“Affordable housing is the joke of the century”

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I recently did a workshop with three members of the Deptford Divas at Armada Community Hall on McMillan Street. The Deptford Divas are a group of ladies over 60 who meet every Wednesday in the hall to do art & crafts, but the three ladies are also part of the Sir John Evelyn Charity Pensioners and regularly eat lunch with other Deptford pensioners at Armada Hall on Fridays. They are a lively group who have been coming to the Armada for many years and who have witnessed the many changes to the area. In the workshop we talked about Deptford and its regeneration – what we like about it, what we don’t like about it, and what a better vision for the future would be. For the workshop I used a toolkit called Ketso – an African word (from Lesotho, southern Africa) meaning action. On the Ketso website it states that “the toolkit was invented in Lesotho and has been refined over two decades of action research with communities across the globe. With Ketso, everyone can participate and be more creative. Ketso gives everyone a voice, so everyone is more engaged. With Ketso we are more creative, more productive, more committed.” (http://www.ketso.com/) With the small group I was working with, it was less difficult to give everyone voice, but the toolkit helped to ensure everybody got a chance to speak and voice their opinions. There was time to think, write and discuss, as well as listen to other’s views and change one’s opinion. The different-coloured leaves helped to organise thoughts and ideas and create a visual image of the process.

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Maralyn has lived in Gilbert House for over 20 years. “I’m not your average pensioner”, she says, “I have a busy social life and do not engage too much with local life as I’m out and about in the West End, Greenwich and other places. I love dancing, particularly ballroom dancing, I’m a member at the British museum, in Greenwich Picture House and some other theatres. These memberships allow me to access plenty of activities because being a pensioner, I do need to think about how to spend my money. I also like most of the regeneration going on in Deptford: there are now more upmarket places which I like and can try out. I’m very keen to try Marcella, the new Italian restaurant, and I like the new wine bar, the new shops and the new, media-savvy people coming in. Overall, I find that Deptford has a great variety of ethnic shops too and is generally an interesting hotchpotch of cultures. I also think Convoy’s wharf will look nice, the riverside walkway with the swing bridge is a great improvement, I love the new Deptford Train Station – I’d been waiting for this for a long time, the High Street is improving, and I feel that Deptford is now a lot safer, although I still wouldn’t walk around alone at night because of gangs hanging out on the High Street. If we had more walking PCs, I’d feel safe coming out of the station and walking home alone at night.”

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However, Maralyn agrees that most of the changes are intended for people with money. “The only thing I don’t like is that the new houses are built for people with top jobs and high salaries who can afford these places. I do worry about Convoy’s Wharf, the access to the river and whether there will be some affordable housing. The new developments do contain lovely flats but they are not affordable; even if you live in a Housing Association flat, it’s not secure tenancy and they can put the rent up when they feel like it. Housing now is not affordable unless you’re working full-time earning a minimum of £50,000 a year, so when they say affordable, it’s the joke of the century. We need new life here but we need to be able to exist together.”

Maralyn does believe that gentrification makes areas safer, but only if it’s provided for everybody. “Years ago in Southwark, you wouldn’t have walked around at night, it was way too dangerous. Now, you can walk around no problem. You might not be able to afford the restaurants but it’s safer to walk there. And, there is so much going on, for free! We have to go forward and accept change: change brings safer places, a new station, transport, etc. You have to embrace change, accept the shops even if you can’t afford them! But I can see that many older people cannot access this change, and that many of these nice new things had to be fought over as well: access to the riverside or opening gated communities, for example, was only granted after local populations expressed their views. So this can also be seen as a positive thing as issues can give local people voice sometimes.”

However, Maralyn also used to do the electoral roll for 5 years, going round to houses to establish who lives where. She got a real insight into some people’s living standards, particularly in flats above the shops on Deptford High Street, where the smell coming out of some flats used to make her ill. At times it was hard to guess just how many people were living in one flat and what the arrangements were in terms of bed-sharing. She also became aware of people living in garages and sheds. “And it’s not just here”, she says, “it’s in the whole of inner London. It’s like third-world standards here, in a country as rich as ours! It all boils down to cut-backs, whether that’s to do with the council, the police or with community centres.”

