Sweets Way estate in Barnet is scheduled for demolition later this year. The show home (and its newly planted garden) can be seen in the background. 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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses