“The council has not fulfilled their part of the deal”

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Emma Zhang is the owner of YIP Oriental Store on 361 New Cross Road, a shop which will be demolished if the redevelopment plans for this area are going ahead. Emma has had her shop for 7 years during which she has built it up to a thriving business which has a good customer base, particularly with students from Goldsmiths. The shop serves local students but also the Chinese and Japanese student communities, and many of the students signed the petition to stop the demolition of the shop because it would mean that they would lose the store where they buy their products. Emma has built up a very good relationship with all her customers, who, according to her, are very kind people and often come in every day. Some of her customers have become friends over the years as well.

“We don’t want them to knock down the buildings. The council posted a letter and then we had a meeting in Deptford Green School where we told them that we’re not happy about the plans. This is about 2 years ago, and we haven’t had confirmation yet about what’s going to happen. Demolition will be very expensive and really affect our business, and there is no guarantee that we will be able to move back or stay in the New Cross area. We have invested a lot of money in setting this up and if we have to find another location, this will lose us earnings and we’ll have to invest more to set up again. It’s unlikely we would be able to stay in this area, and so we would lose all our customers as well. We would have to start afresh.”

 

 

Emma agrees that the area is and looks run-down and needs refurbishing. She and her colleague also have experience of knife-crime in the area, and the shop has been robbed a few times. Just 3 days before I met with her, somebody tried to break into the shop again. She says the area is dangerous and that there is not enough police presence in the area, not enough CCTV and not enough protection for local residents or businesses. However, Emma does not think that this is a reason to demolish the existing blocks and shops as the run-down character and dangerous feel is due to the council’s neglect of the area.

“We have an agreement, a contract with the council. As tenants we have to look after our property inside, and it’s the council’s responsibility to maintain the outside and the building with the rent we pay. We have paid our rent, and before we opened the shop years ago, we changed the terrible shopfront into a much nicer one so it looks much better now. But the council has not fulfilled their part of the deal which is to look after the outside. Maintenance and regular repairs cost much less than to redevelop everything. If a little money had been invested over the years, the area wouldn’t be in such a state now. You could improve the area a lot by refurbishing and looking after it rather than demolishing everything.”

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Emma also says that the council needs to consider the local area more: “It’s quite a special area with lots of interesting people who come into the shop. We also have many working-class people who shop in here. If you build more properties, the rents are going to be more expensive. The developers are promising people that they will have the same conditions afterwards and people might think ‘oh great, I’m moving into a nice flat in a new development for the same price’ but they just don’t realise that prices will go up in the near future and that the service charges for shared equity properties are really high. We’ve seen this happening in other areas.”

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How do children see Deptford’s regeneration?

As I’m keen to find out what children think about Deptford and what is going on in the area, me and Adam, a licenced Lego® Serious Play® facilitator, and assisted by Scout leaders Peter and Michelle, recently ran a workshop with the Cubs (8-10-year old Scouts). We started off by asking the kids in what kind of buildings they live and what they like and don’t like about living there. With the majority of the kids living in blocks of flats, they complained about being unable to sleep because of noisy neighbours banging and stamping on the floors and playing loud music in the middle of the night. When I asked them what they liked about where they live, most answers were related to space: a spacious bedroom, space to play football, and having parks nearby where they can play and relax. When we shifted the conversation to Deptford itself, and all the new buildings being built in the area, they all commented on the huge amount of flats being built and that there aren’t enough schools and surgeries for all these new people coming in. In their view, there are too many flats; flats that block out the sunlight for others, flats which stay empty and flats built for the rich.

We then asked them to build buildings with Lego and place them somewhere on a giant hand-drawn map of Deptford. In the first round, we left the brief open to see where their imagination would take them. After talking more about Deptford and the regeneration of the area, we asked them to build something that is missing in all this, something that would make Deptford a better place. This is what they came up with: a hospital because there are so many new people here but no new hospitals or doctor’s surgeries, a police station (located next to the hospital so that injured people found by the police can go straight there) as there are too many robberies in the area, a few new schools with one that involves animals in education, a café where people can overlook the Creek, a garbage centre that recycles automatically, situated near the river to stop all the plastic bags being thrown into the Thames, a ‘safety place’ in Deptford Park where people can relax and feel safe, and more parking spaces outside schools and nurseries.

When we asked them at the end what they’ve learnt from this workshop, aside from the realisation how big Deptford is (as they commented), two children said: “If we used our imagination we could make Deptford better” and “I learnt that if we put into Deptford what we have here, then Deptford would be a lot better place.” Finally, one child is put forward to be the next mayor to which he responded: “When I’m older, I’m gonna get a job, go in a crane and get a wrecking ball and break down some of the flats and build more schools. That’s what I’m gonna do for the future!”

