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.

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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser