The tenants of West Hendon council estate, London, are facing relocation from the local area or potential homelessness as a result of a regeneration project to build new homes on the land of their estate. Some tenants have been living on the estate for over forty years. Many council estates in London are facing so called regeneration, and like many of these plans, the strategy for West Hendon involves building a large number of luxury homes on the site, with a pledge by the developers to include a number of council properties within the development. I went along with my friend Lisa, a photographer and blogger, to find out what their story is.
I didn’t know quite what to expect as we approached West Hendon Estate on a freezing Saturday on the 3rd February 2015. I’d read about the estate and how the tenants are taking on Barnett Council for allegedly giving away the land their estate sits on to Barratt Homes for the purpose of creating luxury flats. I’d heard allegations of gerrymandering in the borough to get rid of the last Labour voters in the ward and about the council tenants hanging banners outside their flats, attending marches and undertaking direct action in a last attempt to save themselves from leaving their homes and community behind.
Nothing could prepare us for the sheer confusion of the situation at West Hendon. The estate is in the borough of Barnet. This is a ward in the constituency of Hendon; the fight for political power is hotly contested; the Conservatives won the seat back from Labour in the last general election with a very slim margin indeed- just 0.2%, a majority of 106. It would be easy to make a link between these voting patterns and the plans to move the council tenants (traditionally more likely to vote labour) from the area.
There are excellent transport links into the centre of London from the estate and the estate itself sits on next to one of the largest bodies of water in London, known locally as the Welsh Harp, or the Brent Reservoir, making it very desirable to developers. As we approached the site we couldn’t see the lake through the scaffolding, there wasn’t space for its peace amidst the noise and rumble of cement mixers, reversing lorries and shouting construction workers. We felt like we were trespassing. As if at any moment we would be told to stop walking, for health and safety reasons, we would be warned back.
Then we saw the blocks of existing housing. They look diminutive amidst the rubble and the high rise complexes that are already emerging from the earth. One block is covered in placards that were carried to the March for Homes, on the previous Saturday. “We will not sell for peanuts”, reads one. “Barratts R Evicting the Poor to House the Rich”, reads another. The air is cold; there is no sign of anyone on the streets besides the construction workers. This fight is taking place from within. Lisa makes a phone call to a lady who she spoke to at the March for Homes and we are both surprised when we are invited to go up to Mitzi’s flat. “She says she’s putting the kettle on!” The press have been following the story of the estate closely, evidently the tenants are now used to regular visits and their need to get their story out allows their generosity to shine through.
A lady with long hair, a keen eye and a cheeky smile opens the door. We are hustled in. The flat is filled with the sound of chirping cockatoos who are free to come and go from their cages. The large window at the back of the sitting room looks out onto what was once and beautiful and tranquil view of the reservoir and park.
We are served tea and ask if we can ask Mitzi some questions about the estate and what has been happening here. What follows is a lesson in the confusion of London’s public affairs. Barnett council gave the land to a developer in 2002 to regenerate. At the time the residents were assured that this was necessary and they would all receive new homes. The residents were concerned about these promises, so drew up a petition asking for consultation in the new properties and a pledge to make sure the new flats were of a similar size to their existing ones. Mitzi tells us that the first copy of the petition was lost by the council, so they drew up a second one and presented it directly to number 10 Downing Street. The residents have been fighting from the beginning.
They then received a pledge that met all of their demands in the petition, they would all receive new homes and the new development would take into account environmental factors such as being low rise. At around 2007, the plans were shelved due to the economic downturn. We ask Mitzi how they found out that that they were going ahead with the development we see around us today. She tells us that she wasn’t told about the new plans for regeneration and it was only when construction workers started to turn up in January 2014 that they knew anything about the current development:-
“I said excuse me, (to the builders) what’s going on here? ’Oh, we're just doing the drains' I said well just make sure that's all that's going on.”
Mitzi tells us about the noise and disruption to her day to day life living on the estate that is now a building site. She says that work is meant to stop at 6.30pm, but sometimes does not, and that no work is meant to happen on a Sunday, but they have had a drone flying around filming the area, when they complained they were told it couldn’t happen during the week as it was unsafe for the builders, “…so why is it safe for us? They are treating us residents like we’re rubbish, like we don’t even exist.”
Mitzi’s block of maisonettes is due to be demolished in March this year. She is a secure council tenant and is meant to receive a flat in the new development once it is built. In the mean-time, she has to stay here, amongst the noise and chaos of the building. Mitzi offers to introduce us to some other residents. We go across to the other side of the estate and she rings on the doorbell of a neat property. We are introduced to Thomasina.
Thomasina, 73, has lived on the estate for 43 years; she likens the process of trying to find out information on the progress of the estate as “being on a roulette wheel”. Thomasina’s flat is beautifully kept and decorated with numerous sculptures of owls. She has won the award for best garden on the estate and proudly shows us a picture of herself and her husband standing in front of her garden in full bloom. Ina, as she is known, has been active in this situation from the beginning. She is proud to show us copies of two letters acknowledging the delivery of the petition to 10 Downing Street.
Ina tells us that maintenance on the existing homes on the estate has all but stopped. She says that pensioner’s homes used to be redecorated every two to three years, but since the estate was earmarked for redevelopment, this hasn’t been the case. She mentions that the fire door that opens on to her kitchen broke and the council advised her to contact Help the Aged for support rather than fix it themselves.
Ina has little trust of the council or the other organisations involved with the regeneration scheme. We mention the recent public inquiry that finished at the end of January 2015. This inquiry was into the use of Compulsory Purchase Order to acquire the properties that are owned through leasehold or freehold on the estate. We want to know if the residents have been told when to expect the results of the inquiry. Ina says they don’t know, “we’ll just be pushed from Peter to Paul to Nancy. They have their own agenda.” Mitzi suggested that the result wouldn’t be disclosed for at least six months, after the general election. The feelings of confusion and the stress of not knowing their future housing situation is evident in Mitzi and Ina. Ina even speaks of a future of being homeless:-
“When they notify me I want to book my cardboard box with my bridge over it.”
There are several options open to the residents depending on where they fit in this scheme. Leaseholders and Freeholders can purchase one of the new flats through a shared equity scheme, if the combination of the value of their existing property and the compensation they will receive (10% of the value of their current property) comes to 50% of the value of the new build. They will be responsible for all service charges on the new flat of course. The valuation process was described in detail by resident Jackie Coleman speaking to The New Statesman. Unfortunately, the valuation of the existing flats, as undertaken by the council, is far lower than the market value, and even with the compensation fee it will not be enough to reach the 50% mark. This leaves residents who thought they had the security of owning a property with a very insecure future where they may be forced to sell their home below market value and move elsewhere.
The secure council tenants have been told that they will receive new flats that have the same number of bedrooms as their current properties and will be at least as large. However, they will be single story flats, whereas a lot of the current properties are maisonettes and there is no guarantee as to what floor they will be on, or if they will have a garden. Non secure tenants will be moved to other council properties within the borough. Some residents report that secure tenancies have not been offered since the initial plans in 2002, so there are residents who will be moved away who have lived on the estate for over ten years, many of them having children who have grown up on the estate. Several tenants tell us that previous to the regeneration plans, secure tenancy was generally granted after 2-3 years.
We hear several stories about people who have been ‘decanted’ (the official term for evicting council tenants from one property into another) from other estates that are being regenerated into this one. They will soon be moved on again. A whole raft of council tenants are being shipped around building sites in the capitol, destined to live amongst the noise and pollution. There is one resident who has been forced to move out of his current flat into a different one on the estate, so his home can be boarded up. He is given no help in moving all of his possessions and there is no guarantee how long he will be able to stay in the place he is moving to.
Mitzi introduces us to one more resident. Derrick Chung has lived on the estate for more than 25 years and is a very busy man. He is not only the chair of West Hendon Residents Association, but is also in Friends of York Memorial Park, The Welsh Harp Committee and the Welsh Harp Joint Consultative Committee. We ask him how he got involved in the association; he says it was not through boredom. He is a busy man. Derrick is evidently concerned about the environment; the lake, the York Memorial Park. He describes how he campaigned for the flats to be moved back from their proposed site; right on the waters’ edge as the shadow cast by the high rise buildings would have an environmental impact upon the ecosystem of the lake. “We must protect the birds and the bees”.
