After the March

After the March for Homes on Saturday, which ended in a rally outside City Hall, next to Tower Bridge, I was cold, wet and tired and wasn’t feeling at my best. So I got on a bus and made my way home, despite it being obvious that quite a large group of the protesters were clearly intent on other actions. I missed an opportunity for some interesting pictures, but there are times when I feel I just have to stop. It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of other photographers around to take pictures.

When I started photographing at protests, it was partly because so few others were doing so, outside of the really big events. Even now there are some where I’m the only photographer present – and my presence there and getting their story out becomes more important. But of course even if there are no photographers, almost every protester now has a phone and is taking pictures. Sometimes its hard to photograph events because so many of those taking part are either themselves taking photographs or looking at the photographs they have already taken rather than taking an active part in the protest.

The March for Homes was against the current redevelopments taking place in London, building expensive flats which are mainly sold abroad to overseas investors, many of whom leave them empty most or all of the year. Buying for investment pushes up the price of properties across London, and is making it impossible for most Londoners to buy or increasingly even to rent a place to live.

Councils across London, many Labour run, are selling off estates with realtively low rent accomodation, particulary the large council estates built shortly after the second World War to meet the housing needs of Londoners. One of the larger schemes so far was the Heygate Estate, a well-planned award-winning estate at Elephant & Castle. Over the years the estate had been neglected and needed repairs, and had deliberately been used to house anti-social tenants, many with drug and mental health problems. ut most who lived there liked the area; they would have liked to council to do more for the estate, but the council decided the site was an asset they could realise.

Of course they got it wrong. The costs of moving out tenants and leaseholders who didn’t want to move turned out to be much higher than they anticipated, and took many years longer than they had bargained, despite compensation for owners mostly at around half the market value. Individual councillors may well have benefitted from sale, and there were certainly treats from the developers, who ended up getting the site at perhaps a fifth of the true market value, but the council lost a large amount on the sale.

But the real losers were of course the people who had lived on the Heygate, some now in estates at the far-flung ends of Southwark, others in inferior private accomodation at higher rents, and leaseholders either having to take on large mortgages or move to the fringes of London. And the many thousands on the waiting list for social housing with the stock available greatly reduced by the demolition.

It isn’t correct to talk of the new Elephant Park that is now being built as a luxury development, though certainly the new properties will be expensive. But they will probably be less spacious and no more luxurious than those that they replaced, and are likely to have a shorter life-span.

Having made a shameful mess of Heygate, Southwark have now begun the same process on the neighbouring Aylesbury Estate. Its a larger estate and lacks the architectural quality of the Heygate, and again has been allowed (or encouraged) to deteriorate. Initial plans for ‘regeneration’ under the ‘New Deal for Communities’ (NDC) set up by Laboin 1998 led to a ballot across the estate in 2001 in which a 73% majority among those living there wanted to keep the whole estate as council housing. The story around Aylesbury is complex, and you can read more about it on the Southwark Notes blog.

From City Hall, protesters went on the briefly sit down on Tower Bridge and to protest inside the expensive flats currently being erected next to it. Some then marched down to the former Heygate estate and then on to the Aylesbury estate where they re-opened and occupied a part of a block, Chartridge, that had been cleared for demolition.

Although I haven’t yet made it to the occupation as I’m not yet entirely fit after my exertions on Saturday, I have been around the Heygate and Aylesbury estates several times in the past, most recently on a guided tour Walking the Rip-Off in 2012, from which the pictures here mainly come.

On that tour we went inside a few properties on the Aylesbury Estate, and the flats were well-designed and relatively spacious, rather more so than those of the new properties planned to replace them.

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