches — I try and imagine their purpose, fail.

Rum Factory Opening

I confess I prefer these as empty spaces, or in the process of becoming:

Rum Factory Opening

There was an artist who made birds of beautiful shape.

Coming down Pennington Street to the entrance this is what you see, a great solid mass of brick that has an odd weight and beauty to it, these old warehouses make my heart quake and I don’t quite know what it is about them.

London Dock

But wandering along the first floor in the still unoccupied spaces you find the curiously medieval windows, and the view behind towards destruction:

Rum Factory Opening

This survived the blitz, but not regeneration. Or maybe that’s just the new build that needs to come down to build some luxury flats that are even newer.

I wonder what this tunnel once did, why it is here. It is like an organic thing caterpillaring up in that great curve to swallow rubble. I hope it survives:

Rum Factory Opening

This dock once provided jobs for thousands of people — first the dock workers, then the newspaper printers (those printers’ strikes in the 80s, picking up leftist campaign literature, Sean and Helen’s stories about early mornings in the darkness and fascists and beatings and the heart pounding fiercely and idealism surging high — one of the later panel speakers was supporting the strikes too, but a bit deprecating of the part he played. Fighting for jobs seemed a little passe). I am glad this place now houses artists, otherwise there are only temporary employment opportunities here. Dude with a broom on a break:

Rum Factory Opening

There was a panel after and it was interesting, but I am a little too angry about rents and bankers and austerity to have enjoyed it much. I did love something the moderator said as part of the invitation for responses from the panel — my quixotic notes again:

on London as the centre of the world, this place the concrete tangible memory of goods flowing through…News of the World and media now become the goods? the flows? … Art now as tangible as rum?

I couldn’t help but think this ironic as well, as I made the leap to art become commodity and imperialist lacky. Not what he meant, not what is happening here, but undoubtedly worth some thought.

A few other thoughts from the woman from the GLA stayed with me, made me a bit sad:

Desire for immersive and authentic experience from tourists

Creating a cultural vision for the royal docks, how you grow a new development a new space before homes going in, bold ideas creating a different way about creating space

How do you create authenticity for tourists? How does a bureaucratic organisation, however well meaning, create a cultural vision? These things can only increase the ways that London is destroying upswellings of life and creativity through high costs and poverty where you earn simply to live, through the prescriptive stifling of culture as it is spontaneously created and lived by and through a vibrant community. Only a certain kind of people need their culture packaged and handed to them.

Sadness.

I found this picture of this warehouse’s former days, or as it came to the end of them.

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You leave the warehouse — once dockers would have been searched as they left the building — and walked up past plywood to the welcome site of St-George-in-the-East, and I remembered again the WWII story of Father John re-burying corpses thrown up by a bomb as Rev. Denys Giddey read the Commital by search-lights and explosions.

St-George-in-the-East

And then on the corner, a more eloquent reminder of how the community once here has been whittled away.

The Old Rose, Wapping

Things do change I know, it is nice to be able to celebrate something good that is happening amidst all the rest.

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Jan Gehl – the Study of Public Life

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public LifeJan Gehl’s How to Study Public Life had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shape it, both in outlines of practice and a bibliography of others who have done so, this is a great place to start.

I also love that they connect public life with public space, it is not a study of one separate from the other.

A common theme in many of these studies — we really screwed up when we started large-scale planning:

Public life and public space were historically treated as a cohesive unit. Medieval cities grew little by little in accordance with changing needs, in contrast to the rapid tempo of modernism’s large-scale planning (3).

So how do we study what is working and what is not to improve our cities and public space?

You start with the basic questions of how many, who,  where, what, and how long?

There is a great chart of the continuum of ways that we move through space for pleasure and for need — which you may not be able to read here, but the book is full of these beautifully designed charts and graphics that help you think through how you might design a space:

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life

A list of different kinds of studies you can adapt to your city, and the primary tools you can use:

  • Counting
  • Mapping (of activities, people and places) Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Tracing (how people move across a delimited space)
  • Tracking (shadowing to see how people move through space)
  • Looking for Traces (trails, paths worn through grass)
  • Photographing (time lapse photos are so so cool)
  • Keeping a diaryJan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Test walks

There is a great chapter on all of the different people who have looked at these issues over time, and the source for most of what it is on my list for future reading…it is quite inspiring to see the faces and read some of the words of those who have fought for more liveable cities, ones built around the needs and actual lives of people and that are allowed to emerge from the bottom up rather than being built for motives of profit or static and powerful ideals of how we should live, what cities should be like.

This list is very male, and entirely white so it needs some broadening. It is unable to capture the impact of race for example, shown so clearly in all of its terrible effect in Elijah Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy for example. It also doesn’t engage at all with theorists like David Harvey or Henri Lefebvre, so important to understanding how capital works to shape cities from above. Funnily he does bring up Sorkin’s book Variations on a Theme Park and mentions Mike Davis as well, but never engages with their key arguments around capitalism and privatisation.

This perhaps explains why Gehl can gaily talk about his work as a consultant for cities like Sydney and London, and particularly the work he did on NY’s Times Square and Cape Town in preparation for the World Cup without also mentioning the huge struggles happening in these places over the question of the right to the city, and the ways in which regeneration of public space that he contributes to has dovetailed with its securitisation, privatisation and mass displacement of the poor and people of colour. So damn frustrating because to do this work well we have to deal with those larger issues, if only to minimise their impacts. At least, in all of those countries listed about where class and race are still huge issues (and perhaps they are not in Copenhagen, I am no judge). If we don’t, we contribute to the social and racial cleansing of our cities, if only by driving up land values and forcing more and more people out of these areas. Ideally we need a fundamental transformation putting social and racial equality along with the right to the city of all residents above the demands of capital and real estate profit.

With that larger critique said, the actual pages and pages of case studies were great (though the whole of this is a little Gehl heavy establishing him within the canon and sometimes repetitive with it, but fair enough), not only as ways to think about and study public space, but as pointers to what makes public spaces work or not — and how planners so often get it completely wrong. These were a few of my favourites.

Good Places to Stand – ‘These studies clearly show what was later described as the edge effect: the fact that people were more likely to stay at the edge of spaces.’ (84)

This naturally means that when a space is too big and open people still hug the edges and the places that are at a more human scale. If only the planners of the Olympic Park had read this.

Who Walks, How Fast, When? – This showed the importance of people taking their time in a space in terms of the feel of it, dawdling made possible by warmer weather in our countries (the opposite in Tucson where heat drives people off the streets): ‘…streets are experienced as more lively in summer than in winter — even when an equal number of people are on the street’ (87)

Many Good Reasons (Studying activities and excuses for being in public spaces)

It was clear early on in the process that people do not always have an obviously practical reason for being in public space. If you ask them directly, they might tell you that they are in town to shop or run errands. The many good reasons and sensible arguments made for being in public space often prove to be rational explanations for activity patterns that weave together errands and pleasure. in this context, rationally explained behaviour can cover stays in public space for the purpose of looking at people and public life in general. (90)

Action Research (from empty stretch of gravel to active playground in one day) — this was a marvelous project to inject life and space for women and children into high-rise social housing (one of the places in this book gender is specifically addressed), where 50 residents and 50 students built an enormous and wonderful adventure playground in an empty stretch of gravel between the high rise and some lame sand boxes.

Diary Method — two students spent 24 hours on a street writing down absolutely everything that happened! I am impressed and have some strange wish to do this myself. But I know a number of places, entire cities really, where writing down everyone’s actions would have immediate (and dangerous) consequences. This points to the privileges of working in Denmark I think.

Measuring Fear and Apprehension — sadly not about class or race issues — these don’t exist in these studies as I say — but an interesting way to study the impact of traffic on public life

Active or Passive Facades

‘most of what we take in visually is at eye-level, and in relation to buildings, it is primarily the ground-floor level that catches our eye. Numerous studies have pointed to edges, the transition between building and public space, as significant for how many and which activities take place.’ (104)

Going from 43 to 12 Criteria — a checklist for assessing public space qualities! I love checklists…

(Gehl, Jan & Birgitte Svarre (2013) How to Study Public Life. London: Island Press)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

 

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Pop Brixton (and the Q&A last night)

Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:

grow-brixton-popes-road-3

The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzz here. I liked it, containers are very cool.

They held a live pop-up music and cinema event last summer, which was greatly enjoyed by many and which showed promise to become a genuinely bottom-up all-around good thing for central Brixton.

In July they submitted a planning application for 5-year temporary use of the land on Popes Road  also slated by the council as a site of the future massive redevelopment being orchestrated by Future Brixton.

In September Planning permission was recommended.

And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.

