Thursday, February 02, 2006

Social cleansing in south London

by Edwin Bentley

RESIDENTS of one of the few remaining working-class neighbourhoods in south- east London are bracing themselves for a massive programme of social cleansing that will transform the Walworth area into an up-market residential and commercial area.
Estate agents don’t have a very good reputation. Rather like bookmakers, their job is to make as much money as possible out of people’s dreams. But among themselves, estate agents and bookmakers have to be totally realistic; they must know the facts, whether or not they share them with you and me.
Back in April 2002, a report commissioned by estate agents in the Walworth area stated that “the strong working class element to the district has prevented gentrification in an area that geographically would make it a prime candidate.”
But on 27th September 2005 the local council, Southwark, opted to remove the biggest barrier to this threatened gentrification. The Liberal Democratic-run council finally decided to demolish the massive Aylesbury estate; 2,759 council flats will be knocked down, to be replaced by a mixture of private and housing association accommodation.
The neighbouring Heygate estate will also be flattened, removing a further 1,194 council homes from the area.
Immediately after his election in 1997, Tony Blair had gone to the Aylesbury estate to announce a whole new way of dealing with the housing problem in London. Blair spoke of “forgotten people “ who were dumped in the most decaying, unpleasant surroundings without any hope of a better life. But rather than invest money in improving local council housing, the Government has opened the door to big business.
The Aylesbury and Heygate estates are next to the Elephant and Castle, the transport hub for south London. As Southwark council states in its propaganda, this area is far closer to the attractions of Central London than people imagine. Only a few minutes from the centre of the city, bus, road, rail, and underground links mean that a lot of people find it a convenient place to live. But as our estate agent friends pointed out, it is also solidly working class.
Over the past 40 years Walworth has become home to many different groups of immigrants who have come to London in search of a safe place to live and work. Early in the morning, many of the workers going down into the Elephant and Castle Tube station or catching a bus are Africans and South Americans, heading off to do their cleaning and other low-paid service jobs all over London.
There was a time when these estates were seen as a symbol of a bright new future. Following severe bomb damage during the Second World War, the old rows of Victorian terrace houses were knocked down and replaced in the 1960s with spacious flats and maisonettes. But as was so often the case, the necessary maintenance work was never carried out on a regular basis, and the quality of materials used in the construction was so low, that very soon major problems developed.
Over the years Southwark council thought of the Aylesbury and Heygate estates as sink estates, where they could house the most disadvantaged people, who would not complain too much about conditions. Neglected by both central and local government, the condition of the area got worse.
In 2001, Southwark council tried to wash its hands of the problem by transferring all housing on the two estates to the control of a housing association. The proposal was put to a vote in a local referendum, and overwhelmingly rejected by the tenants.
This time round, Southwark has only engaged in “consultations”, to ensure that decisions about the future of this working class community could be taken without giving local people any direct say.
Following demolition, during which time the existing tenants will be moved out to other flats all over London, contractors will move in to build the new homes. On the Aylesbury Estate, although 4,900 new homes will be built, 2,700 of these will be luxury properties that will be sold off to the highest bidder; 2,200 flats will be classified as “social housing”, and run by a housing association. That means that the housing stock for working class people will be reduced by 500 properties.
In addition, these flats will be smaller and much less well-appointed than those designed for private sale.
What is so wrong with council housing being transferred to housing associations? For a start, local people have the example of the Church Commissioners, which owns quite a lot of property in the area. Right from the 1880’s, Church Commissioners’ flats had been let at well below the market rate. This has all changed, and from now on all new tenants will be obliged to pay the market rate, which will be many times the present rent.
The example of other providers of social housing is also alarming. Just in the last year alone, the Peabody Trust has sold off more than 400 properties in London, saying that it needed the money to maintain its existing stock of properties. That really is selling off the family silver.
Housing associations can only be effective if they are adequately supported by Government finance, if there is an element of democratic control, and if they refuse to sell off their properties to those tenants who can afford to buy them. At present, they meet none of these criteria, and are liable to be swept away by market forces.
Ultimately, local people know that they will only have peace of mind if they live in properly funded and maintained housing provided and controlled by the elected borough council.