Opponents of a new housing scheme in Deptford began attracting attention last summer, when a local news outlet reported that “residents are occupying the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in order to save the popular space from redevelopment”. Others followed. BBC London covered the dispute. A local Green Party activist told London Live that “the community love this place” and that there “aren’t enough green spaces in this part of Deptford”.
Soon, the dispute was being invested with wider significance. In September, the alt-Left website Novara Media published an article contending that it reflected two major issues in the capital today: one, the “prioritising of house-building projects over pressing environmental concerns”; two, “the destruction of social housing” in favour of more expensive dwellings. The housing in question stands on Reginald Street, forming another part of the regeneration site, which also includes the former home of Tidemill primary school. In all, 16 dwellings on Reginald Street are marked for demolition.
The article’s author, Andy Worthington, linked resistance to this with “housing struggles” in other parts of London. His familiar list comprised the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, the Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill estates in Lambeth and the West Hendon estate in Barnet. The defeat by political activists of Haringey Council’s plan to form a joint venture company with property giant Lendlease was hailed by Worthington as a victory for “a well-organised grass-roots campaign” against such demolitions. He declared that few boroughs are free of what he called “the blight of regeneration”, which he said is bringing about “social cleansing”.
The occupation of the garden continued until the end of October, when police and bailiffs cleared the occupiers and their tents. Worthington described it as “one of the most harrowing days of my life, as the jackboot of authority stamped with shocking violence”. The story did not end there. In February, Novara Media published a piece called Another Lewisham Is Possible: Overcoming [The] Housing Crisis and the Democratic Deficit. Its author, barrister Franck Magennis, who describes himself in his Twitter handle as a communist, wrote that Lewisham Council, every member of which is from the Labour Party, is “right wing”. It was this “conservatism” that, according to Magennis, had led it to support the “immensely unpopular Reginald/Tidemill development against the wishes of local residents”.
He reported that a plan had emerged from a meeting called by the Save Reginald, Save Tidemill campaign – a plan that included working with left wing councillors and others to deselect “right wing” colleagues. Again, Haringey was cited an example to be followed. Magennis wrote that the meeting “saw local Lewisham residents take important steps towards democratising Lewisham Council and overcoming its neoliberal bias”. A campaign to save a garden had seeded a proposal for altering the political complexion of a London local authority. Who is gaining from all this activism? Who is losing?
As so often with London regeneration battles, the full story is longer and less straightforward than the more prominent versions of it acknowledge. The case of Tidemill began way back in 2006, when Lewisham Council embarked on a programme for redeveloping land it owns near Deptford High Street. Much of the work has now been completed, including the relocation of a school to a new building, the enlargement of a leisure centre and the creation of a new library, study space and café called Deptford Lounge.
The council now wants to see 209 new homes built on the Tidemill site. The former Tidemill school building is to be converted into flats for market sale as part of a scheme containing 51 such homes. The other 158 new dwellings will be affordable homes, of which 117 are to be let at what are termed “social rent levels” and a further 41 for shared ownership, a tenure designed for households on low-to-middle incomes.
Peabody, one of London’s largest housing associations, is to deliver the new homes under an agreement made with the council in 2015. This agreement includes a commitment to rehouse the council tenant households among the 16 Reginald Road homes, of which there are ten. Of the six other Reginald Road homes, three are leasehold properties – sold under Right to Buy – and the other three are being let by the council on a temporary basis to homeless people.
The planning consent, being for a sizeable scheme, needed the blessing of Sadiq Khan. It secured this in June last year. In theory, then, the development process could begin in earnest. The council was pretty pleased with the plans. Housing need in Lewisham, especially for people who don’t have much money to spare, has become more and more acute.
At the time of Mayor Khan’s green light, the council noted that the borough had seen an increase in the number of people in temporary accommodation of nearly 100 per cent between 2011 and 2017 and a reduction of 44 per cent in the number of homes available for let during the same period. There are currently 2,000 people in that situation in Lewisham.