From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’ 

So this evening the crowd awaiting answers from Philippe Castaing, Commercial Director of Pop Brixton, along with Cal Turner (architect and director) and Cllr and Cabinet Member Jack Hopkins was not an entirely happy one.

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Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.

Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.

I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.

There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.

They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.

This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):

  • the quality of their business plan
  • their locality to the project
  • their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
  • their commitment to the local community

Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.

There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.

The audience was certainly disapproving.

The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?

Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.

Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.

He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.

The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.

The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.

The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.

He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.

There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.

Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.

I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.

On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.

Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.

Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.

The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.

Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.

There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.

Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.

Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.

Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.

An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.

It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.

Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community  — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.

Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.

Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.

Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.

So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.

Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.

So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.

[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]

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Tale of Two Cities: New Era Tenants In Lambeth

We all know the New Era tenants are awesome, so if you didn’t come down to see them at the Karibu Centre on Monday night you missed out on a good thing.

Not because Russell Brand thinks so, but because these women are fierce and smart and inspirational.

They have injected some hope into the struggle for the right of everyday people to continue to live in London, and a bit of much needed pride in being a resident of social housing.

 Comedian Russell Brand joins residents and supporters from the New Era housing estate as they deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

This is from The Independent:

Russell Brand suggests New Era estate’s victory is the start of revolution: ‘There’s a little of this spirit in all of us and it’s beginning to awaken’…the New Era estate’s ‘victory’ represents ‘the start of something that will change our country forever’.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Unite the Community Lambeth hosted the meeting, and Lambeth Housing Activists were there as well to build the momentum for the ongoing housing campaigns here in Lambeth.

Some pearls of campaign wisdom from Lindsay Garrett, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari, who didn’t at first know much about campaigning:

  • Their objective was clear, they knew that they were going to fight the whole way. The only way the company was going to get them out of their homes was to physically drag them and their children out of the doors.
  • So much of this was about people being able to stick together. They worked hard to make sure everyone was up for it. They let everyone know exactly what was happening, putting leaflets under doors, holding meetings, posting notices on letter boards, talking over what these evictions really meant with other tenants. They created a tenant association, had house reps for each block, developed networks to keep people informed.
  • They knew their targets — they sat and made a list of everyone who could be pressured, from the owners to the investors to local Councillors and MPs and Cameron himself. They were up for it.
  • They dug the dirt — like the numbers behind the millionaire MP Richard Benyon who was the first to try and evict them, his own publicly funded house could have house everyone on the New Era Estate with room to spare
  • They knew it was not about legal rights, it was about moral rights
  • They looked for help and solidarity. This came from organisations like Hackney Digs (doing some awesome campaigning around renters rights) and Unite, local institutions and businesses (schools and local shops and cafes and such), and of course the local and national press. Celebrities don’t hurt at all.

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They certainly brought inspiration to the hall. One of the key questions they answered was about how they managed opposition and apathy on the estate.

They didn’t find much opposition, but a lot of people didn’t want to know or think about what was happening, just wanted to bury their heads in the sand. So a few key people had to take the lead, be the public face for the campaign.

They spoke out, but never without letting absolutely everyone know exactly when and where and what was happening. The more people could see that they were making a difference, the less fear they had about joining in.

Other tenants just didn’t believe they could win. Now, of course, they do.

This still isn’t true of all the tenants on the Guinness Trust Estate here in Lambeth. Residents spoke out about the difficulties they are having keeping their own campaign momentum going as they face eviction due to regeneration. Calls for support will be going out as they continue their campaign.

Tenants from the Cressingham Gardens Estate were also in the house, discussing their own ongoing campaign.

After a series of marches and a Question Time session with housing experts and local Councillors, on Wednesday they are returning to the full council meeting to present the Save Cressingham petition a 2nd time, because the council has failed to acknowledge the petition handed over by the resident delegation in December.

They’re asking for people to come for at least the photo shoot on the steps of the council. (6.40pm at TownHall)

Residents of the Knights Walk Estate were also present, facing their own issues of regeneration.

The other speaker of the evening was Adam Lambert from a labour campaign at St Mungo’s (you can read about their campaign here).

He made the important point that as Housing Associations lose what ideals they had to become ever more like corporations paying their directors six-figure salaries, workers as much as tenants are getting screwed.

They themselves are often tenants of social and other at-risk housing, and should be part of these campaigns as both workers and residents.

An RMT member emphasised the similarities between councils running down housing in order to then argue that it is beyond repair so they can sell it off — another connection between work and housing.

A number of people expressed frustration with political parties who refuse to put social housing on the agenda.

There was wide agreement that bigger and broader actions and marches need to happen, people need to keep coming together. Tenants from New Era, workers from St Mungo’s and many of those present in the hall were all planning on attending this Saturday’s March for Homes.

 

March For Homes, Control Rents, Hands off Council Housing; Affordable and Secure Homes for all
Saturday 31st January 12 noon
St Mary’s Churchyard, SE1 6SQ (near Elephant & Castle)
(first posted on Brixton Buzz)

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Estate, by Fugitive Images

10401119Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)

The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.

Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them. 

This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.

My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.

Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.

They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.

You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:

an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.

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Labour in the Hot Seat at Cressingham Gardens Question Time

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The Question Time session on housing and regeneration in the borough last night, hosted by residents of Cressingham Gardens and the Holy Trinity & St Matthias Church, was quite brilliant.

I think this is at least one of the things democracy looks like. On a panel chaired by Dave Hill (sitting in the centre above) from The Guardian were, from left to right, Jonathan Bartley of the Green Party, Michael Edwards from University College London, and Cllr Matthew Bennett (Gipsy Hill and cabinet member for housing) and on the other side of Hill, Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, Cllr Marcia Cameron (of Cressingham Garden’s ward), and Dr Paul Watt from Birkbeck University of London.

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You can follow the live blog from Single Aspect, with a lot more detail through the second half that I had to miss. I didn’t quite catch the first question from Judith as I was taking pictures, but it was a general one on housing and the council’s commitment to social housing.

It elicited some of the following facts from the panel. Apparently no one knows the facts better than Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing, the situation is that we collectively face in the borough:

  • The waiting list for social housing has risen from 20,000 to 21,000
  • There were 1500 homeless (I think families, but possibly individuals) in April, now up to 2000
  • Over 1300 families known to the council are living in severely overcrowded conditions

It just gets worse every time I hear the statistics. So what are they doing? Bennett stated that their benchmark for regeneration schemes is that there is no reduction of social housing, only an increase. He mentioned a draft of regeneration principles on Lambeth’s website, but a google search doesn’t turn them up easily.

He mentioned the Somerleyton development of course, I applaud the fact that it will provide around 100 genuinely affordable flats, the only genuinely affordable flats now being proposed in the massive development of central Brixton. I have no idea where the other 900 he says that Labour hopes to build in the next five years are to come from.

Bartley from the Greens was quite vociferous in defense of the Cressingham Garden tenants. He noted that after going over the accounts, the number of units of social housing has dropped from 29,000 in 2006 to 24,000 today. Only 1000 of those have been lost through right to buy, the rest are gone through stock transfer, regeneration and demolition.

And then there was Cllr Marcia Cameron.

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She was the only woman on the panel, and the only person who wasn’t white. I think a little more thought should have been taken on that, and I wanted to be supportive but she made it really hard. When asked why she supported the regeneration of Cressingham Garden she was open about having initiated it.

Her story is that tenants came to her saying the property was unlivable, so when funding became available for regeneration she saw it as an opportunity to put the estate forward. Tenants in the audience didn’t appreciate that at all, but she never dropped that line of argument. I don’t know how we can be thinking of the same estate.

Another question noted the number of vulnerable people living in social housing and asked how they were measuring the impact of regeneration. Dr Watt talked about the devastating impacts of regeneration, a long and drawn-out process proceeding over ten to twelve years, and people not knowing will happen to them and to their homes suffer sleepless nights, anxiety, worry that builds and steadily builds. Regeneration produces sickness.

Cllr Cameron made a slight miscalculation I think, trying to claim that leaseholders and social tenants were divided on the issue of preservation with social tenants being in favour of regeneration to obtain repairs.

Probably unaware of how many social tenants from Cressingham Gardens were actually in the audience she asked them to raise their hands almost as a challenge, and a whole lot of hands went up. Awkward. She clung to the line that how health was impacted when people live year after year in properties in disrepair.

The hall erupted then, laughter, anger, disbelief. Because Judith had already captured the generally shared sentiment of the audience earlier, when she replied that it was a bit duplicitous of the council not to mention who was responsible for repairs to social housing in the first place.

Cllr Bennett urged us to remember how stressed and anxious all those people on the waiting lists are, just like all those without homes. He seemed to imply a selfishness of the few wanting their homes to remain as they are.

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This raised one of the key questions for me, what do Labour think they stand for? Do they really think these deals with developers to build more market rate housing is the only possible to maintain the social housing we already have, much less build new? How did they get into this box around their thinking?

I understand they are in a really hard place with the coalition in power and the drastic budget cuts, but surely this was the point a real opposition party would have put forward a different platform for dealing with the housing crisis.

I heard nothing of a real alternative, absolutely nothing, it’s private developers with their market rate housing (and their driving up of rents and land values across the borough) or nothing.

Cressingham Gardens residents understand this is a process of social cleansing, pushing working people further and further out of London. The picture below is from one of the Saturday marches to the town hall as part of the campaign to save their housing:

A concrete plan for building 100 units of social housing and a goal of 900 more over five years is better than nothing, but not so much different than nothing given the numbers that the Cllr Bennett himself rolled off: 21,000 people on waiting lists, 2000 without homes at all…what are they doing?

I almost felt sorry for them, as clearly there is no party line on actually building the housing we need.

Dr Watt kept saying over and over again, the regs governing regeneration are too loose, you never know what you will get as everything changes over the many years these projects drag on with changing councillors and development partners. But he is unaware of a single project able to actually provide more social housing than existed before it started. Generally, social housing is lost.

The Councillors had no real response to that, nor to the question from Bill about the larger context for this regeneration, either, which is the privatisation of land and rent, the drive to eradicate social housing. He made the point they had to choose where they stood on that, but they didn’t.

Nor could they take a position on whether they would unequivocally support the tenants of Cressingham Gardens if they chose Option 1, though that ‘yes or no’ question was put to them by Bartley and the audience. Option 1 is refurbishment, versus Option 4, partial demolition, the chart below shows the different levels of cost and debt:

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This in spite of going on and on about process, workshops, tenant democracy. Ultimately it will come down to money and political will.

So the series of questions on transparency, promises made and then broken, advice for other tenants already in the middle of regeneration projects who need accountability for everything going wrong only highlighted what was lacking from the process…

I’ll end on the situation of another large constituency in the audience, residents and former residents of the so-called Short Life housing, cooperative housing that has cared for buildings that otherwise would have long ago have become totally derelict.

Promised by labour councillors that they would be supported in formalising their residencies, they have instead been involved in a long process of evictions, their housing being sold for millions.

When asked about the council’s lack of accountability to former promises made to cooperative tenants, Cllr Bennett claimed that they were not social housing, had never been social housing.

The response from the Lambeth United Housing Coop is that these tenants were on the list to receive social housing and believed they were in social housing when setting up the cooperatives. Their testimony was eloquent on the irrevocable loss caused by eviction, the damage to lives and to community that the council has inflicted — after promising them their support and praising their work in preserving housing.

I left early, just as Cllr Cameron was once more going on about the derelict conditions and the place was in uproar. It’s frustrating to see such complete lack of vision or understanding of the broader dynamics at work here. These are problems being faced across London as the academic panelists made crystal clear.

They also made clear that regeneration is not the answer, but very possibly part of the problem.

Ultimately the fight the tenants of Cressingham Gardens, the housing coops and other estates have taken up is about the right of regular people to remain in Lambeth.

[Originally posted on Brixton Buzz, you can also discuss this on the urban75 forums.]

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Brixton Central Masterplan: Another Nail in the Coffin?

I love community planning. I love sitting in a group with neighbours I don’t know and thinking about how to make our community better —  from the kinds of community space and green space we need, to where housing for families should go, to pedestrianising streets to what kind of new buildings we should have and how tall they should be. I like thinking about how design can improve people’s lives and bring us closer together as a community, how we can fill community needs and at the same time create spaces where it is easier to meet each other, get to know each other, take care of each other.

I was the at Brixton Central Masterplan workshop on Tuesday, and we did a lot of that. And at the same time we did none of it. Let me explain.

What did I love about the workshop? That about 30 of us came together and sat there from 6:30 (ish) to 9:00 pm on a Tuesday evening with only biscuits to nibble — because you know, I probably wasn’t the only one tired and hungry after a long day of work. But it makes you feel good putting that kind of time in to your own community. I enjoyed hearing about the proposals and discussing in our five groups our reactions, thoughts and dreams about Central Brixton. We were fairly diverse, though probably a little too old, a little too white a group to fully represent Brixton. I doubt many (if any) parents of young children were there (how could they be easily given that time slot?), for example. No youth. But even so, a pretty good group.

