In Deptford in south east London, local campaigners have occupied a 20-year old community garden to prevent it from being boarded up and razed to the ground by Lewisham Council and the housing association, Peabody. They are also highlighting the absurdity of proposals to demolish 16 structurally sound council flats next door to build new social housing.
What’s happening in Deptford reflects two pressing concerns in the capital today. The first is the prioritising of house-building projects over pressing environmental concerns. The second is the destruction of social housing to create new developments that consist of three elements: housing for private sale, shared ownership deals that are fraught with problems, and new social housing that’s smaller, more expensive and offering tenants less security than what is being destroyed.
The proposed destruction is part of a plan to build new housing not only on the site of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and Reginald House flats, but also on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012. Peabody intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”, although that is untrue. The rents on the latter will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, which is around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.
When the council and Peabody put out these figures, they conveniently neglected to mention that 13 of these homes are replacements for those being destroyed in Reginald House, where tenants currently pay real social rents, and have tenancies that offer them far greater protections than their replacements. Three more residents of Reginald House are leaseholders, and, as is typical for redevelopment plans involving social housing, they will have to fight hard to try to get the developers to pay them market value for their homes.
In addition, the council has no interest in balloting residents, even though 80% of the residents of Reginald House recently informed the council and the GLA that they don’t want their homes destroyed. Although Jeremy Corbyn promised ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition at the Labour Party Conference last year, and Sadiq Khan has endorsed this policy for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding (as Tidemill does), Green Party GLA member Sian Berry revealed in March this year that Khan had stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.
Since 2015, shortly after the community was given a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, campaigners have been calling on the council to consult with the local community and to go back to the drawing board, increasing the density of housing on the old school site, and sparing the garden and Reginald House. The council, however, has refused to engage.
Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year. Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and almost immediately secured a PR advantage when the BBC filmed a balanced feature about the occupation for the evening news.
The creation of the garden — designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at the school — began in 1997 and was funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100 000 in it in 2000.
The investment paid off. In the years since, the garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the CPRE and the London Wildlife Trust, and GLA members Len Duvall (Lab.), Caroline Pidgeon (Lib Dem), and Caroline Russell (Green).
In addition, in 2016, before any planning application had gone before Lewisham Council’s Strategic Planning Committee, campaigners made an application for the garden to be made into an Asset of Community Value. Officers agreed that the garden was indeed an asset and said “the evidence provided demonstrates that the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden furthers social well-being or social interests of the local community currently.” However, the application was declined on the basis that the land was part of a key site for delivering new housing.
Nevertheless, by refusing to engage with the community on a new plan that spares the garden, the council, in its determination to proceed with its existing plans, is actively engaged in environmental destruction.
In 2016-17, data compiled by Citizen Sense, a science research project at Goldsmith’s, showed that the garden’s large canopy of trees had significantly reduced the levels of carbon emissions that are prevalent in nearby Deptford Church Street, where, on multiple occasions, the levels of carbon emissions have been up to six times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines.
The Tidemill campaigners hope to hold out in the garden until Lewisham Council and Peabody change their minds and go back to the drawing board. They have legally squatted the garden, and are also engaged in a judicial review of the redevelopment plans, for which they crowdfunded support.
There is something of David v. Goliath in this struggle — not just because plucky local campaigners are up against a council and a large housing association, but also because the struggle reflects what is happening across London and elsewhere in the country.
Housing struggles are being fought across the capital — most noticeably in Southwark, where the immense Aylesbury Estate is currently being destroyed by the Council and Notting Hill Homes, and in Lambeth, where tenants and leaseholders are fighting to save two architecturally-acclaimed estates, at Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill, as well as a handful of other estates.
However, few boroughs are free of the blight of regeneration. From West Hendon to Westminster, Hackney to Newham, estates are being destroyed and tenants displaced, by both Labour and Tory councils, to make way for new developments.
Campaigners across the capital recognise that what is happening is social cleansing and realise that tens of thousands of tenants and leaseholders (usually those on low incomes) will be priced out of the new developments unless the current crisis caused by regeneration can be stopped.
Earlier this year, campaigners in north London scored a victory in Haringey. The council’s proposal to enter into a £2bn deal with international property developers Lendlease was defeated when, under pressure from a well-organised grass-roots campaign, councillors in favour of the deal were deselected prior to May’s council elections, and replaced by new candidates opposed to the plans. However, even in Haringey, the new councillors are already under pressure to proceed with plans involving the destruction of estates.
Could a small corner of Deptford, where environmental concerns and social cleansing are both under the spotlight, be the next location for a significant victory?
The campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.
Andy Worthington is an independent journalist and activist, a member of the Save Reginald, Save Tidemill campaign, and the founder of No Social Cleansing in Lewisham. His website is: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk.