Out and about in Battersea. Photo: Getty
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Putting Patmore on the map

When you think of Battersea, you may think of successful young professionals. But there's another side to the constituency; a side neglected by politics and politicians.

The Patmore Estate is surrounded by building sites. Battersea Power Station to its north, Nine Elms to its east – nearly 20,000 new flats are on the way. Cranes, lorries and dust are a regular feature. Except, there’s no building on the estate itself. 

The main construction story local people raise is the unacceptable nine years it has taken for a crane hire company and its director to be taken to court over the death of Michael Alexa. The 23-year-old was washing his car outside his house on the estate when an overloaded 50-metre tower crane collapsed from a neighbouring building site and killed him.

The Patmore has become a symbol of London’s inequality. You would have to win the lottery twice to afford a 3-bed apartment in Nine Elms, currently listed at £5.7 million. 
Over the past decade I’ve spent many weekends on the Patmore, knocking on doors, listening to residents. 

Last Monday I met the Patmore residents association. “No-one champions us”, Jim Dodd, a long-time resident and member of the Cooperative, tells me. “All we’re asking for is a decent standard of living.”

The Patmore was built in the 1950s, its 28 red-brick blocks are named after railway engineers. Sandwiched between the railway lines and the vast New Covent Garden wholesale markets, it certainly feels like Wandsworth’s forgotten corner.

“What kind of London is it,” one mum asks me, “when they build flats that only investors can afford?” Another family have had several trips to the hospital. Damp has made their son’s asthma worse; the flat was so damp, they say, that there were silverfish living in the walls.

A man with a shopping bag sees my red rosette and heads over. “Where’s Martin Linton?” he asks. Martin was the MP here from 1997 to 2010. “Martin got us the P5.” The P5 is the estate’s only bus. Infrequent and over-crowded, but for many, it’s life-changing. “Thanks to Martin, I can get to the shops”, he says.

The estate’s doctor surgery is open for only four hours a week. The surgery website reads: ‘We are a very busy surgery, with a list size of over 10,000 patients. Demand for appointments is very variable and our aim is to accommodate your requests as much as we can.’

Members of the residents association run through a shopping list of requests. New windows, new kitchens, air vents (they cost £700 each but put an end to damp), a grant to open the youth club on week nights, new pavements (they’re so broken the streets flood), more police.

On Thessaly Road, there’s a wooden crate leant against a security wall. It provides an escape route for drug dealers.

It’s free parking on the estate. “We need a parking zone,” a leaseholder called Graham says. “Cars and caravans queue up on Monday mornings driving away on Friday afternoons. Men working in the surrounding construction sites sleep in their cars.” Because the estate crosses the boundary between Wandsworth and Lambeth it’s not clear which should take responsibility for parking, so nothing happens.

It’s a sad picture of a neglected corner of London that deserves better. A few floors up, you can see Big Ben. Westminster is just a couple of miles away, but it feels like many thousand more. Politics has let down the Patmore.

I tell the residents association meeting about Labour’s plans. We’ll axe the bedroom tax, raise the minimum wage, and introduce a young person’s job guarantee. We’ll cut tuition fees, provide 25 hours of free childcare for working parents, and invest in the NHS.

Most nod along, but they don’t seem impressed. Many won’t vote, fed up with politics of all persuasions. Battersea’s two halves are drifting apart.

If there’s one thing I can achieve as Battersea’s MP, it’s giving communities like the Patmore a platform, as the property developers close in. It’s refusing to meet the property lobbyists without inviting residents associations of nearby estates. It’s fighting case-by-case, street-by-street to replace broken windows or fix leaking roofs. It’s highlighting Battersea’s inequality, even if it makes for uncomfortable reading. It’s putting the Patmore back on the map.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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