Banners appeared in Deptford over the weekend, accusing Lewisham Council of social cleansing and gentrifying Deptford, and calling on the public to fight against these practices. The banners went up near sites under threat of demolition and redevelopment: Creekside and the boating community on Deptford Creek, the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and Reginald House, where planning permission has already been granted to build on the garden and to demolish Reginald House to make way for more luxury flats. One banner appeared on Deptford Bridge DLR station, and two more banners were hung on either side of the underpass between New Cross and Deptford, leading to Achilles Street and New Cross Road, where plans have been announced to literally rip out the heart of New Cross to make way for luxury developments. Most redevelopment in Deptford has so far taken place on brownfield sites, post-industrial wasteland, which has not necessarily meant the direct displacement (evictions) of local residents (although the effects of indirect displacement such as rising rents, difficulties with making ends meet, feeling unwelcome in a place they have called home for years, and living in a constant state of anxiety and insecurity about what might happen should not be underestimated). However, with current plans to demolish whole council blocks, blatantly and radically reducing truly affordable homes including boats, and to build on important community spaces and green spaces, the imminent displacement, direct and indirect, of the local population is threatening to break up whole communities in the process. The messages written on the banners are a stark reminder of the grim reality faced by many residents, and the dark passage from Deptford to New Cross, particularly at night time, and the dimly lit haunting messages above the underpass reminded me of the inscription above the gate to hell in Dante’s Inferno: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.
There is still hope of course; otherwise the banners wouldn’t have appeared, housing campaigners wouldn’t be collecting signatures on Deptford market on Saturdays and sending Freedom-of-Information requests (FOIs) to find support for alternative solutions, and people wouldn’t be having meetings to discuss how forces could be joined to stop some of the proposed plans. I say some because what I have generally found is that people are not against regeneration per se, not at all. They are against the kind of regeneration that caters only for the desires of the few and not the many, only for the privileged and not the ordinary, for newcomers and not the existing, for the wealthy and not for the less well-off. It’s about striking a balance so that people can co-exist and work together, and if local people were consulted and considered in the plans, there would be much less resistance and more co-operation. “Deptford has always welcomed all people from all walks of life, this is what makes the area special”, a local resident tells me, “but now we, the uneducated, the disabled, the working class, are not welcome anymore and are being pushed out.” There are academic debates around the term ‘social cleansing’, whether it is apt and appropriate or too leftist and aggressive. For many local people the term symbolises exactly what is happening: the pushing out of people who have not reached a certain income level that would enable them to pay the extortionate rents and house prices and to live the trendy urban lifestyles advertised on all the hoardings. And even if you can just about pay the rent, the daily reminders that redevelopment is not intended for you creates this us-and-them segregation, making you feel out of place.
There is still hope to be able to make decision-makers, authorities and developers, see sense in this senseless pursuit for greed, profit and private gain. It is a case of changing the political will to consider alternatives. There is hope to succeed in the fight for more humane development plans that do not result in losing essential green spaces that enable local children to have essential contact with wildlife and nature, do not result in people losing their homes where they have lived and loved for decades, and do not result in depriving people of the right to stay in the area they call home or to feel welcome and valued. There is no shortage of solutions: campaigns have put forward viable alternative solutions that would prevent the aforementioned impact of current plans, and data received from FOI requests shows that managed decline, the deliberate neglect of council property in order to make it ripe for development, is a political choice rather than a financial necessity. The data also indicates that refurbishment and maintenance would be cheaper and a better investment for the council and the community than demolition and redevelopment. Many schemes frequently deploy the term community, luring people into the area selling them the romantic dream of quaint and authentic urban living but also to appear as considerate firms that have Deptford people at heart. This ubiquitous use of the term in their brochures has emptied the concept of any real meaning, being mere rhetoric to sell luxury flats. But for the locals, community is at the heart of Deptford, indicating a feeling of belonging, membership and home in a place (places) where friendships have formed over years through proximity, collective action and shared experience. As one resident told me: “If you’re taking the people out of Deptford, they will take the community and everything Deptford is with them, leaving behind an empty sterile shell.”
Pauline, a resident at Reginald House since 1995, who will be losing her home in the planned Reginald Road redevelopment scheme, tells me about the importance of her community who have been living together on Reginald Road for years, saying that if she were to lose this community, it would be like taking her family away from her. She tells me of how people have looked after each other’s kids and how she could leave her daughter with the lady upstairs without any worry. She also tells me about the surprise birthday party for her daughter, where many neighbours hid in Pauline’s flat to surprise the unsuspecting daughter for her special day. Pauline is upset about losing her much loved home and is angry and frustrated at the same time. She shows me the confusing correspondence and mixed messages received from the council over the last couple of years. One letter from the Regeneration Project Officer in November 2017 is particularly worrying, not least because of the language being used. After introducing herself, the officer writes that she ‘will be working with residents to assist in the decant of 2-30A Reginald Road’ saying that ‘there are still a number of residents that need to be visited to discuss the decant’. The upset this letter caused is understandable.
Pauline is intent on fighting the plans together with local housing campaigners. “This is my home”, she says, “I brought up my daughter here and my grandson was born here.” They now live elsewhere but come most weekends to stay with Pauline. She has been promising her grandson a new bedroom for some time now, but with the knowledge that her home might be bulldozed, there seems little point in investing the money. “How do you explain to your grandson why he is not getting the promised bedroom?”, she asks. If the plans go ahead, Pauline’s grandson will never see the new bedroom, and as Pauline will probably be moved into a one-bedroom flat, it will be impossible for her daughter and grandson to come and stay at weekends. “What are we supposed to do? Sleep in one bed? The three of us?”
There is still hope. An appeal was sent by Deptford Neighbourhood Action to Sadiq Khan to re-examine the planning application and to support a new community plan for the site. And the banners put up in Deptford over the weekend are an indication that people will keep fighting. We keep hoping.
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