Last Sunday (29 April 2018), the community at Tidemill Garden and the housing campaigners who are fighting to stop the destruction of the garden and the demolition of 2-30A Reginald House (a council-owned low-rise block of flats next to the garden) organised a community event that saw people from all around the area gather together to celebrate this much-loved community space that has been here since the 1990s. Cared for by dedicated volunteers who maintain the garden, open it up every weekend to visitors in search of either company, tranquillity or contact with nature, engage children in activities that enable them to interact with plants and wildlife, and who organise music and arts events to bring the community together, this space is open to everyone, no matter what ethnic and socio-economic background. With most social activities now linked up with consumption, in other words, participation in society more often than not requiring the spending of money, which many working-class people do not have to spare, Tidemill Wildlife Garden is one of the last inclusive social spaces where you won’t be judged by what you wear, eat or drink, or how you behave. Time and again I have heard local people say that they feel more and more excluded from public spaces and public life as the reconfiguration of Deptford, a place that has been their home for many years, is not intended for them and their cultural practices, so poignantly expressed in the phrase ‘It’s not for the likes of us’.
Despite the tireless efforts of campaigners to save one of the last remaining green community spaces in this densely-populated area with pollution levels well above the EU limit– except in the garden where lower levels have been recorded (http://crossfields.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=pollution+levels) – Lewisham Council, with the full support of New Cross Ward Cllr Joe Dromey, has decided to destroy the space and to demolish 2-30A Reginald House, a sound council block inhabited by people who do not want to lose their homes, to build yet more flats in the area. For a full breakdown of figures, and how the demolition plans and the campaigns against this have unfolded, please see read the excellent Crossfields Blog: http://crossfields.blogspot.co.uk
Ironically, Lewisham Council is supporting Tranquil City, an initiative that aims to ‘encourage communities to make use of [tranquil] spaces’, ‘promoting better mental and physical wellbeing in doing so, encourage[ing] a better connection with nature in the city’ and to ‘find cleaner, greener, more pleasant and lower polluted’ spaces in London (https://tranquilcity.co.uk/). Deptford is included in this initiative and yet Lewisham Council has decided to get rid of one of the only tranquil, green and least polluted spaces in the area. Yes, we do need to house the growing number of homeless people (including those sofa-surfing, sleeping in cars and in temporary accommodation), but why particularly on this precious community garden? Why not in all the other tower blocks that have gone up in the borough in the last decade and have provided either 0% or a small percentage of social housing; or in the currently empty properties scattered around the borough? Why not build on some of the vast expanses of green space in less-densely populated Blackheath for example? Is it because we cannot upset the better-off? Is it because they have more power and social capital to fight against planning applications they don’t like? Would they also be referred to as NIMBYs (people with a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude) like Tidemill campaigners have?
None of these questions were addressed by Cllr Joe Dromey in the only Hustings in Deptford, organised in the garden as part of Sunday’s garden event (watch the video here: https://vimeo.com/267389717) four days before the election. Although Andrea Carey-Fuller, a Green Party candidate and a former community care lawyer, member of Deptford Neighbourhood Action (DNA) and a leading figure in the Save Tidemill campaign, read out staggering figures regarding the large amount of empty properties and tiny fraction of social homes built in other developments in the area (things that were also addressed by members in the audience), Dromey failed to engage with these points. He also failed to engage with the alternative plans that have been drawn up by a local architect which would enable the construction of the same number of flats without demolition and losing the garden, plans that Dromey and the council don’t seem interested in. Instead, Dromey had the nerve of accusing campaigners of claiming moral superiority and being against the building of social housing (because they oppose this development); and that after years of campaigning for social housing. His repeated self-congratulatory sound bites about his personal crusade to try and solve Lewisham’s housing crisis (it sounds like he’s doing this all by himself), constantly evading other perspectives, solutions and challenging figures that Andrea and members of the audience read out, and claiming moral high ground himself, did little to build any trust and confidence in him. I do not doubt that he’s concerned about homelessness and that he wants to provide decent homes for people, so does everyone else, but as a councillor you have a responsibility to all citizens in your ward and need to look at long-term and sustainable solutions that work towards the good city for all. Dromey is surely touched by Hayley’s story, the lady who lives with her two kids in a damp-ridden 1-bedroom studio flat (although mentioning it 5 times borders on emotional blackmail), we all are, but he should also be touched by Pauline’s story (who has lived in the unknown for 10 years and does not want to lose her home and community) (https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/01/28/banners-in-deptford/) and all the other people in this community that are affected. And let’s not forget that the reason why Lewisham council is now planning to construct, according to Dromey’s figures, 117 social homes (54%) in the Tidemill development, is only due to the hard work of the campaigners not because the council planned this from the start.
For someone who’s not as clued up on urban policy, urban regeneration and all the socially unjust development schemes around the city as housing campaigners are, the now proposed amount of social homes on this development (and Dromey’s positive rhetoric) are hard to argue with. This was demonstrated by a couple of people in the audience who seemed baffled by the frustration and anger of the rest of the audience. But when you know about viability assessments where developers find creative ways of getting out of promised commitments as has been demonstrated in many schemes around London (typical examples are they Heygate Estate and the Elephant Development and the Aylesbury Estate); when you have heard the same rhetoric and the same promises before, only to find out that these were hardly fulfilled and that many people have been pushed out of their borough and the city; when you consider why Hayley and so many other are living in dire conditions; and that it is practically written into urban policy to get rid of council estates as advocated by Lord Adonis (2015), and that housing associations now do make a profit, and and and and, then all these wonderful promises just become rhetoric. Again, I recommend that you read the Crossfields Blog (http://crossfields.blogspot.co.uk/) which informs you of all these different layers of regeneration processes. People want answers. Housing campaigners have to be incredibly informed to achieve any success in their fight for a more equal city, scrutinising policy and legal documents, learning difficult terminology, understanding the pitfalls of other schemes, and devoting hours to their cause with time for food and free time activities almost deleted from their agenda. Take the anchor campaign for example; it took 4 years of persistent campaigning, obtaining and studying documents, writing scores of letters and making a compelling case to get it back (https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/04/15/deptford-is-forever/). All the more frustrating to be perceived as just some bolshy leftist who doesn’t know anything.
Time and again, campaigners and residents have demonstrated that they are not against regeneration and they have worked tirelessly to come up with alternative and more sustainable solutions that would provide the same amount of homes but without demolition, loss of garden and breaking up community networks. They have demonstrated that there is no justifiable reason to do what the council is planning to do here. Dromey might go on about how housing the disadvantaged is more important than a community garden, but campaigners have forwarded solutions that would house the poor, stop the displacement of current residents and provide locals with a much needed green community space. How can this be completely dismissed and how dare anyone call residents and campaigners unreasonable? All people want is to have their voices heard; to be consulted and considered; to claim their right to the city.
In The Good City (2006), Ash Amin writes that in order for people to co-exist in cities, urban solidarity and an ethics of universal care is vital. City life might be exciting for the secure, well-connected and those excited by the buzz of urban living, but ‘for the many at the bottom of the social ladder, cities are polluted, unhealthy, tiring, overwhelming, confusing, alienating. They are the places of low-wage work, insecurity, poor living conditions and dejected isolation’ (Amin, 2006, p. 1011). He highlights four elements that would increase urban solidarity and make cities more liveable for all: 1) continual maintenance and repair, underpinned by a political economy of attention and co-ordination, in other words, not only when things get desperate but at all times to provide a lasting infrastructure. 2) A socially just city, a city of universal care, an inclusive city, helping the poorer from the means of survival to human fulfilment so they can feel more connected to what is happening. 3) The right to the city as defended by urban sociologist Lefebvre (1996). The right to participate in public life, taken for granted by those with the means and entitlement to do so, is not necessarily always extended to those who lack the economic, cultural and social capital to claim that right. In the drive to create private urban spaces particularly in relation to housing, the greater freedom of the wealthy to pick and choose restricts the freedom of the poorer, thus limiting their rights and choices. 4) Re-enchantment with the city through expanding social solidarity rather than fracturing urban life between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots.
