The Heygate Estate was conceived of under a Labour administration and implemented under a Tory one. The sceptical would still maintain that the final building was an act of sabotage against the principles of social housing. “Ideology ruins lives” should be stamped by the chief medical officer on all party political communications.
The three remaining tenants of the estate are sitting in a meeting room at Southwark’s council offices. Already they have faced remarks that their attendance throughout the four day hearing would be helpful; who knows what the attendance of developer and council lawyers would be were they required to take time off work to pursue the case, whether they would’ve devoted their entire lives to fighting a money-no-object legal onslaught bent on their defeat. If David Cameron ever meant one word of his Big Society, then sometime before Friday’s out he should visit Southwark and check the health of his vision.
I’ve walked through the Heygate Estate from time to time over the past few years. Lost around the Elephant & Castle, I first found it by accident and couldn’t believe it was London; Heygate is barbed wire railings and boarded up windows, drifts of dead leaves, an urban ghost village with wheelbarrows from the communal garden left unemptied, cabbages still growing eerily where they were planted by humans who have long since gone. Of the many articles of apt graffiti on its walls, one has run out of spray paint before it could finish the word Governm-. Dystopic films have had scenes shot amongst the concrete of the estate, a real life social collapse with which to help the audience in visualising a fictitious one. It is not development that the tenants are resisting so much as the terms of that development, as ever we are to be told that an economic crisis caused by property can be put right by property.
Lend Lease are back in town, five years since the Australian developers received their £1bn taxpayer bailout to build the Olympics when they failed to raise the money, as initially promised, on the open market. They swagger with all the dignity of car salesmen, land capitalism, corporate feudalism enacted between private sector and council. One suit stands to champion Lend Lease’s plans to build the largest park London has seen in seventy years, it’s longest length at 200m. The audience raise that nearby Burgess Park is bigger than 200m, was also built within the last seventy years, and actually – come to think of it – 200m is not very big at all. Wind from sails but not deterred, Lend Lease assure us, nevertheless, that this will still be a great park. In the chilling language of regeneration we hear of radiance, of breaking down barriers, the felling of trees and demolition of garages so that the development is integrated into the streets around it. Tim Tinker, the original Heygate architect is present in the audience, the trees and garages were a barrier he says, a barrier between residents and the endless roaring traffic of the New Kent Road. At least here we have an early indication of precisely where in the new complex the social housing might be found. The initial agreement, with its talk of sustainability and inclusion, is not legally binding, and it is the planning process that will determine the final environmental and social credentials of what comes next. Campaigners say only 71 of nearly 3000 units will be social, Lend Lease boast that 25% will be affordable, but in central London housing that notion is more a source of humour than comfort. The most potent four-letter word in British politics is back in use, mingling with the remarks I see circling through Twitter. Scum.
Price is at the heart of the controversy. In a fifty-fifty profit-sharing venture between Lend Lease and Southwark, these 22 acres of central London real estate have been sold for £50million, just over half the sum that Real Madrid paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo, less than 1 per cent of the annual global television rights to the Premier League. Either Southwark Council have failed in their legal obligation to secure value, or the properties in which they will eventually share profits will be expensive, very expensive. Of the three remaining residents, one says she was offered a replacement flat in nearby Strata Tower, Elephant & Castle’s first skyscraper. A monthly service charge in the hundreds of pounds means she had to turn down the alternative property, and in case anyone needed reminding of the place of the poor in modern London, the tower has a separate lift for its social housing tenants.
A member of the audience makes himself known, a local resident set to lose his sunlight to the fifteen-storey blocks Lend Lease plan to build outside his window. A former soldier… “I fought for this country!”… and what he sees disgusts him. The man is asked to desist, reminded to show respect for procedure. I think of this week’s parliamentary victory for the supporters of equal marriage; the optimist in me says that once our society has stopped troubling itself with marriages and bedrooms we can work together to remove other injustices. The cynic in me says people only care about persecution when they are the one being persecuted.
Everything the campaigners fear is already on show, the consultation bears witness to all that critics say is part and parcel of contemporary urban regeneration. Wenda Fabian is chairing proceedings, her site visit to the Heygate comes complete with bodyguard and earpiece, early testimony to the high-security, surveillance culture of the communities that will come. Visitors to the first day of proceedings had to request that Lend Lease representatives turn to face the members of the audience; the room had been arranged so that Lend Lease sat in the front row, their backs to the community that had come to make their voices heard. Beginning to end this will be faceless. The seats are stratified, someone conscientiously printed “Objectors” on pieces of paper laid out on seating for the party poopers amongst us.
Perhaps this is why the community can’t win… they have met bureaucrats with feeling, and the two will remain incompatible until we learn how to codify human emotion. The three remaining residents valiantly make their case, shunted endlessly between a legal team cross-examined one at a time and refusing to be drawn outside their specific areas of expertise. It is through the spaces in between that morality slips and is lost. We hear that an early report detailed human rights considerations in pages 42-45. Southwark Council paid for advertisements in local papers, gave double the minimum notice required of the compulsory purchase orders that would take away these people’s homes. “This inquiry,” affirms the lawyer, “is consistent with our human rights obligations.”
Repeatedly the tenants ask what assurances the council have been given that Lend Lease will complete the promised redevelopment of Heygate. What will stop the potential use of land banking tactics seen in nearby Oakmayne Estate or Battersea Power Station, plots to be left derelict and sold when land values have risen to secure a free profit? The terms of the agreement that cover these details have, it would seem, been redacted.
After you leave you need to wash, there is a tingling somewhere between scalp and brain so that it hurts, it hurts to think what is being done in your name. Buried under a mountain of amendments and clarifications and new memorandums and protocol, the poor corpse of justice slowly gives a kick and then dies. In case you’ve forgotten where you are and what it is you belong to, outside Southwark’s offices you emerge into the shadow of the Shard. The privatised space of More London Place rests with City Hall beside you, and here we stand in the inaugural year of Orwell Day, surrounded by monuments to the unheeded warnings of his words, Orwell himself no more than a cultural institution in our End of History. We are postmodern, we are post-politics and we are post-love. In me are no more militant tones, in what will happen at Heygate there is no saving grace. I will continue to care, I will continue to do all that I can, but there is no hope, the only reason to resist is because resistance is the one antidote, the only way to feel any better, to take any comfort at all from this terrifying, this devastating. This powerless.