There’s been a long, quiet war over the development of the borough of Enfield and it’s been raging in different forms for many years. The most recent battle has been over the council’s cycle route project. This has entailed the installation of a long section of segregated tracks along Green Lanes, stirring local residents to action. The pressure group Save Our Green Lanes has strongly opposed the change, arguing that it will harm local businesses and cause traffic congestion. The scheme’s supporters have always countered that it will actually attract consumers to the area and improve local air quality too.
It is not the first residents’ rebellion against changes seen by some as a threat to the character of this quiet residential area. In 1996, Michael Portillo, the then Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate and a leadership hopeful of the Eurosceptic Right, became embroiled in a development scheme in Winchmore Hill. Southgate Conservative Association intended to sell its headquarters on Green Lanes to fast-food chain McDonald’s for £325,000. The property – now the site of an Esso petrol station – would have been converted into a drive-through restaurant.
The proposal was met with intense hostility from some local residents. A petition against it collected over 2,000 signatures, and a packed planning committee meeting saw hundreds of residents turn out to voice their opposition. They told the meeting that residents – some living just 20 feet from the restaurant – would be subjected to bright neon lights and noise pollution from parked cars. Another prominent complaint concerned waste collection. One speaker claimed that McDonald’s intended its waste to be collected only once a week despite being open for 112 hours. “The stench would be horrendous,” it was said.
Portillo neither opposed nor supported the plan, insisting that the decision was one for the local authority. He told a residents’ meeting: “The London Borough of Enfield are the people you have elected to make decisions about planning matters.” This offended local Conservatives, who wanted Portillo to condemn the proposal. His perceived tacit support for McDonald’s did not endear him to those who feared the restaurant would “bring down the character” of the neighbourhood.
In the following year, in a legendary general election upset, Portillo lost his deep blue seat to Labour’s Stephen Twigg as part of Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour landslide. It has been speculated that the McDonald’s controversy contributed to Portillo’s defeat. In the aftermath of the result Peter Tasker, chairman of Winchmore Hill Residents Association, said: “I think it must have had an impact on the vote”. Perhaps it did. Twigg opposed the development on planning grounds and the Labour-controlled council ultimately blocked the sale. Though unlikely to be the decisive factor, it is possible that Winchmore Hill residents, irked by Portillo’s handling of the affair, made the vital difference that saw Portillo’s huge 15,000+ majority overturned and the coining of the term “Portillo moment“.
But there is more to this story than the opportunity it provides for psephological conjecture. At the heart of the matter lay a tension that still runs through modern Conservatism, in London – perhaps especially suburban Outer London – as much as anywhere else: the tension between a desire to conserve a traditional way of life and a moral commitment to free markets. These two strands underpin the varying Conservative Brexit positions and both lead, in different forms, to Remain or Leave. Should Conservatism preserve and work within existing structures, or push radically for free trade? Should it resist social change arising from immigration, or support a free market in labour? Should Conservatives preserve the character of an affluent neighbourhood like Winchmore Hill, or welcome the arrival of big business into the area, aggressive in pursuit of profit?
The difference between the two planning controversies speaks to the way Enfield has changed in the last two decades. The borough has become far more diverse, both ethnically and socially. Part of this picture is an influx of younger, highly-educated professionals who can no longer afford to live in the Inner London boroughs and tend to prefer travelling by bicycle rather than motor car. The council’s consultation on the cycle scheme revealed an age-split: 62% of over-60s opposing, and 56% of under-60s supporting it.
Those opposing McDonald’s in 1996 may have won that battle, but could yet lose the war – not to their nightmare of a vulgar urban landscape of bright light consumerism and fast-food, but to the youthful vision of an urban village of cycle ways and pedestrianised play streets that challenges the dominance of the motor car.
Sam Willis is a native North Londoner now studying at Cambridge University, where he has been a Labour Club executive officer. He is writing a dissertation on the Labour Party of the suburbs in the 1990s. He also took the photograph above. Follow him on Twitter.