Currently, many working-class people in Deptford feel disenchanted with the city that is becoming more and more unequal. Spaces where people have felt a sense of belonging, experienced social solidarity and an ethics of care, and where they could engage in their cultural practices without judgment and where they could claim their right to the city (e.g. community gardens, their homes), are slowly being replaced by private spaces, and people feel excluded from civic participation. Currently, residents in 15 out of 16 flats in Reginald House do not want to lose their much-loved homes where their lives have unfolded and memories made and replayed. The stress this has caused is unimaginable, with one resident commenting, “I’m too scared to pick up the post from the floor as I never know what bad news there might be”. Alongside having a home (as opposed to just being housed), access to green spaces, cultural democracy, and community life have all shown to contribute to mental and physical well-being. Mental health problems are currently a growing concern (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics). The reasons for this are complex and lack of decent housing and a home, overcrowding, homelessness all play a major role. But so do a lack of stability and security, green spaces and access to community networks, as well as social isolation and social exclusion from civic life (also on the rise). Additionally, lack of cultural democracy where all cultural practices are valued, not only those practiced by middle-class people that everyone else has to adopt, is another important factor. This is not to say that Deptford locals are not welcoming to new arrivals, middle-class life-styles and consumption spaces, and are not interested in engaging with some of it. What they want is cultural democracy – the right to be able to also engage in activities that they value. Tidemill Garden is a space where local people have been able to organise impromptu concerts, film screenings, BBQs, Easter egg hunts, creative workshops and other cultural activities, without the need to pay for venue hire, complicated red tape and hierarchical structures. With the loss of this space and the eviction of working-class people from the urban landscape, ideas of equality and a socially just city are diminished.
After the hustings, the frustration quickly gave way to enjoying the rest of the day with a brilliantly organised event with music, film screenings, information, food and drink. Campaigners and volunteers managed to put together a smooth event in no time, something that a space like Tidemill Garden enables. I have been part of recent meetings and this event was planned and put together within two weeks. Roles were split according to what people had to offer and could manage time-wise, and when I arrived Sunday morning to help with whatever needed doing, expecting a last-minute panic, I found the garden ready to go: the grass cut, the toilet fixed, tarpaulins put up for the rain, the films on regeneration (including on a film about Tidemill Garden by Olivia Douglass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQWfmw_cL-w&feature=youtu.be) set up on a loop, and volunteers quietly working away to add the finishing touches. The garden shed had been made into a little cinema with benches and cushions, information boards were being put on the shed, there was an information stand with the council’s regeneration plans and the alternative plans that would halt demolition and destruction, and I added a memory board with photographs from the 1990s till now and space for comments and recording garden memories (feel free to visit the garden at weekends to add your own memories and comments). There was a coconut shy, face painting and toy-making for kids, The Deptford People Project, a locally-run grassroots initiative to feed the hungry and homeless, provided free delicious vegan food for all, there was a stall for tea, coffee and biscuits, and there was the stage, where we heard the amazing voices of an Italian socialist choir, protest songs by The Four Fathers, hard-hitting spoken word by Agnam Gora, and more music by Ukadelix, Commie Faggots and others. These were all local people who agreed to help out and be part of this event. Nothing was lacking; even warning signs for the slippery surface on the little bridge and bunting had been thought of. The garden was packed for most of the day and everybody I spoke with expressed sadness and disbelief that the days of the garden are numbered.
The gates might be shut any time from now.
Adonis, A. (2015) ‘City villages: More homes, better communities’ in Adonis, A. and Davies, B. (eds.) City villages: More homes, better communities. Available at: http://ippr.org/read/city-villages-more-homes-better-communities#city-villages-more-homes-better-communities
Amin, A. (2006) ‘The Good City’, Urban Studies, Vol. 43, Nos 5/6, pp. 1009–1023.
Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writings on Cities. London: Blackwell Publishers.