Performer, musician, community development worker, local activist, volunteer and campaigner Heather Gilmore has lived in Deptford for 24 years. Together with other campaigners she is resisting the demolition of the currently occupied Tidemill Wildlife Garden and the 16 council flats of Reginald House on Reginald Road in Deptford, which are to be replaced with 209 flats. The campaign group have worked tirelessly to save these invaluable community assets by using their artistic skills and local knowledge to organise events, create promotional materials, demonstrate, protest, draw up alternative plans and raise London-wide awareness. Their campaign activities were also incorporated into this year’s Deptford X, London’s longest running contemporary visual arts festival, featuring David Aylward’s (RUR) silent procession Hands Off, Sue Lawes 74 Trees (Tree Demolition Schedule), Caroline Jupp’s Buddleia Bulletin in the Reading Room that was entirely made with recycled materials by campaigners, and Sophia Kosmaoglou’s Art and Gentrification Walk and Debate (as well as an impromptu sound/walk performance by APT Gallery).
Deptford Aint Avinnit: Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! as part of Deptford X 2018
Since 29 August, the day the council wanted to lock the gates, campaigners and activists have occupied the garden and managed to defer an eviction order until 24 October 2018. In the two days before the bailiffs come, they are holding a two-day celebratory peace camp and a candle-lit vigil (Tuesday, 23 October 7pm) to ‘show some people power in the resistance to the seizure of our land’ (Campaign Facebook page). Due to persistent campaigning and awareness raising, there has been great media coverage of the campaign, with Heather having become the public face of it (see links at the bottom for media reports and videos). I want to write about the positive creativity, dedication and determination campaigners have displayed, all based on the fundamental belief that we should all be living in a fairer society that caters for all. I have huge admiration for those that are ‘sacrificing’ their whole free time to serve the community and fight for a more sustainable future. Despite what campaigners are up against, there has always been a sense of calm hope in the air and the use of any artistic talent, be it photography, drawing, music, performance art or theatre has contributed to keeping up motivation and keeping the campaign fun. I wanted to speak to Heather about her personal motivations for being a local activist and what living in Deptford means to her. Here is what she told me.
“I moved to Deptford in 1994. When the opportunity came up, I grabbed the chance because I’d grown to love Deptford when I lived here in the 80s. At that time, I was working on arts projects at the Albany and I’d never lived in such a cohesive community before. It was very artistic, very underground – very community focussed. It housed predominantly working class people with and without further education experiences who worked together using their artistic talent for the benefit of the community. I have always felt a pull towards community work combined with the arts, and Deptford inspired me.
In 2006, when my daughter was older and I had more time available for community engagement, I became part of Deptford Stories, a play about the history of the Albany. It was the first theatre piece I had been involved in for years. Just after that a group of us locals helped the Albany with a Community Event and as a result of that established A Madcap Coalition, a community arts project for the people of Deptford to bring people together on their estates and engender respect for each other’s cultures through the arts. We secured premises on the Pepys Estate and managed to fund-raise for tents, materials and paid artists for the events. We travelled from estate to estate, set up tents, made various fair-ground games, and in 7 years we’d organised about 50 events! The response was so positive, with one young woman studying Community Cohesion as part of an A level course, saying: “This is it!” and a local resident commenting: “This is exactly what we need!”
Unfortunately, after 7 years I burnt out. We had no paid staff to manage the project and I wanted to balance my life with some creative expression. I’m an actress and musician and as organising all these events took up all my time, I didn’t have space for my creative aspirations and felt trapped in a managerial position. The final straw for me was when we failed to secure a funding bid to Deptford Challenge Trust, which was for projects needing to take the next step in their development. We had done so much including becoming a registered charity. I was so devastated that a local trust which supports local projects would not fund us, I simply burnt out and couldn’t carry on. Before I left in 2013, we were asked to do an event in Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and I fell in love with it the moment I walked in. The garden was beautifully designed by a landscape architect and planted 20 years ago by the teachers, parents and pupils of Tidemill school. This garden is magical and has become incredibly important to me. I’m registered blind – I have a degenerative condition and my eyesight has got worse over the years. I now have 5% of blurred vision and I may go completely blind one day. But when I come in here, my eyes are bathed in green light and it helps me relax and imagine I am in the country. I have to rely on others to help me get out of London, but the garden is close to my flat, and the bird song and the over 100 trees thrill me and I feel at peace when I’m here.
