When I come up to the third floor of Austin House on Achilles Street, New Cross, where Seph lives, I am enchanted by the beautiful floral display outside her flat. Big ceramic pots align the corridor and flowers are growing in the big window boxes. The display extends to the next flat where a Vietnamese family grow Ginseng which grows to a considerable height in the summer. I enter Seph’s flat and I’m completely overawed by the beauty of her flat. The quirky corners and alcoves, high-ceiling rooms, the light streaming in from all the windows, the wonderful props and ornaments, plants and massive vinyl collection, as well as the colour orange present in every room, makes the flat look incredibly spacious, homely and lived-in.
The first thing Seph shows me is the view from the kitchen window. “I love this open view! You can see Canary Wharf and at night it looks so nice with all the lights, and when the trains go past at night the lights flicker. Sometimes I feel like I live in New York, and the green space below with all the trees makes me think of Central Park.” From her kitchen window you can see all across from London Eye down to Canary Wharf and “at New Year’s Eve I used to have parties and we used to go out on the balcony to see the fireworks”, Seph tells me. She also tells me how horrified she was when she first heard about the redevelopment plans and the big tower they are planning to build on that bit of land. “It would completely obstruct my lovely view.”
Seph has lived in her flat for over 20 years. When she first got the flat, it had been completely flooded out from above and needed driers for some time to make it inhabitable again. She was offered by the council to either have the flat refurbished or to get given the money to do it herself. She opted for the latter and did all the wallpapering herself (and still laughs at the fact she chose cheap Woodchip Wallpaper!).
In 2002, she bought the flat under the Right-To-Buy scheme. “I feel so safe here. Once my door is bolted I feel so at ease. It’s so quiet here and the spacious flat with views of trees and greenery gives you head space too. It makes you feel good.” Seph also mentions a project carried out by local residents to counter the stigma of ‘sink estates’ by looking at the plants around the estate. They invited an eco-botanist who discovered more than 120 species of wildflowers around the blocks, which included some very rare plants only found on former bomb sites.
Seph is offended by the fact that these flats are labelled as rat-infested, damp and unfit to live in. “How can you call this flat uninhabitable and ready for demolition? Yes, we have some mice around the block and some flats have issues with damp but so do other blocks and lovely Victorian Houses.” These issues could be resolved easily with proper maintenance of gutters and drainage pipes in the blocks in my opinion.” Looking around her flat, you can understand why she feels resentful about the demolition plans and you wonder why the council would pull down perfectly sound flats. It also makes you wonder what other people’s flats look like and question the whole rhetoric of crime-ridden ‘sink estates’ the government deploys.
This is not to say that there are no problems in the area. “Living here hasn’t always felt safe”, Seph admits, “and I still sometimes don’t like walking up the stairs at night, but this is mostly to do with what was going on 20 years ago. At that time, there were lots of muggings in the area, but thankfully this has improved a lot. Since better security doors have been installed things have got better too.” There have been rare occasions of people hanging out in the staircase at night, but “they are never from here”, Seph asserts. “I know many of the residents at Austin House and they are generally all decent hard-working people. I have seen lots of kids grow up here and they are have turned into lovely, polite caring young adults. It’s others who think because it’s a council block they can just come here and hang out as no-one will care who generally cause the problems.”
The rhetoric of the ‘sink estate’ and the stigma of living in council housing is very widespread and lack of transparency and consideration for local residents angers her. “The council treat us like they think we’re stupid! They say things we do not believe and we can see straight through them. If everybody was really considered; if residents were given suitable alternative homes; if like-for-like really meant that, i.e. if you demolish someone’s flat you give them another one, not a half share of one; if the elderly were given flats with wheelchair access and not coerced off to old people’s homes; and if residents were treated fairly, listened to and kept in the area if that was their wish, I don’t think I would be so against redevelopment. But this doesn’t happen, we’ve seen this in other developments – all these promises are made and then broken, the reality is a completely different story. It’s the fact that the council and developers are so sneaky in trying to get rid of certain people, which makes me so annoyed.”
Seph also mentions local councillors’ repeatedly stated mission of having to house the poor homeless and all those living in temporary accommodation, intending to make campaigners who fight against the development look unreasonable. “It will be interesting to see how many of these people will actually be housed”, Seph says. “The figures seem skewed and originally, the proposal for Achilles Street included very few extra flats for social rent, possibly as few as one extra was mentioned. And what about private renters in our block who have lived here for years and have children in local schools? Who cares about what happens to them and whether they can afford to live in the area still? The council have no responsibility to help rehouse them at all!”
Seph is unsure of what to do. Shall she jump ship before she’s pushed, before the council decides what to do with her? Shared Ownership is not an option for her, and she doesn’t trust the council to give her what her flat is worth, which would enable her to find another place in the area. The only thing she can afford now is another council property but she’s very aware that “you could move into the same situation further down the line, when it will be even harder to deal with as I’ll be older. It would be the third time in my life I have moved to a generally poor but creative area and then had to leave. I moved to Hackney in the 80s, to Goldsmiths Row, near where Broadway Market is today. I lived next to a massive waste ground and paid £40 a week; then it got trendy… Now New Cross is being developed and has all the new cafés everywhere. I don’t want to move again, but feel I have little choice.”*
But what will Seph move to? She won’t be able to afford another property in the area, certainly not a new-build. Interestingly, a surveyor who came to her flat advised her not to buy a new-build as they are bad quality, he said. Also, a friend of hers lives in one of those new-builds owned by a housing association. They told Seph that they have sewage problems, that the walls a paper-thin and cannot be adorned, that the door knobs have already fallen off, that the slabs on the garden path have become uneven, leading to a fall, and that the paint on the front door has already bleached out. Seph doesn’t like new-builds anyway. “They might look snazzy but I don’t like them. The kitchen is in your lounge and the rooms feel like box-type things, rabbit hutches; they feel more like hotels. They don’t have all the lovely features I have here.” This reminds me of the 85 flats in Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, owned by Wandle Housing Association, which have to be demolished/refurbished only 6 years after they were built due to using bad quality materials.
If Seph moves, it’ll be out of London, probably to Kent somewhere. It’s a difficult decision and she’s trying to put a positive spin on it. London, particularly south London, has been a creative and exciting place to be on a personal and professional level. She has loved living in the New Cross and Deptford area, the live music on the streets, the dancers on the square, and Deptford market where she has bought many of the curious objects in her flat. I take lots of photos of the flat. I am perhaps the last person to see the flat as it is; I’m beginning to feel emotional myself. I can’t imagine what it must be like having to pack up 20 odd years of memories in a much-loved home.
*Since our conversation, Seph has made the difficult decision to move.