What I learnt from this workshop is that children are more aware of their surroundings than we might give them credit for. Their ideas in this workshop were incredibly valuable and insightful. This workshop was a really enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to working with them again in the near future.

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Before I did this workshop, I’d met the kids and the leaders and observed a couple of Wednesday sessions with the Cubs, led by Peter Hulcup. Peter also used to be in charge of the Scouts, but Charlie Baxter has recently taken over as Scout Section Leader from him, and his main responsibility now is looking after the Cubs. Being leader for both sections is simply too much work for one person and so Peter is relieved Charlie has taken over (there are also other people involved such as Liz and Michelle, but I speak mainly to Peter and Charlie). Peter tells me a bit about the history and the workings of the different sections.

“Scouting started in 1907 and already in 1909 we had 2nd Deptford St Luke’s (now St Nicholas’ & St Luke’s) and we’ve been here since then. Ron Hoskin, a local business man and Scout leader, did all the fund-raising at that time to have the scouts hall built, which is why it’s called Ron Hoskin Hall. It stands on Lewisham land, but the building is owned by the Scouts.  There are three different sections: the Beavers on a Monday, age group 6 – 8, the Cubs on a Wednesday, age group 8 – 10, and the Scouts on a Tuesday; they’re age group 10 – 14. There’s also a group called the Explorers (aged 14 – 25) but we don’t have any of them here – it’s harder to get older kids into the uniform. The uniform is good, it means that we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter if you come from a millionaire family or a poorer background, we’re all the same. We have 7 laws and a promise to which we adhere. Each child pays £3 per night and £1 if they’re not present to pay for the insurance.”

Charlie then continues to tell me about their work, especially the issue with funding. “We constantly need to fund-raise, and the kids do a lot of the fund-raising from families or people they know. It’s difficult sometimes as we need funds for the activities and to maintain the building. For example, the roof has been leaking for 5 years – we really need to do the roof and also paint the outside as the walls are chipping off. But we also need the time to do it…time is always an issue. It’s really difficult to find volunteers. Many young people come for a bit and then disappear again, so we’re desperate to find committed volunteers as this is eating into our family life. I won’t get home till about 9 o’clock again tonight – it really affects your family life. There’s a lot of work to do that no-one sees, all the organising and planning, and we could really do with some help with grant writing. We’re also working on getting a new kitchen, the old one is too small and not well-equipped, and you can’t really teach kids how to cook in here. We’ve got money to do the electrics, and then we need to do more fund-raising for the rest. We have to do it slowly, bit by bit. Conway, who are doing a lot of work in the area, have promised to give us disabled access because we’re not being inclusive without an entrance suitable for disabled people, but they haven’t come back. We’ve been chasing them but there’s been no response.”

Charlie joined the Scouts because having 3 boys and 2 girls growing up in London “scares the hell out of me, and this keeps them off the streets!” Charlie first started helping out, then she became Secretary and now she is Group Scout Leader. “There’s still a lot of stigma attached to Scouts, people say it’s only for boys but it’s not and the kids are proud to wear their uniform. And when they wear the uniform on the way here from home, they’re insured as well, which is good.” Charlie says that about half or 60% of the kids come from deprived backgrounds and from single parent families. If families can’t afford to buy the uniform, the group helps them with that. Charlie says there are clear benefits to being a Scout: “We have a couple of kids who came here angry – they’ve obviously been through some really difficult situations in life…it makes you wonder what they’ve been through and also what kids that are not here are going through. Then they came here and they have become the kindest children. They still have their moments of course, but overall they’re very kind now. One has also become a Sixer, this means that he looks after 3 others here.”

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I can see why the kids really enjoy coming here and why it is so beneficial. Charlie explains what they do: “We start off with the basic skills in life such as cooking, sewing and doing maths before we go on to sailing and other things. But we do lots of other stuff such as woodwork, working with hand-powered tools, first-aid, particularly CPR, bike maintenance, building a grotto for Christmas with stuff from the garden, we go bowling, they’re given compasses and a map to find things, team-building, we have a cinema night with popcorn – that’s always a fun night, they love camping, and they can also earn badges. The Beavers do a bit more art and craft.”

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During the first evening I observe with the Cubs, they do team-building exercises. The second time, Peter shows them how to make a fire and how to grill Marshmallows without burning them or their hands. It’s a fun evening and the roasted Marshmallows taste lovely. I can see how important this place is to the kids and leaders alike.

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