I got involved in the campaign to save the garden and Reginald House flats in 2014 – as soon as I heard they were under threat. When we found out that Reginald House tenants had been campaigning against the demolition of Reginald House for 6 years, we linked up and concentrated on developing planning objections to the proposals together. The numbers for social housing were appalling at the time and formed part of our objections. We presented alternative outline plans drawn up by an architect member of the group, but they were dismissed out of hand. They were meant to be used as an example of what could be done – not submitted as a planning application. That would cost around £50k – unaffordable to a community group. The Council’s line is that they are unworkable as they stand because they are not detailed drawings. We purely tried to show that the council could get the same amount of units with bedroom numbers equivalent to the council’s plans. We also presented photographs, a list of events, and the fact that our group opened the garden up to the whole community (previously it was only open to the Tidemill School community). But the main argument was pollution. Data collected by Citizen Sense, a Goldsmiths University study has shown that the garden mitigates pollution by half in an area six times over WHO limits (https://datastories-deptford.citizensense.net/old-tidemill/) To our surprise, we won a deferment and made good use of this extra time to campaign for alternatives. We arranged meetings and worked tirelessly to persuade the council and developer to meaningfully engage with us, at every opportunity and in every way possible but no representative of the future social landlord ever came to our meetings. Ironically, in August 2017 the Garden featured as a Case Study for children at play for the Greener City Fund from the GLA (https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/greener_city_fund_prospectus.pdf). Only a month after that planning permission was granted to build on the garden.
Lewisham Council’s developers now have planning permission to build 209 flats here – 49% will be for new social tenants at ‘London Affordable Rent’ which is 63% higher than present Lewisham council rents. We want the social housing but not the destruction of current community assets. It will just take a bit of imagination. To that end we have requested that the developer go back to the drawing board to come up with a community-led design that will spare the garden and Reginald House. Our request has been dismissed out of hand. We have been treated contemptuously by our elected representatives and their back officer agents. When we were instructed to leave the site by 29 August 2018, we decided to occupy it. A judge then ruled that the council’s recent possession order has to be deferred until seven days after our Judicial Review application was assessed, on 17th October, to decide whether to go to full hearing. Our application was refused and we are expecting the bailiffs on Wednesday 24th October. However, we are applying for an appeal at the High Court and will not give in until we have exhausted all possibilities to stop the council from taking possession of the garden.
Among us garden users are some amazing creative and resourceful activists who have used their ingenuity in the building of sheds, tree houses, a functioning kitchen area, a store room along with creating artworks, placards and banners. We have organised many events and through them and our campaigning, thousands of people have visited and local people have come together to enjoy the garden and resist its annihilation. I have developed beautiful friendships here and organising events for the campaign has made me feel valued, capable and confident that despite my disability I can still contribute to community life. This garden is part of the cohesiveness of Deptford. It has so much potential to provide working-class people, young and old, who may not want to or cannot fully participate in the culture of gentrification, with a creative, healthy and affordable space to be. It can offer motivation and hope too.
Campaigners in action
Some of the creativity and resourcefulness shown during this campaign
In Deptford it currently feels like we’re being assaulted by concrete, glass and metal, as well as noise and air pollution. With the constant hum of digging, the increased heavy vehicle traffic and all the monstrous luxury developments, this garden is becoming more and more necessary – it’s priceless. I live on the Crossfield’s Estate which faces another 4 developments (No 1, 2 and 3 Creekside and Sun Wharf), and this together with the Tideway Tunnel and all the development on the Greenwich side of the Creek is causing more and more pollution. As I said, the garden mitigates air pollution from a road 30 metres away by half and there are clear links between green spaces and people’s well-being – physical and mental. I’m concerned for my health and that of the community, and I feel stressed with all that is yet to come. Coming into the garden de-stresses me, and I know of others who come in here ‘to sort my head out’ – as one ex-vet neighbour suffering from PTSD said.
(For more information on planned developments in the area, including Tidemill, please visit this blog: crossfields.blogspot.com).
I fear that with all the development in this small area, the cohesiveness of Deptford will fall apart. These developments are not for people born and those already living in this local community and have devastating effects on working-class families. Most of the children of the people of Deptford will not be able to live here when they’re older, diminishing the good will of young people who would like to contribute to their area. Deptford will be full of high-rise developments (behind Laban they are building one 30-storey and one 27-storey block) owned by private investors often sitting on empty flats. And I am not convinced or confident that newcomers who can afford to pay £500,000/600,000 for a flat will understand the impact this will have on local working-class people or have the will to support them through their increasing vulnerability to being homeless. There are an estimated three million people in this country who are one pay packet or benefit payment away from ending up on the streets. This is not to put all newcomers into the same box – I have spoken to many and they get where we’re coming from when I explain the reasons behind our campaign. It is after all in their interest to live in a peaceful and healthy community. The problem is that many people are not aware of the impacts of gentrification as they are sold a con, a particular version of life that does not include us. It is the first time in 24 years that it occurred to me that I might want to get out of here…but then again, I have little choice and I couldn’t leave anyway because Deptford is my spiritual home. That’s why I will continue to resist its destruction.”
You are welcome to visit Tidemill Garden, Reginald Rd, Deptford SE8 4RS – Heather’s there most days. You can follow the campaign on Facebook: Save Reginald/Save Tidemill and help to raise funds for the legal campaign: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill
For further reading on the campaign and its press coverage, please click on the various links below: