Monday, 11 Dec 2017 at Goldsmiths
Chaired by: Franck Magennis, Deptford Debates
Hosted by: Dr Roger Green, Director of the Centre for Community Engagement Research, Goldsmiths
This was the first of a series of events that aim to provide a space for sharing ideas about the various housing campaigns happening across Deptford and New Cross in order to join forces in the fight against the demolition of local communities. As it said on the event’s page “The number of building developments being passed across Deptford and New Cross are multiplying at a frightening rate, with little thought about the effects on the existing community and the areas’ needs or history…This is not an attempt to amalgamate the different campaigns into one, but to see where we can work together to harness the power we have in our communities, to ensure that our voices are not ignored by our elected officials and the developers they serve”. The various campaigns aim to fight against the destruction of Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and Reginald Road, the planned redevelopment of Creekside and Deptford Creek (also affecting the boating community), the proposed Convoys Wharf development, and the demolition of homes and shops on and around Achilles Street in New Cross.
The questions discussed revolved around how a more joined-up approach to the housing campaigns in Lewisham can be created and how existing communities can be preserved. The most pressing question, however, was what can actually be done to solve the current housing problems. The meeting was very well attended with representatives from all the above-mentioned campaigns and local residents, some of whom are due to lose their homes in the planned redevelopments. Also Cllr Joe Dromey attended, and had he just listened and taken note of residents’ situations, their fears and anxieties, and the very reality of losing one’s home, rather than coming to defend the council’s decision to vote in favour of demolition, his presence might have left attendees less upset. His argument is that residents will be able to remain, get a new home, that many more new social housing units will be built, and that leaseholders have the option of investing their equity in a property in the new development. He emphasises that there will be no costs involved for residents whatsoever, and that residents are being offered an excellent deal. What he does not seem to understand is the concept of emotional cost and what it means to lose your home, where people have lived and loved for many years and where the memory of important moments lingers in every corner, and that a new place to live, as nice as it might sound to him, is not necessarily what people want. As the saying goes: ‘A House is not [necessarily] a Home’, and whilst decision-makers may find people’s current homes ugly, out-of-date and uninviting – a result of managed decline, the deliberate disinvestment in areas to make them ripe for redevelopment – for the inhabitants it is a home, a safe space, a place where their lives have unfolded over the years. Taking this away from them comes at the highest cost of all – the emotional cost and physical impact of losing your home: living in a constant state of anxiety, depression, migraines caused by stress, feeling less safe in their much-loved home, afraid to collect the post and open a letter from the council, unable to make plans for the future, having to explain to the children why they still haven’t got a new bedroom, living in limbo.
Another thing many decision-makers don’t seem to understand is the importance of community networks and how they work. Community is about sharing experiences, territory and daily practices, resulting in mutuality and the visceral nature of community such as a sense of belonging, trust and solidarity. Just being moved down the road can change the very fabric and dynamic of a community, uprooting routine practices that help to form connections. Although the complexity of social bonds in everyday banalities is invisible, community is the art of coexisting with neighbours connected by proximity. Despite the promise of the right to remain and of a new place to live, these community networks will disappear like they have in so many other areas that have been regenerated. No wonder loneliness has recently become one of the top social epidemics for older people in this country. Now for many people, the concept of community is an outdated or even oppressive concept that enforces commitment of their private time. The idea of having cups of tea together, looking out for each other and each other’s kids, or a chat in the stairwell would seem like an infringement on one’s time that could be better spent on individual pursuits. Today’s mobile lifestyles also often result in people living somewhere for 2 or 3 years before they move on to another place. And of course everybody has a different understanding of the good life and has the right to live in whichever way they want. But here’s the problem: the decision-makers of these proposed redevelopments make judgements about, and impose their ideas of a good life onto, the existing communities and force them out of their way of life. The ubiquitous billboard selling us the urban lifestyle of the wealthier, implying that this city is not for you if you don’t live like that, are physical manifestations of the imposition of another lifestyle, devaluing existing residents’ idea of a good life and needs to community. Ironically, many of these developments lure people into Deptford by selling its multi-cultural close-knit community (as if there was only one) as this makes the area sound quaint and authentic, an aesthetic that fits with the current idea of trendy urban living. As long as the notion of community and diversity is in the air, it sounds good, but actively participating in local communities is another matter. However, with communities being literally bulldozed, Deptford, like so many other areas, will become more and more homogeneous, thus erasing the initial attraction for people moving in. Many will then move on to the next up-and-coming authentic area which will have suffered years of managed decline so that the rent-gap, the gap between existing property prices and potential prices, is so big that it makes the area attractive for investors.
And finally, how many promises of social housing stated in planning applications have actually been fulfilled in the construction of these developments? It is hard to say what goes on in the viability assessment negotiations between councils and developers as they happen behind closed doors, but plenty of reports have shown that the actual figure is often much lower than the initially promised one. One just needs to look at the Elephant Park development to get a good idea of who the new flats are for. One also needs to be careful with terms: social housing is not necessarily the same as council housing, and with the loss of council housing comes the loss of the Right-to-Buy and the right to a secure tenancy. And how many of the leaseholders who bought their homes under the Right-to-Buy scheme, the fake dream of being a home owner sold by Thatcher and successive governments, have the equity to invest in a property in the new developments that cost an absolute fortune? By getting peanuts for a home they owned outright, they might only be able to own 30% afterwards, hardly a like-for-like arrangement. Yes, residents are promised the rest will be rent-free but for how long? And how high will the service charges be? And who exactly owns the 70%, and what rights to they have? Dromey keeps banging on about the fair and great deal no-one can argue with: the right to remain, the like-for-like replacements, and the extra amount of social housing units being built to help house the thousands of people currently in temporary accommodation. Oh really? With a handful of extra social housing units (because it will only be a handful in the end) and the majority being for private gain, stop pretending to be solving the housing crisis!
Luckily, local campaigners are incredibly clued-up to not fall for the all-positive rhetoric of urban regeneration in council-speak; there have been too many examples already of this rhetoric to be nothing else but rhetoric: meaningless but persuasive speak lacking in sincerity. Key is to keep residents informed about these processes; knowledge is everything. This is what the campaigns are doing – keeping residents informed and supporting them all the way. And the impact of this was shown when Pauline, a Reginald Road resident whose home is on the cards, stood up, pointed at Joe Dromey and said in an uncompromising manner: ‘I don’t trust you!’ Did he listen? Yes, he did. Did he understand and take it on board? I doubt it. We know one councillor is not the sole decision-maker. We know that some councillors really think it’s all in the public’s interest. We also know that in many ways local councils’ hands are tied by central government. But if you come to a meeting that aims to be a platform for people that don’t have a say in these processes and who want to fight against decisions made about their lives by others, then come to listen, to support and to show understanding. Dromey asked to attend and he was kindly permitted to do so in the hope that he would be supportive. Afterwards, he complained in his Twitter feed that his side was not listened to. Correct. It was not meant to be his platform. Especially not for defending the council.
For more information on these campaigns, please see the following webpages:
No Social Cleansing in Lewisham – www.facebook.com/nosocialcleansinglewisham
Achilles Street Stop and Listen Campaign – achillesstreetstopandlisten.wordpress.com
Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden (and Reginald Road) – www.facebook.com/oldtidemillgarden
Convoys Wharf (Voice4Deptford) – www.facebook.com/voice4Deptford
Deptford Neighbourhood Action – deptfordaction.org.uk
Friends of Deptford Creek – friends.deptfordcreek.net