March for Homes

It was a long march on a warm March day from Canada Water to the Aylesbury Estate, and not by the shortest route, but one carefully planned to take in as many as possible of the council estates currently being demolished or under threat from the London Borough of Southwark.  By the time we reached the end, the marchers had walked around 4 miles – and photographers quite a bit more.

Southwark over 15 years ago began to plan to get rid of its council estates, seeing them as liabilities rather than as vital to house the less well off citizens of Southwark – of which there are many. In earlier years they had done a decent job, building well-planned large estates such as the award-winning Heygate Estate, where extensive plantings of trees were coming to maturity thirty or so years later.

But Southwark Council came under new management, more specifically New Labour management, who realised that the value of the land that this and other council estates were built on was worth huge sums on the open market. The estate had previously been allowed to become rather rundown through inadequate maintenance but the process was deliberately accelerated, and people and families with problems were deliberately housed there. Money was spent on PR basically intended to demonise the estate, and they began a long process of removing tenants and leaseholders.

Estates in earlier years were built with large amounts of open space and a relatively low population for the area they covered.  When built the Heygate it had over 1200 homes, all at social rent. Under Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy a number of these were lost, but there were still many socially rented properties.

Heygate’s replacement, Elephant Park, will offer around 3000 propertie, but only around 87 at social rents, with a further hundred or so at three-quarters of market rent or under shared ownership schemes, both far above the means of those in the borough working in jobs at or close to the minimum wage or the real London Living Wage.

And although some councillors and council officials may have benefited from the deal, Southwark council got its figures sadly wrong and is probably out of pocket from the deal, partly because the costs of emptying the estate turned out to be much higher than anticipated, but mainly because allegedly they parted with the land for a criminally low sum, a fraction of its true market value.

I’ve no reason to doubt the figures given by those who fought the council over the demolition, most of which come from council documents, including some released by an IT error as well as those published or dragged out by freedom of information requests. As well as failing to provide properly for the people of their borough it would seem that those involved have been.

Simon Elmer of ASH has this to say on conflict of interests in local councils implementing the estate demolition programme :

“The prime example here is Southwark council, where 1 in 5 councillors are lobbyists for the building industry, and where 6 of the most senior officers responsible for selling the Heygate estate to property developers Lendlease for one-fifteenth of its market value now either work for or with the company.”

Which perhaps goes a long way to explain what is happening in Southwark, and why, at the end of a long, hot march we were denied access to the council-owned Thurlow Lodge Community Hall,  where tenants Divine Rescue who had offered to provide refreshment and toilet facilities for the tired marchers were forced under threat of eviction to withdraw their offer, and instead the hall was locked and shuttered, guarded by Southwark Council security as a rally took place outside.

Southwark march for homes & businesses


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