Now, the stage was set for 158 new affordable dwellings to be built, including more than 100 for rent by residents on low incomes, all of whom the council would nominate from its waiting list. The affordable total represents 74 per cent of the housing envisaged for the site, an exceptionally high proportion for a mixed tenure scheme and significantly higher than was initially expected thanks largely to extra funding from City Hall.
However, as we know, others were less keen. As is often the case with development schemes that take a while to put together, the vacated Tidemill site was made available by the council for what is called meanwhile use. The subsequent timeline is untidy, but in short the school building, its garden and the green space as a whole were inhabited and used by various groups and individuals, including artists and gardeners. The garden, though described by those who wanted it retained as a “community garden” appears to have been open to the general public only at certain times, due to its being run by volunteers.
From this grouping emerged another, according to the latter’s website. Deptford Neighbourhood Action (DNA) is the name of a neighbourhood forum, an example of a local body set up under provisions of the Conservatives’ Localism Act 2011 to assemble their own neighbourhood plans under local authority jurisdiction. DNA’s website says it “grew out of Old Tidemill Garden Friends group…who were concerned about future plans to obliterate Tidemill Garden”. A member of DNA, Andrea Carey Fuller, is the person in the London Live coverage quoted from above and an active member of the Green Party.
Eventually, the council issued its request for stewardship of the garden land to be returned to it so that the housing development could get underway. The request was made last August but refused, despite the terms of meanwhile use agreement. That was when the occupation of the garden began and this initially very local issue became the focus of a form of political activism conspicuous by its presence in several parts of London where the need for new, genuinely affordable housing is most acute.
In the middle of all the grief is Lewisham councillor Paul Bell, who is the administration’s cabinet member for housing. He was given the job by the borough’s Mayor, Damien Egan, to whom he finished second in the contest to become Labour’s mayoral candidate in the borough elections held last year. Bell was backed by Momentum and the Unite union, two organisations that, like Bell himself, support the leadership of Labour by Jeremy Corbyn. In a campaign video, Bell pledged that were he to become Mayor, “There will be no development done to the community, it will be done with the community”.
On the face of it, then, he’s an unlikely politician to find himself on the wrong end of the Save Reginald, Save Tidemill campaigners. Speaking to Bell at a council office in Catford, his impatience with them quickly became clear. “It’s one of those issues that’s become romanticised,” he says. “It’s being portrayed as the state against the little people, but it’s not. It’s a group of campaigners who don’t like a council decision and won’t listen. I’ve tried to explain that these new homes will make a massive difference to many people’s lives, but they don’t want to hear me”.
Bell says the group that created the campaign soon lost control of it to others, many of them from outside the area. “They created a narrative, which goes across London now, which is about stopping regeneration. It morphed into something that became uncontrollable”.
As Tidemill has evolved into a rallying point for various causes – tree preservation, social housing conservation, dislike of gentrification – some protest actions have become aggressive. At least two death threats have been made.
Peabody’s office has been visited. Most of the campaigners went through the main entrance, but around half a dozen wearing gas masks entered the building through a side door as staff were leaving, one armed with a can of Special Brew. Their demeanour is described by someone present as “very intimidating”. Local residents who attended a meeting with architects to discuss the design of the development have been approached and called collaborators.
Council meetings and community gatherings it’s organised have been dominated by hecklers. Councillors and council officers have been prevented from leaving them. Bell describes how the car of one council officer was jumped on. He finds all this astonishing. A councillor since 2010, he says his caseload has been dominated by people in desperate housing need. He describes one family he’s been working with as finally being housed by the council after two years crammed together in one bedroom and sharing a bathroom with others. He knows that dozens of people in such dire circumstances could be accommodated in the new Peabody homes that the campaigners don’t want built.
“It’s already a hard slog getting homes built for people who really need them, and we’ve just been consumed by this campaign. It’s a surreal world we live in when we have a national government that’s instigated austerity and is destroying local government and a Brexit that will undermine the life chances of so many people. Why aren’t they targeting their energy on the real villains in this story instead of a council that is trying to deliver social housing?”
The garden area is now hoarded off, but work cannot begin until a group of protesters camped on another bit of green space next door have left. There’s been a string of legal challenges. “Their intention is to slow things down to a point at which we stop,” says Bell. “I’ve made it very clear that we’re not going to do that and I’ve asked them repeatedly to leave.” He says has now been granted the right to evict them, but is reluctant to exercise it: “Evicting people is not a pleasant thing to do.”
Bell is at pains to acknowledge that at least some residents of the Reginald Road homes – the campaigners called them Reginald House, though that isn’t an official name and it doesn’t appear on the buildings – are unhappy at having to move and see their current homes knocked down, and are worried that promises to rehouse them won’t be kept. “I’m absolutely clear that they need legal documents that say what we’re saying we’re going to do,” he says. “We are going to follow through on what we’re saying. But if I was one of those individuals, I would want something in writing.” His pledge? “This development will not be going ahead unless they’ve got that guaranteed.”
He adds that households in two bedroom dwellings that only need one under normal allocation rules will be get two in their new homes in the development. Any needing more rooms than they currently have will be assessed in the normal way and Bell is confident, given the large number of new homes being built on the site in addition to the direct replacements, that they too will be rehoused in the new development, if that is what they wish.
Bell expresses sympathy for those unhappy about having to move, but is firm in his view that the council is doing the right thing. “We’re asking them to make a sacrifice, because the trade-off is over 100 additional social rent homes. We’re trading a garden, which was always for meanwhile use – they knew they would have to give up that garden – in order to house all those households in. If it was only 20 you were gaining, you would look at it differently. But we’re doing this for the right reasons”.
The copious output of the campaigners and their allies, which includes a film in the making entitled The Battle for Deptford, devotes little attention to the considerations Bell describes – the inevitable trade-offs, the inherent tensions between differing desirable outcomes, the mountainous complexities of bringing land, money and spatial planning practicalities together in combinations to produce acceptable outcomes as the crisis of housing affordability continues year after year.
There is no recognition that buying substantial quantities of land in Inner London – the most expensive major element in any housebuilding project – as an alternative to the redevelopment of their own is beyond the financial means of London boroughs like Lewisham, struggling with shrinking budgets in a market where demand for land has pushed its price sky high.
One thing they do address is the rents Peabody will charge for their new dwellings. These will be at Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent levels, which the Mayor and the council alike describe as “social rent levels”. Andy Worthington maintains that they will be “63% higher than social rents, meaning an extra £3,000 a year that is simply not available to many hard-working families”.
This is an argument often made by his school of housing activists, but it’s misleading. Khan’s London Affordable Rent – as distinct from generic Affordable Rent nationally – has been pegged by him at the level new social rent tenancies, as opposed to lower ones sometimes initially set decades ago, would be had George Osborne when Chancellor not ordered a cumulative one per cent reduction in all social rents every year – a ruse to lower the benefit bill (full explainer here).
The other point to note is that the Peabody rents will be below the local housing allowance cap, which means that eligible tenants will still have their rents covered by universal benefit. Bell’s main concern is different – the possibility of service charges, which benefits don’t cover, rising fast in the future due to the cost of fixing problems with the new homes. He says he will be watching very closely to ensure that the work of Peabody’s builders is up to scratch. For him, this is all part of the job of honouring the manifesto the Labour administration was elected on just over one year ago.
For the protesters, of course, life is simpler. Unencumbered by any democratic mandate, they are free to produce drawings of alternative plans that have no chance of coming to fruition; free to recruit the Tidemill story to a larger political cause; free to level accusations of brutality and betrayal; free to heckle, complain and denigrate and to applaud themselves for doing it. They have those rights. What they don’t have is an obligation to meet the challenges of putting roofs over struggling people’s heads in the context of austerity. Neither do they have to pay any personal price for making men, women and children living in miserable conditions wait even longer for a decent place to live.
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