Photo: Author's own.
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At the Sweets Way show home, activists are standing up to developers using hammers and paintbrushes

Campaigners are renovating a condemned home in a Barnet estate to show that regeneration doesn't have to mean demolition. 

The Sweets Way estate is an eerie place to visit. In the surrounding suburbs of Totteridge and Whetstone, families wander along the streets and washing flutters in back gardens, but in the cluster of streets that make up the estate, all is quiet. The windows and doors of the 140-odd houses are fitted with brown metal muzzles, occasionally brightened with bits of graffiti. Overflowing bins sit in empty lots. In fact, the only signs of life are the cars that line every street: the area’s office workers have been quick to capitalise on the disappearance of Sweets Way’s residents.

But at the heart of the ghost town, at number 153, is one house with all its windows intact and a freshly planted garden. Here, a group of ex-residents and activists are sawing, painting and cabinet-making in order to turn the house back into a home. 

Houses on the estate. Many have bits of graffiti on windows and doors, left by ex-residents during protests and occupations.

The story of Sweets Way’s evictions is well-worn: it mirrors the narrative of estates across London. Since 2006, the estate was occupied by private tenants and members of the Notting Hill Housing Trust. But the long-term plan since owners Annington Homes ended their contract with the Ministry of Defence (pre-2006, service personnel lived there) has always been redevelopment.

Annington Homes plans to build 288 residences on the site, starting later this year. Ex-residents of Sweets Way call these “luxury apartments”; Annington describes them as “new, better designed homes”, which would increase the current number of dwellings by 100 per cent. The reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle: the new homes would certainly be more densely built, but only around 60 of them would be classed as “affordable”, while none would be available to social tenants. Meanwhile, Barnet council defines “affordable” as “up to 80 per cent of market rents”, which, for most, is anything but. 

Overall, it’s unlikely many, or any, of Sweets Ways’ ex-tenants would be able to afford live there again. Since planning permission was approved in November last year, families have resisted the plans through occupations and protests. Now, though, all but one of the families have been successfully evicted (the final family has been issued with a possession order). 

The Sweets Way “show home”, meanwhile, has been occupied so campaigners can show the council and the public what’s possible with a few days, a few volunteers, and a couple of hundred pounds donated by activist groups. On Tuesday, campaigner Liam showed me round as volunteers arrive and get down to sanding and painting. “None of us have much experience with this stuff,” he tells me – though the group has had some help from a local plumber, glazier, and cabinetmaker – as he proudly points out a section of kitchen floor made from reclaimed pieces of slate. 

Flooring in the kitchen. The slate came from a derelict factory nearby.

To make things even harder, the campaigners say Annington Homes destroyed facilities in homes across the estate after the evictions to make them unliveable, and make life for occupiers more difficult. This included ripping out waste water pipes, smashing porcelain and pulling out kitchen cabinets. In some homes, there were even holes gouged in the roof. (I approached Annington Homes about this, but they declined to comment on the destruction specifically.) So the renovators weren’t even starting from scratch – before they could set about repairs, they had to clear the house of the damage done to it by the developers. 

Campaigners say that the estate's owners smashed up the houses' interiors to make them unlivable and prevent more occupations. This is the bathroom in the "anti-show home" next door.

No one I spoke to remembers who first had the idea for the show home, and the home next door, which has been left in its smashed-up state to show what the campaigners have achieved in the show home. But at the heart of the operation is Polish-born Anna, who was laying floorboards made of old pallets on the landing when I looked around. She lived on the estate before she was evicted into temporary accommodation with her children.  

For her, the show home represents a kind of third way for regeneration: “If councils gave residents a few thousand pounds, and access to local contractors, they would fix up homes for the sake of keeping their community. They just need to give us a chance.” Meanwhile, her children play downstairs in a police hat and butterfly wings. “They love Sweets Way, they’re so pleased to be back,” she says.

They’re not the only ones: while Anna is no doubt exhausted, and discouraged from the standoff with Barnet Homes, the council, and the estate’s owners (she tried to explain the renovation idea to the head of Barnet council, who “did not get on board”) she seems invigorated by the restoration project. “It will be very rustic when it’s finished,” she says, showing me the floorboards in the second bedroom. “I have such a beautiful sink for this room – would you like to see it? I’m so excited about it!” She leads me downstairs and we admire the wooden structure together. 

 

"The yellow wall has been controversial. In fact, the biggest arguments on this campaign so far have been over paint colours" - Liam.

So how will she feel if and when the show home, along with the rest of Sweets Way, is demolished? “It’ll be really sad, especially after all the work we’ve put into this house. But maybe we’ll inspire other people to do the same before it’s too late – or inspire councils to see that they don’t have to demolish estates to make them livable.” 

Figures obtained by the Independent show that between July and September 2014, Barnet arranged 306 homeless placements in accommodation outside the borough – it effectively gave up on housing its poorer residents. Anna’s temporary accommodation is currently within the borough, but her family could easily be moved to another borough, miles away from home. The uncaring exile of residents from their communities is at the heart of the anger at Sweets Way, and the attempts to salvage it using basic tools and pots and paint show both how little power residents have in the face of redevelopment, and how hard they’re willing to try. 

The show home's landing, with an inscription by Anna.

The show home is open to visitors today - head down if you can to 153 Sweets Way N20 9EU.

All photos: Author's own. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder