Tidemill Garden – one year on

Yesterday marked one year since Tidemill Garden was destroyed by Lewisham Council. One year since 74 beautiful, healthy and mature trees were felled in the name of regeneration. One year since the Tidemill Garden Community lost its precious and much-loved green space that mitigated air pollution by half on one of the most polluted roundabouts in south-east London. One year since Deptford lost its autonomous, culturally-democratic green space that was home to a large creative community that hosted meetings, workshops, discussions and festivals. One year since Tidemill Garden lovers lost a precious space for green light, better air and tranquility. One year since Lewisham Council announced a climate emergency.

Yesterday, some local residents painted trees to commemorate the loss of Tidemill Garden. They painted all afternoon and pasted the paintings onto the hoardings around the garden that have been in place since over a year – since the eviction of garden occupants in October 2018. The paintings and comments say more than I can write here about what the garden meant to people, how they view its destruction and how they feel about the decision to fell 74 trees. So, I shall say no more… except that all the paintings seem to have been taken down within 12 hours. And except that this is another example of community spirit in Deptford – people getting together, painting together, eating together, acting together, resisting together. This is real cultural activism; activism in the real sense of the word – collectively intervening in governmental policies to bring about social and/or political change; not the kind that wins £1.35million of funding.

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IMG-0457All photos by local residents.

Today marks one year since Andy Worthington, investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker who has been involved in local housing campaigns for several years, wrote the article Violent and Unforgivable: The Destruction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford. I am republishing large extracts from his article below. Click here for full article.

IMG_3725Photo: Andy Worthington, 2018

Today is my birthday, and I find myself in a reflective place, looking, at one side, on death and destruction, and, on the other, at life and love and solidarity.

Perhaps this is appropriate at the age of 56, when I am neither young nor truly old — and, believe me, I reflect on aging, and mortality, and what it means, with some regularity, as my restless brain refuses to settle, endlessly asking questions and seeking new perspectives and insights into the human condition. But that is not why I’m in this reflective place today.

Yesterday, in the hallucinatory light and heat of one of the hottest February days in London’s history, I stood on a small triangle of grass by the horrendously polluted Deptford Church Street in south east London, and watched as a small group of tree-killers tore down almost all the trees in a beautiful community garden, the Old Tidemill Garden, whose tree canopy, which would imminently have returned as spring arrives, had, over 20 years, become an increasingly efficient absorber of that horrendous pollution.

As the heat waned and night fell, Lewisham Council held a meeting at which councillors — the same councillors responsible for the destruction of the garden — declared, with no trace of irony, a ‘climate emergency’, which involved calling on the Mayor and Cabinet to “pledge to do everything within their power to make Lewisham carbon neutral by 2030.” (Council Meeting Notes 27 February 2019). As the Lib Dems later tweeted, “you know going (net) zero carbon means you’ll need to store up more carbon in soil & trees? What you’re doing at Tidemill Garden isn’t really compatible with that.” (LewishamLibDems on Twitter 27 February 2019)

I cite this as just one example of the abundant contradictions involved in the destruction of Tidemill Garden — and the proposed destruction of the structurally sound council flats of Reginald House next door, whose residents, by an overwhelming majority, don’t want to have their homes destroyed, but haven’t been asked their wishes by the council.

For ten years, local people have fought to get the council to change their plans regarding a proposed housing development on the site of the Tidemill primary school, the garden (created by pupils, parents and teachers in 1998), and Reginald House, but to no avail. The school moved out in 2012, and guardians then moved into the vacant Victorian school, opening up the garden as part of their social and artistic activities. When they were evicted, the community was given ‘meanwhile use’ of the garden until the development plans were finalised. However, when the council asked for the keys back, on August 29 last year, the community had built up such support for the garden as a genuinely autonomous space for the people of Deptford, and as a precious environmental asset — and the council had shown such a persistent refusal to listen to why the garden was too precious, too genuinely invaluable to be sacrificed on the altar of profit — that we occupied it instead.

IMG_9089Photo: Andy Worthington, 2018

Two months later, on October 29, the council evicted us, using the union-busting bailiffs of County Enforcement, with the support of the police. When the council hired a tree services company to begin cutting down the trees in November, we persuaded them to very publicly withdraw from their contract, and the resulting impasse lasted until yesterday, when, in just a few hours, most of the trees were felled by chainsaws and a huge digger, and the entire garden turned into what looked like a war zone.

This is an apt metaphor, because, in a constant search for easy and excessive profits in the broken economy that crawled out of the Western establishment’s self-inflicted global crash of 2008 — when money-making financiers who claimed to have come up with an endlessly self-fulfilling economic miracle were revealed as the criminals they are, and the politicians who had all gone along with it lost their credibility — those in charge have now embraced a kind of cannibalistic capitalism, in which wars are now waged on poorer British people by their own leaders.

Driving all this is, of course, the open-ended and seemingly endless ‘age of austerity’ that was cynically declared by David Cameron and George Osborne when the Tories got back into power in 2010. This was — and still is — a naked onslaught on the state provision of almost all services essential for civil society and for anything resembling a society that can regard itself as fair and just. The cuts, which are both ongoing, and increasingly savage, hacked away at the funding available to councils and to those providing social housing, pushing both towards a harsh new political and economic reality that, to be honest, both parties have generally taken to with largely undisguised zeal.

Councils, pleading impotence — but, in general, secretly happy to not have to actually do anything themselves — have been hooking up with developers in order to build new housing, in deals that are contemptuous of those displaced by these arrangements — in general, the poorer members of these communities, those who, in Labour boroughs, actually vote for those dispossessing them, but who, in the post-Blair Labour Party, are seemingly of no concern to the party’s aspirational, middle class bureaucrats, who appear only interested in gentrifying anything that smacks of poverty or the working class.

And these unholy deals involve two routes to the current disaster in which we find ourselves. The first involves private companies awash with international investors’ cash, who acquire the land for a pittance so they can throw up the almost uncountable number of priapic towers that have risen across the capital in recent years for largely gullible foreign buyers. As this speculative housing market has started to lose its sheen, and the negative effects on international investor confidence of the self-inflicted madness of Brexit, a different kind of housing market has emerged, via housing associations, who, traditionally, provided genuinely affordable, long-term social housing — and who, since Margaret Thatcher began her destruction of council housing through ‘Right to Buy’, have also been given control of an increasing number of former council properties.

In recent years, the larger housing associations, who have come together under an organisational mega-umbrella, the G15, which is worryingly large, seem to have lost touch with their role as social housing providers, becoming an unhealthy public/private Frankenstein’s Monster, knocking down estates or finding other huge empty sites to build a mix of housing for sale, shared ownership, or for rent, with genuinely affordable social rents being devoured by a new regime of allegedly “affordable” rents that are not actually affordable at all.

At Tidemill, the main developer is Peabody, which still trades on its history as a philanthropic Victorian provider of housing for the poor, even though it is now completely unrecognisable, even from what it was ten years ago. We realised this when, in October 2018, we went to their head offices to protest about their involvement in the project, and were fobbed off.

To give just one example of how Peabody are now very fundamentally a part of the problem rather than any sort of solution, the former social housing provider recently signed an £8bn deal — yes, you read that correctly — with the Australian-based international property developer Lendlease to raze to the ground the whole of the Thamesmead estate in the far reaches of south east London over the coming years, in what will undoubtedly be — if it goes ahead — the biggest clearance programme to date in the wholesale gentrification of London. (Lendlease, in case anyone doesn’t know, play a major role in the redevelopment of Southwark’s Heygate Estate, in the Timberyard in Deptford, Lewisham, right next to the vulnerable Pepys Estate, and in Haringey if redevelopment goes ahead).For more information, please read article ‘Peabody picks Lendlease for £8bn Thamesmead regeneration’ in Inside Housing, 15 February 2019.

In this destruction — which can, and should, very genuinely, be described as an epidemic of social cleansing as politicians fail to genuinely stand up for the working class people of London, whether they are white British or part of the capital’s extraordinary melting pot of cultures and ethnicities – both Labour and Conservative councils are complicit.

And so, yesterday, on the eve of my birthday, as I stood on a small triangle of grass by Deptford Church Street, in that hallucinatory light and heat that, if you lost your focus for a moment, gave you the sensation that it was the height of summer, I watched what I can genuinely describe as a war on the ordinary people of Deptford — and, by extension working class people of all backgrounds and ethnicities across the whole of the UK — by the councillors who claim to be members of a caring Labour Party, the highly-paid executives of Peabody, endlessly delivering their narratives about being a charity that provides social housing, the tree-killers, and various other parties waiting in the wings, salivating over their potential cut of the £100m that, in total, the Tidemill site will deliver to all of those involved in its development as a dull collection of tiny identikit units punctuated by pockets of supremely unimaginative landscaping, including the inevitable ‘private’ gated garden for those with the most money.

In conclusion, then — and to offset all this terrible news — where is my hope on this ill-timed birthday?

Well, that, of course, lies with the community that I have grown to be part of over the last year and a half — the local people, the artists, the musicians, the shopkeepers, the market traders, social tenants, private tenants, sympathetic owner-occupiers, the residents of Reginald House, the homeless, the inspiring, hard-working squatters from across the UK and the EU, the environmental activists, visionaries and dreamers who have come together to defend an extraordinarily beautiful community space and green oasis, and who will continue to work together to resist the gentrification plans of Lewisham Council, Peabody and other developers.

DSC_0854Photo: Anita Strasser, 2018

The battle for Tidemill, of course, is still not over, as Reginald House still stands, and the building work has yet to begin, but other battles await elsewhere — primarily, in New Cross, where the council intends to destroy the Achilles Street estate, and a number of shops attached to it, as part of its intended re-making of the whole of the centre of New Cross, and in Catford, where the council intends to destroy the town centre — the 1970s shopping centre and Milford Towers, a council estate above it. In both cases it would make much more sense for Achilles Street and the Catford shopping centre and Milford Towers to be refurbished rather than destroyed and re-created, in developments worth hundreds of millions pounds to developers and other profiteers, but that will do nothing for local people, except to exile many former social tenants, to create empty glass towers of over-priced flats that no local people can afford, and to wipe out all existing local businesses, replacing them with empty shops of drearily ubiquitous corporate chains.

Please join us in whichever way you can. The Tidemill garden gave birth to a very powerful notion of what an autonomous space can be, and what an autonomous community can be, as, from the ground up, we dealt with Deptford as it is, not Deptford as its gentrifiers want it to be — providing a safe space for homeless people, providing a green space for children to play in, and for grown-ups to reflect and relax and escape the pressures of the outside world, providing opportunities for gardening, providing opportunities for anyone who wanted to put on arts events and musical events for free to do so, creating a venue for the internationally renowned Deptford X arts festival, and providing a space in which, genuinely, societal change seemed possible — via, for example, the structures that some of the occupiers built using scavenged materials, which could have been replicated to provide homes for the homeless, but which were, instead, smashed up by bailiffs within hours of the garden’s eviction four months ago.