Socialist Worker

Housing developers attack the block in Southwark

Southwark council in south London has destroyed an estate and sold the land to a private firm for a pittance – Dave Sewell investigates

Issue No. 2342

 (Pic: Smallman )

(Pic: Guy Smallman)

The vast Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, south London, was once home to 3,000 people. Now it is a desert. Southwark council has spent more than

£44 million “decanting” residents out of their homes.

More than £6 million more will go on tearing down the 1,200 properties and 400 trees.

Yet the council sold the land to private firm Lend Lease for just £50 million, according to documents released last month.

Lend Lease is expected to make hundreds of millions of profit from the deal.

Southwark council has been determined to get rid of the Heygate Estate for years.

It stands in the way of selling off some of the most valuable land in London—within walking distance of the South Bank.

The council has relied heavily on a cliched narrative of “urban decay” and “sink estates” to justify scrapping the estate.

Film crews that regularly use the Heygate as a backdrop for every­thing “gritty” have helped bolster this image.

Some 76 films were made there in the three years to 2010. They include Attack the Block, where local teen­agers unite to battle aliens, and the right wing Harry Brown where ageing ex-soldier Michael Caine goes to war against the youth.

But despite years of neglect and underfunding, most residents remained happy there.

“When the regeneration started in 1999 the estate was fully occupied,” remembered former resident Jerry Flynn. “And when the council carried out a poll, 63 percent of residents said they’d like to carry on living there.

“It had all the problems council housing often has, because there had been no investment.

“So there would be problems with the lifts, and the lighting. But nothing that meant it needed to be knocked down.”

The Heygate’s original architect, Tim Tinker, has also defended the estate at a public inquiry.

The inquiry was prompted by the last remaining resident’s challenge to the demolition (see box, right).

Tim said the Heygate’s reputation was “a farrago of half-truths and lies put together by people who should have known better”.

The blueprints for the estate were drawn up in 1969. Tim said that the space and sunlight of quality modern housing held an appeal for people who’d grown up in industrial inner cities.

“The idea in those days was that local authority housing should be for all,” he said in 2011. “It wasn’t only for the people who’d fallen under Mr Cameron’s ‘big society’.

“There was a clear feeling that local authority housing should avoid that stigma.”

Doreen Gee used to chair the Heygate Tenants and Residents Association. An 2010 interview with her was provided as supporting evidence to the inquiry.

“People used to ask to get on this estate it was that nice,” she said.

“It had the lowest crime rate of the area. There was a big mix of people. Everybody seemed to be there for one another.

“It wasn’t a lot of communities within a community—rather just one big community.”

Like many people Doreen doesn’t accept the council’s negative portrayal of the estate.

“I feel quite angry when people call the estate a slum,” she said.

Run down

“It’s not a slum and it never has been. It’s run down because of the regeneration.

“It’s the council’s fault for allowing it to deteriorate.”

Certainly the monstrosity set to replace the Heygate looks to be far worse.

Lend Lease has claimed that it will create “London’s largest park in more than 70 years”.

In fact more than two thirds of the estate’s open amenity space will be lost. There will be no play facilities for children over 12.

And it will all be privately owned with privately managed security with their own rules for residents.

This will effectively be London’s largest gated community.

It will pack twice as many people into the same area as were living in the Heygate Estate.

But there will be only 71 socially rented properties, with all the rest on the private market. These could be phenomenally expensive.

Southwark council claims that

25 percent of the new houses will be pegged to “affordable” rents.

That’s less than the borough’s official target of 35 percent.

The “affordable” homes will be on the lower ten floors of the new buildings.

Special lifts will go straight to floor 11 so the yuppies above don’t have to risk mingling with the plebs below.

Just last year, Southwark councillor Fiona Colley pointed out that London mayor Boris Johnson’s definition of “affordable” doesn’t mean much.

She said, “Southwark Council is opposed to Boris Johnson’s proposal to allow new homes with rents of up to 80 percent of market levels to be defined as social rented affordable housing.

“This is far from affordable to many residents of this borough.”

Council figures show that an “affordable” flat for two on the Heygate site would cost £311 a week based on current rent levels.

But the average council tenant has a weekly income of just £174.

“The regeneration is making matters worse,” said Jerry. “It won’t improve the lives of most people in Southwark.

“Nearly 20,000 people have applied for social housing.

“None will be able to afford to live in the new development.

“Yet the council has had to

re-house the 1,000 tenants who have been moved out. So those on the waiting list have even less chance of getting somewhere.

“It will definitely change the demographic of the area.

“I don’t think the council has said ‘Let’s get rid of all the working class people’. But that’s how it works out when they give priority to the private developer.”

Doreen agreed. “We were told once at the beginning of the regeneration what they are trying to do is ‘introduce a better class of people to the elephant and castle’,” she said.

“We were told this by a council director who’s no longer with us. When it’s rebuilt it’s going to be drastically different.”

But at least Southwark council leader Peter John got something from the firm for selling the land to it at a bargain basement price.

He recently faced an investigation over two £1,600 Olympic tickets given to him and his partner by Lend Lease—only one of which he declared.

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