He has little respect left for the councillors and politicians involved in this process. He says he is against anyone losing their homes here. He tells us of some of the terms of the original pledge; all council tenants will receive a new property on a like for like basis; there will be no overdevelopment and no skyscrapers. We can see that the new buildings are high rises, and there were over six hundred council tenants when the regeneration was first proposed. There are now just over 200 left. Derrick would like to see all council and social housing tenants offered a property.
Derrick is a softly spoken, but intensely passionate man who clearly cares about people and the environment. He is scathingly against the fact that many of the properties on the new development will be luxury developments and well out of the reach of the council tenants. He says that “someone who already has money to make money from this misery is wrong.”
We ask him to confirm what we have heard from the other residents, that all of the council tenants will be moved into one block, furthest away from the Welsh Harp, he backs this up and says that “all you will get is the smell of traffic in the morning and the chicken shop.” Ida also says she has been told that there will be separate lifts in the block for council tenants and private residents. At the time I am not sure whether to believe this, but recently I have read many accounts of similar situations where affordable or council tenants are not able to share private gardens or even entrances with private owners. This situation, where the wealthy and the poor will be forced to share the same buildings, but never meet, seems particularly mean to me. To have separate entrances, amenities and even lifts simply compounds an ‘us and them’ attitude that will do little to help people see each other as people, regardless of financial background. The new owners of properties on Barratt’s Hendon Waterside, won’t even have to see their new neighbours or get a chance to find out that they might be respectable people with families and a strong pride in their local community.
Just before we leave, we gaze out appreciatively from the large window in Derrick’s flat that looks out onto Welsh Harp reservoir.
“…and then he turns on the light” he quietly muses as the sunset bathes the room in a golden glow. When this estate was built in 1968, it is obvious that there was an idea that local communities would benefit to access to fresh air, that beautiful views were important things for everyone to enjoy.
“And then sometimes he turns on his red light”, he sighs. We appreciate the mellow atmosphere that envelopes us, basking in peace, before we exit, once again into the noise and dust of the building site that has become these people’s homes.
There are many campaigns springing up around the capitol, gaining momentum, not just in the area of housing, but in all sectors of building, development and regeneration there is a call to consider what we will be losing by providing homes and shopping centres for the wealthy and not preserving the culture that London is famous for.
An immense menacing pressure.
Dust and discomfort hung the air. The pressure to move, the constant noise and disruption of the building sites and construction vehicles, banners fluttering from railings, notices up from residents advising people of their rights, notices from developers about construction schedules, site safety notices and cctv cameras, empty shuttered doors among comfortable family homes, abandonment and beautifully tended porches.
But among this disturbing atmosphere it was possible to catch glimpses of the peaceful homes that people had made here. The welsh harp; the park; the trees; the sun setting behind the water, tracing patterns slowly across living room walls; photos of loves ones; mementos of lives lived.
The memorial park is mainly under a building site now, with a forlorn little patch of green as a reminder of what had been lost. The tower going up by the water will sit squarely in between the welsh harp and the residents current homes.Even if they manage to hold on to their homes, they must watch their beloved view, their space and most of their sunlight disappear.
This estate was built in a time when the UK government strove to guarantee every member of society a good home and the chance to live a peaceful dignified life, a time when financial value was not the only value, and people counted as more than an economic variable.
See Fraisia's blog here: www.fraisiadunn.weebly.com
This is a personal statement of a councillor who has been involved in the process in West Hendon for some time. These are his personal views of the errors that have been made in the process:
This is the official site about the regeneration of West Hendon, you can find details about the inquiry here, including a log of complaints made and responses received: http://www.west-hendon.co.uk/
A link to a page written by Derrick Chung, one of the residents we met, for the blog London Tenants in 2009:
Broken Barnet, a very entertaining blog, follows the story of West Hendon closely:
Our West Hendon Facebook page, this is a campaign group formed of some of the residents of the estate:-
Link to petition on change.org https://www.facebook.com/pages/Our-West-Hendon/1476545849228072?sk=info&tab=page_info