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.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.