Fluid and AECOM, the architectural consultant brought in to help with community participation and planning, put together quite a smooth process that really got some good discussions going. They had wonderful staff (though strangely absent any women) to facilitate at each table, and I enjoyed thinking about all those things I don’t usually think about that are still key to making cities work.

Best of all, I had the chance to think about planning in a room full of community members who seemed to be in broad agreement on the key things that matter most to me. Everyone wanted this development to enhance Brixton for the people here (if we’d had to fight about that I would have not enjoyed this at all), and so it seemed to me there was little argument that:

  • Brixton is awesome the way it is now. We love the mix of people in the community  in terms of its awesome diversity (race, nationality, students, professionals, families etc), its vibrant culture, and the wonderful local businesses and artists that now exist in the market and under the arches.
  • Above all we need truly affordable, genuinely affordable, housing. People who want to stay in the community are getting forced out, and there is not enough affordable housing for families.

Looking into the results of the special consultation Fluid did with the ‘youth’, it’s cool to see they want the same things:

  • “that it is suitable for the current population of Brixton and everyone feels comfortable in it”

  • “that is does not become overcrowded and that everyone knows each other with a family environment”

  • “that Brixton can develop while keeping its originality and diversity”

  • “for it to become safer and gang free, and affordable”

In the consultant’s own findings presented in the graph below, it’s clear that housing is the priority and principal concern for absolutely everyone (It’s that green bar at the top):

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So we talked about how this plan can do all of these wonderful things through design, and especially through easing the housing crisis…

Problem is, it can’t.

I hate to lose that feel-good vibe, that I-contributed feeling, that excitement of imagining Brixton even better than it is. But this development is not building housing for people who live here now. The council is treating the three developments — Brixton Central, Brixton Hill and Somerleyton Rd — as one development in their treatment of housing. They are looking at building 750 new homes across all three with 40% of those being ‘affordable’. The consultants made the point that the term ‘affordable’ does not actually quite mean ‘affordable’.

People at my own table really struggled with this terminology — and I think that’s kind of the point of it. To confuse the issue, to confuse people, to redefine a word so that it sounds good while meaning what developers want it to mean. Because affordable doesn’t actually mean affordable now, you have to say ‘genuinely affordable’ or talk about ‘target rents’ to actually mean what you think you mean. So ‘experts’ can throw around the word affordable and get nods from everyone in the room who don’t actually understand that they are using a specialist definition that describes 80% of market rent, which means 1 bedroom flats renting for over £1000 pcm.

The current average market rates in Brixton according to home.co.uk, a rental website that tracks actual letting information and properties for rent in real time, are currently:

No. of properties Average rent Median rent
One bedroom 188 £1,345 pcm £1,352 pcm
Two bedrooms 278 £1,672 pcm £1,603 pcm
Three bedrooms 84 £2,319 pcm £2,264 pcm
Four bedrooms 27 £3,085 pcm £2,947 pcm
Five bedrooms 7 £3,736 pcm £3,640 pcm

So when we say ‘affordable’, we mean approximately 80% of these kinds of rents — no actual numbers on rents have ever been presented at any point in these consultations, and I am embarrassed that I have failed to ask for them. For the flats built as part of the Olympic development in Stratford, ‘affordable’ rents are between £1,244 and £1,688 a month.

So what are families to do with this? What are their kids supposed to do when it comes time to move into their own place? What are older single people (or those of us surviving at a distance from our partners like myself) supposed to do, who don’t really enjoy want to live in shared flats their entire lives? This housing, even the ‘affordable’ 40% is geared to bring wealthier people from outside into Brixton — admitted as much by the projections that this new residential population will be injecting a few more million into our economy through their spending.

This housing is not for us. I’m not even one of the 20,000 people on their waiting list.

When you ask, the council will say that it is building some ‘genuinely affordable’, ‘target rate’ housing, but that’s only in the Somerleyton development. So 40% of those 250 flats will be ‘genuinely affordable’, all the rest will not be. 100 affordable flats out of all this millions of pounds of development.

So 650 flats mostly for newcomers to Brixton, a huge new makeover for the central area, a revamping of the overground train station — which it desperately needs but this will only make Brixton more attractive to people working in the city — a refurbishing of local business facilities which is great, but I fear that it puts the smaller businesses I love even more at risk. This will of course have a ripple effect on speculation and land values, putting even more pressures on rents and forcing people out.

I asked about that, and Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council, said fairly patronisingly that mine was one view. But their view was that building more homes at market rent will decrease the pressure on all of the housing. Besides, they were following the mandate of the mayor to build more housing. Which was just so crazy I didn’t really have an immediate snappy response. Trickle-down housing? Really? A Labour council happy to carry out Tory housing policy?

If Brixton was an island in the sea this might possibly make sense, but it’s part of London, and thus one of the hottest property markets in THE WHOLE WORLD. Our problem is not a lack of housing in London–look around you, we have a horizon full of cranes being used to build more housing. Our problem is a lack of housing people can afford.This is from a recent article in the New York Times:

With property at a premium, it’s renters who are paying full market value just to stay where they are. The average home in London costs nearly 20 times the average salary in Britain. The imperative to get a return on that capital investment is passed on to the renter. According to the housing charity Shelter, Londoners spend nearly three-fifths of their monthly income on rent.

London’s housing is no longer for those who need it but for those primarily concerned with accumulating capital. When bricks are cash and houses are savings accounts, the meaning of the word “affordable” is warped beyond all recognition.

So this development might be helping some of the young professionals roaming the city who can’t pay the even higher rents required to live in the new Nine Elms developments in Vauxhall or those massive towers going up in Chelsea or Limehouse. They can’t afford those because they are all being bought up by investment banks and elites from around the world as real estate investments or occasional crash pads, not as homes to love and cherish in a community they care about and want to make better. This is the worst case scenario, that these flats will be bought by such investors and left to sit completely empty, or occupied for a few months of the year or from Monday through Thursday. The best case scenario under this plan is that we’ll get an influx of the youthful white middle-classes, which will not help ease the demand for genuinely affordable housing coming from people who live in Brixton now. How can this not transform even further the vibrant culture and diversity we love and that we are losing?

No one in that room wants that to happen, not even the council member sitting at my table. We all want genuinely affordable housing, the more the better. Instead we were part of a process that will serve to legitimise another nail in the coffin of the Brixton we love.

No, it’s too big for that. This might be the coffin itself.

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Future Brixton Open Day 22 November, 2014

I have a lot of thoughts about the enormity of the developments planned for Central Brixton that will completely transform the place I live in and love and won’t be able to afford to live in much longer. This is the extent of the area shortly to become one enormous construction zone if the council gets their way (and you have to factor in construction on the Lambeth College site too):

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So after a few days of letting it sit in my mind my primary question is, why the hell are they doing it now?

I wish I had asked them that. Though I’m afraid of the real answer.

The number one perceived need in the community as identified by every focus group and survey they themselves have carried out is housing affordable to people who live in Brixton now. They had a graphic even, housing dwarfed all other concerns, even jobs. And the one thing this development can’t honestly provide in the current climate without federal government funding is social housing. This ensures that this transformative development will only speed up the skyrocketing rents, the displacement of local residents, and the transformation of our community diverse in class and race to one that is homogenous, wealthy and probably overwhelmingly white.

We are in a period of ideologically driven austerity — all the evidence points to this government policy not working, even by Tory benchmarks, except in the sense that a massive transfer of land and money is taking place from public to private hands. It makes my heart hurt to see the infrastructure of social care and the urban fabric itself destroyed in this way. The slashing of central government funding has left the local councils scrambling to fund the provision of the services the community needs — and working with private developers out for as much profit as they can get rather than forming any kind of effective opposition to the destruction of a state that takes care of its people. Lambeth council has accelerated its sell off of community owned resources and housing to fund basic services.  They are in fact selling off the housing we so desperately need. Once it is gone only a nationalisation of land will ever get it back given the inflated prices of land and the costs of building things anew.

So what does the council say about the housing situation now being exacerbated by their own policies? Future Brixton’s latest newsletter, handed out at the open day, shows on page two the three priorities of the council from this development: ‘Bringing new jobs to Brixton’; ‘What’s good for business?’; and ‘Desperately needed new homes’. Under this last, it says this:

With over 20,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list and over 1,600 families in temporary housing, new homes are desperately needed. Since 1981, the council has lost almost 40% of its council housing stock, largely as a result of right to buy and of properties transferred to Registered Providers.

Over the same periods council rent levels have increased by approximately 500%, private rents and house price have increased by much more and the population of Brixton has risen by almost 18% to over 78,000 (according to the 2011 census). The Future Brixton developments will see about 750 new homes built over the next 10 years with the aim for at least 300 (or 40%) to be affordable housing.

At Somerleyton Road, building new homes for rent is the priority and as many of these as possible will be at council rent levels. It’s expected that all of the 300 new homes here will be managed by a housing cooperative. Read more about this on page 8.

20,000 people on the waiting list, and they are transforming all of Central Brixton through massive development and only providing 300 homes? It’s worse than that though, first because of how they are defining affordable housing, and second because they can’t even agree on what number of homes will potentially be built. As the Brixton Buzz reported, they originally stated the figure (as described clearly in this newsletter I’m holding in my hands) of 750 homes to be built, and received back an official letter from the council saying that only 250 homes will be built (of which 40% will then be affordable?). The number reported at Somerleyton estates alone is 300, are a fraction of those then the only ‘affordable’ units to be built? Confusion confusion.

We need to redefine ‘affordable’ as well, I hate the dishonesty of current definitions that ignore the deepening inequalities driven by low wages and unemployment to focus only on artificially inflated housing markets. The new and widespread meaning of ‘affordable’ in relation to housing is where rent is simply set as up to 80% percent of the area’s market rate rents, rather than what people can afford to pay. This is hardly affordable to any working people in Brixton (or anywhere), and also means the more expensive housing becomes (note the council itself is well aware of how private rents are steadily spiraling upwards), the higher rents will rise. This will ensure the steady displacement of the tenants who do manage to qualify initially as they are priced out.  This false idea of ‘affordability’ is very different from the traditional methods of calculating rent for social housing, which work to ensure a better level of true affordability and are usually set around 50% of market rate, if not lower in more expensive areas. A good description of both and the differences between them can be found here.

So we have a massive development that provides almost no homes (and a very questionable number of them set at very questionable levels of true affordability), that will also serve to send property prices (and therefore market rents) throughout the area soaring. What are we paying for it? Brixton Buzz reports: ‘What is clear is that Your Nu Town Hall will cost £50m. Cllr Paul McGlone, the Cabinet member for Finance has stated that this will NOT be borrowed money.’

I find the big picture of this, then, slightly vomitous. A massive development that, rather than produce the housing the community desperately needs, will instead force market rents and land prices higher, accelerating the displacement already rampant here. Worse, it’s funded partly through the sell-off of local cooperative housing and estates like Leigham Court, Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust that the council is carrying out to make up the shortfall between their budget and central government funding. Talk about social and ethnic cleansing.

It seems to me that some people working on the project must understand this, but that many probably do not. The project itself in its details has quite a lot of very nice things that are much needed by the community. Perhaps some people on the council genuinely believe that to get any housing at all they have to do something like this. I’d say they should wait until Labour get back in power and start funding social housing and social services again, so this development can include a high proportion of social housing as demanded by the community, and the council can once more work to provide the services their constituents really need. But wait…that isn’t Labour’s policy now is it. Makes you want to punch walls.

So instead this lovely community process has been held, the primary request for housing has been essentially ignored, but some beautiful public spaces will be created (how wonderful that they are developing and opening up that terrible area behind the town hall?), some help will be given to local business and more market stalls created, the train station will be improved which it desperately needs, and I love the idea of a chef’s school at Somerleyton Rd. Sadly, this will all go to benefit the new people moving to Brixton, replacing all of those who participated in this community process in the first place. But that’s not part of the discussion at the Open Day. You walk into a room like this:

2014.11.22OpenHouseInsideIt is full of details and pictures and helpful people to answer questions about the development particulars. It focuses you in on things like the proposed 14 story building replacing Olive Morris House, the terrible cookie-cutter architecture, the innovative opening up of more railway arches. You notice things like how all the pictures of community consultation show a vibrant Black community, but most of the individuals wandering many of the artist representations of what will be are white (a huge problem with computer generated renditions visible all over this damn city). You see that the consultants have tried to address some aspects of the problems with ‘affordable’ housing, but without grappling with how this development in its entirety will make the need so much greater. It’s frustrating, because you know most of the people involved have without much thought accepted right-wing defined limits of what is possible and just haven’t thought through the big picture.

There are lots of details on the Future Brixton website, and I’ll probably be looking more at those as I drag myself to future consultations, but really. This development just shouldn’t happen until a very large block of funding is included to develop a very large amount of social housing. That would help stabilise the community who make Brixton what it is. Given they are the council’s constituents, their right to remain as the community should be the council’s first priority.

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