 

Brenda is a retired council employee (housing) and really likes Deptford, its transport connections, its diversity, and above all, its people. “I think there is something about Deptford people – they are easy to talk to, easy to get on with, and they are very friendly and you always find someone to talk to.” Brenda also likes the new blocks of flats being built all around, especially those along the river. “They look good and it’s quality housing”, she agrees, “but it’s not for everybody, is it. It’s bringing people into the area who want to live here because it’s convenient, but they go and work in the city or elsewhere because you need to earn a lot to be able to afford to live here. What about all the young people in Deptford? They will all want to get work some time in the future, and not everybody can work in an office somewhere and they’ve not brought any industry back into the area, it’s all been replaced with housing. There used to be little factories all around, but now it’s just apartments and they are not really introducing new jobs.” Brenda sums up Deptford’s (and London’s) regeneration as “replacing industry with outpriced housing”, making it impossible for local people to buy or rent.  Brenda is clear that this has resulted in the breaking up of families and community networks. With young adults having to move out to other areas as they are unable to afford where their parents live, the whole family structure of looking out for each other, helping with childcare instead of having to pay huge amounts of money for nurseries, and looking after elderly relatives has been broken up. “We need more affordable housing in order to keep families together! Whole families are being split and we’re also losing community because local people can’t afford all these new places and the new people coming into the area often don’t get involved in our community.”

Finally, Brenda also thinks that Deptford needs more places for local people to socialise. “Most places now cater for young and able people, but there’s a lot of people around who cannot travel elsewhere to socialise, they need a local place nearby where they can just nip in for a bit”.  All in all, Brenda thinks, change is good and many good things are happening, but change has got to be fair and for everybody.

Chrissie lives in Armada Court, just behind Armada Hall, where she maintains the community garden together with her neighbours (photos above). For Chrissie, community networks are really important and what she appreciates about Deptford is that she feels she belongs here. “When I go to the market, people always say hello even if you don’t know them, and if they see you sitting there, having a cup of tea, there’s always someone asking you ‘are you alright? do you need anything? do you need help?’” But Chrissie agrees that this sense of community is getting lost with people coming in who are not interested in getting involved. “What we do here at the Armada, table-top sales and other activities, even if we advertise, on the internet putting leaflets out and sitting outside, people don’t turn up to things we do here, they don’t seem to want to know.”

Being a mother and gran, Chrissie’s biggest concern is the lack of places and spaces for kids and youngsters (and adults). In her view, there aren’t enough parks and clubs, and with the adventure playground in Deptford now shut, there simply aren’t enough places for kids to go to. “When we were kids, we used to play on the streets, and schools used to be open at weekends and school holidays where kids could go and where volunteers used to keep an eye on them, but the streets aren’t safe anymore and the council is not putting enough money into keeping places like the adventure playground open.  Where are the kids supposed to go when their parents are at work?”

In terms of Deptford’s regeneration and housing in the area, Chrissie is clear that property now is too dear to buy and to rent. “All the new properties are not for the likes of us really, and even housing association flats are too dear for some people. One of my grandsons who’s 24 still lives with his mother because he can’t afford to rent, and another one of my grandsons lives in a housing association flat. He’s got two children and works at the museum, and he says he’ll never be able to save up for a deposit to buy because the rent is so high. Another example is a friend of mine who’s got two children and who’d moved down from Manchester because of a good job, but with the service charges so high, she couldn’t afford the flat and had to move back.” Chrissie also points out the condition of some of the flats rented out by poorer people.  “Sometimes you have 5 or 6 people living in flats on the High Street, paying high rent prices for places I wouldn’t let anybody live in, black walls and things like that, but they do because they can’t afford anything else!”

Deptford High Street is a particular discussion point for Chrissie. She doesn’t feel safe at all coming up this way (from the train station to Evelyn Street), and to her the High Street looks like a slum. She thinks the shops look disgusting and with many shops shut it doesn’t look very inviting. “The problem”, she says, “are the high rates, the lack of business because the new people don’t shop there, and because the council wants poorer people out anyway.” Chrissie points out the railway cafés and places, and how nice they look and that they should make the High Street shops look as nice as them. “If they do all the old buildings up nicely and keep the rates down so that shopkeepers and stall holders can afford to stay, then the rich, upper-class people might come in and shop there too.” But if local people don’t have work then they will move out eventually.”

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What strikes me about these comments from this workshop is that these three pensioners don’t seem against the physical regeneration of Deptford at all, and don’t dislike the new blocks of flats, cafés and eateries, and things looking nicer and cleaner. What they dislike is that these improvements are only happening to provide economic gain for others and caters only for the people who can afford the overpriced properties and who aspire to a certain kind of urban lifestyle; that these changes mean the displacement of existing residents and the breaking up of their community and family networks. Change should be for all and should be fair.

 

 

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“The community we have here is the community no-one sees”

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Armada Community Hall is a community centre on McMillan Street, not to be confused with Armada Court – a small estate right next to the community centre with mostly council flats inhabited by elderly people. Bridget Perry is the Development Manager at Armada Community Hall and has worked here for more than 15 years, looking after the elderly and those in need. I’ve been visiting Armada Hall for some time now, observing all the activities throughout the week, and meeting the people who belong to the community at the hall. Bridget explains how the centre works:

“The community space is provided by the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and we are very lucky because the local councillors are very supportive and interested in what goes on. We have various self-funded groups organising activities such as the Deptford Divas on Wednesdays, Play & Stay on Thursdays (organised by Charlie Baxter), and others. The core funding comes from a local charity, and renting the space out occasionally generates some income.” Bridget explains that the hall was built around 40 years ago; the flats at Armada Court were originally built for the over 55s, but some have been bought under Right-To-Buy scheme and then sold on so now there are a few younger people living there too. Overall though, it’s mostly council flats which are inhabited by older people. There is also a community garden at the back which is maintained by the residents of Armada Court.

“The community we have here is the community no-one sees”, Bridget explains, “the kind of care you experience in tight-knit communities. Here, it’s about community networks that cannot have a value put on them through box ticking. For example, Lenny, who lives at No1, has a dog. When he went on holiday to Spain, he asked Vicky, who used to work here, to look after his dog. He then had an accident in Spain and remained in a Spanish hospital for 6 weeks, and all this time Vicky continued dog-sitting, making sure the dog had food and walks. Another example is Les at No2, who has problems with his eyes and came into the Armada once with a loose frame. Although he can kind of see, he can’t judge how far people are away from him and was worried he’d drive into people with his mobility scooter, so I went with him to the opticians. When we arrived, they were still shut so we went for a coffee at Rough & Ready. When the optician’s opened, we got the frames tightened and went back to the Armada. Altogether, it took just over an hour. It’s not always signposting people need, sometimes you just need to take people somewhere.”

According to Bridget, “the biggest problem in this day and age is loneliness and mental health, and sometimes people just come in for a chat and a cup of tea, or to use the loo.” She says you might plan your activities for the day and then the day pans out completely differently and you don’t get done what you set out to do. “It depends on what happens – one conversation might end up as one-month’s work, or somebody needs help with repairs and I email the council for them. Sometimes I might end up just chatting to people all day long but this is just what some people might need – a chat, company, getting out of isolation and loneliness.”  People also often pop in and help out; there are lots of volunteers that go out of their way to help: fixing things, getting some shopping, bringing biscuits, calming down a mental health patient on the estate, and other things. “What box do you tick for that?” Bridget asks. “There’s no price to put on that!”

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When I ask Bridget about the regeneration of Deptford, she says that the Right-To-Buy scheme in itself was good as it gave ordinary people the opportunity to own their own home. However, she thinks that the money the councils made should have been put back into housing, but they were not allowed to do this. Not doing that was “the biggest mistake and has now resulted in this shortage of really affordable housing. Some people who bought their homes under Right-To-Buy then sold the places, and now rent them out. Just look at the neglected gardens in Watergate Street, they all used to be lovely. Now you can tell which house is privately owned and rented out. People come and go, sometimes you have 10 people living in one house because they can’t afford anything else.”

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Bridget is clear that nobody can stop the regeneration of the area but that little things like keeping spaces open to the public can be achieved by getting involved. “Realistically, just because we can’t afford it [new housing] does not mean they should not be built, but they should respect and listen to the local community. If we just let them, the developers will just walk all over us so it’s important that we don’t just sit there and do nothing. Personally, I think pensioners who live on their own in larger accommodation which they don’t need should be rehoused in nice 1-bedroom bungalows to free up larger houses for those that need it, but then there are no such places available, so this is not an option.”

During my visits to Armada Community Hall, I have met some of the people that come in regularly: the Deptford Divas, Deptford pensioners, community workers, volunteers and other wonderful people. I recently also met the Sir John Evelyn Charity Pensioners who meet regularly at the centre for Friday lunches and who invited me to their annual Christmas Dinner and told me about the work the charity does.

“The John Evelyn Charity is for the relief of the poor of the parish of St Nicholas and St Luke’s only. It grants a small pension to poor-worthy pensioners (as Evelyn defined it) in the ancient parish of St Nick’s, and gives grants to organisations within this ancient boundary. If there is any money left, small grants are given to organisations of St Luke’s as well. Sir John Evelyn invested his money well, and since the 17th century there has been this exceptional source of money for the elderly of the area of benefit. The money is used to help pensioners financially and to combat isolation; it is used to organise an annual trip (including some spending money), a Christmas Party with a financial gift, and a small amount of money paid to eligible pensioners each Friday at the Armada, where lunch is also provided on that day. The Armada Community Project is incredibly important as it is the hub where everybody can come with any issue they have. If the issue is not within the remit of the centre, the volunteers of the Armada will try and help in any way they can, often signposting people to the service they need, such as signposting homeless people to the 999 Centre.” (The 999 Club is a charity that helps the homeless in Lewisham and South London: https://www.999club.org/)

 

“Need has increased in recent years, but also changed”, they tell me. “The pensioners we know are fairly comfy – the main problem is isolation. Isolation is a major issue, people are lonely, but food brings people together and so the Friday lunches are great for that. However, those really struggling are the young and families unemployed or on low incomes – they feel the impact of welfare cuts the hardest. What we really need is a food bank, right here, but with Lewisham on one side and Greenwich on the other, this area doesn’t really fit into any category. The biggest problem is food because when one doesn’t have enough to eat, everything else becomes an issue too: work, well-being, health. It’s crazy that in this day and age we’re talking about hunger! Kids go to school hungry and come home hungry, and this has a knock-on effect on everything else.”

When I ask about the regeneration schemes going on in Deptford, they don’t feel it’s for local people. “People feel that they are being pushed out, they are unable to afford property, even the rent. There’s not enough social housing and yes, they are building Convoy’s Wharf but that’s not for the locals. And these café’s, they are not for local people. Many here are ex-dockers, they want a bacon and egg sandwich in a Greasy Spoon – not an arty-farty cake in some expensive café. Some new properties are advertised as being in West Greenwich rather than Deptford – well why is that? It’s just a way of getting people in because these people wouldn’t move to Deptford. The area is still very poor which is not acknowledged at all. It’s all done very subtly, it’s all just sticking plasters over people’s history – some families here go back generations!”

 

“You have all these fancy flats and the Waitrose, all of which entice barriers of segregation. On one hand you have £800,000 flats and on the other flats infested with mice. There is also a major alcohol and drugs problem here; there is a major undercurrent – people are scraping by, kids grow up in an environment thinking ‘I’m not gonna get a job’; the schools are bad, many people are illiterate, so they need to find another way of getting by. We’re not supporting this but it explains why people might go down that road.

Deptford is unique, you will never find anything similar anywhere else, and it could still be a good area but now there’s so much resentment. Look at Watergate Street – some people pay nothing for their house and others pay £500,000+ for their house, of course there is going to be resentment, on both sides. Wealthier people are being sold a fake dream too. They think this area is so up-and-coming and posh, but once you go beneath that posh layer, you see reality and we need to get people to understand this. We seriously suffer from overcrowding with people living on top of each other. This here is the reality, but it’s all covered up with sticky plasters so that the arty people don’t see this.”

When I comment on the amazing amount of volunteering and community work that’s going on in the Armada, they say that “people here do community work not because they want their name out there but because they care. More funding would enable the community centres to do more, open food banks. We need to keep things together, people have a need and they should be taken into account. We need to make life easier for those struggling; if everyone is better off, everything else will get better by itself.”

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