Look to the Heygate Estate for what's wrong with London's housing

At Elephant & Castle you can see exactly how London's mixed communities are being forced to give way to regeneration.

For a year and a bit I lived in a flat off the Walworth Road, and every morning and evening I would walk the half a mile between Elephant & Castle tube station and home. On one side was the “mugger’s paradise” Heygate Estate, on the other, the Carbuncle Cup-winning Strata SE1. For many reasons, I always preferred the look of the former over the latter.

At the time I’d heard there were only seven people left living in flats there, and the mostly-derelict estate was probably mostly known to non-locals as a setting for films like World War Z and Attack The Block, and the TV shows Luther and Spooks. Steel panels went up, over time, to stop the curious from taking walks around the abandoned buildings, or enjoying the views from the roofs. The Heygate may have still been a home for some, but the world outside treated it as a dead space. Photographers, explorers, and free runners loved it.

For everything that’s wrong with London’s housing and built environment, look to the Heygate Estate, and to what will replace it. Completed in 1974, its 1,200 homes housed more than 3,000 people in spacious, well-lit rooms with all the modern conveniences. Two decades later, its broken lifts, broken lights, piss-soaked corridors and violent crime came to signify everything wrong with the post-war approach to social housing and urban design.

Of course, the reality of what the Heygate was is more complicated than a concrete monstrosity taken over by the allegedly degenerate. Listen to Chris Wood’s “Heygate Heaven”, for example - the voices of residents drift in and out over the the ambient sounds of the estate and surrounding areas. Many of the residents mourn its destruction, even while admitting its flaws:

Adrian Glasspool is the last person living within the Heygate, and the Guardian dealt with his imminent eviction this week:

Glasspool, a teacher, who remains inside his three-bedroom maisonette in Elephant and Castle amid a dispute about compensation, represents the last hurdle in a 15-year project which will see more than 1,200 primarily social-rented homes replaced with more than 2,300 flats and houses, the majority sold for prices currently reaching £380,000 for a one-bedroom flat.

Southwark council, masterminding the transformation with developers Lend Lease, says the scheme brings long-overdue regeneration to an area long blighted by poverty and post-war brutalist housing, and that money it generates will finance thousands of affordable homes.

None of these 284 homes, currently priced between £350,000 and £1.1m, will be offered at a discount. Instead, Lend Lease has given Southwark £3.5m to spend on social housing elsewhere and will contribute to a new leisure centre.

A report by council officers said Lend Lease baulked at providing social units as this would require a second lobby and lift shaft to separate the two types of resident, adding: "Not doing so would have significant implications on the values of the private residential properties.”

That last bit is particulalry horrible, as it reveals the base motivation for the project - maximising profits from the redevelopment, and doing so by keeping the riff-raff out. Developers across the city have been doing this, with gates within gates to make the division especially clear.

The simplest way to get across how terrible a deal this is for everyone involved in the Heygate's regeneration is to simply quote the figures involved:

What has happened here is that Southwark Council has lost money on evicting the Heygate Estate for the benefit of Lend Lease, with no prospect of getting anything in return for it. In the process, an established community has been scattered throughout the borough and beyond, while the Council obfuscated what was happening and fought to keep key details secret until it was too late to stop it.

There is a thriving microblogging community in Southwark, and it has documented every step. Sites and groups like 35 Percent, the Elephant & Castle Urban Forest, and Better Elephant have been covering the cleansing of Southwark to no avail. 35 Percent has actually managed to create (thanks to FOI) a map of the Heygate diaspora:

The Heygate Estate occupied a large site next to a major transport interchange in an inner London borough, and its residents had the temerity to remain poor while the land they lived on became more valuable. When people talk about the "social cleansing" of London, this is it. The classism and snobbery directed towards brutalism (but only when occupied by certain groups - see: the Barbican) compounded the Heygate Estate's fate. Read through the stories from former residents, archived on Heygate Was Home, for proof that it wasn't always considered a slum, or an eyesore, by the people who mattered.

We're losing London to the forces you can see at work at the Heygate. Regeneration schemes that push the existing community out to neo-banlieues and replacing them with white collar professionals and students living in inferior-quality buildings; councils pleased to turn a blind eye so they have higher rate payers within their boroughs; developers getting given land at a fraction of its true value on the promise of future profits that mysteriously never arrive; a revolving door between local authorities and regeneration consultancy and PR firms. The people affected by these phenomena are the last people to be given a say in, let alone be given control of, their lives. God forbid they should ever be given a way to choose how their city changes, too.

The Heygate Estate on the left, Strata SE1 on the right. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue