Thursday, 18 December 2014

Demolition City: Shaded Red on the Heygate - Uprooting Trees and People

The architect of one of Britain's iconic public housing estates reflects on its demolition by property developers and a local council.

Tree canopy over Heygate's Cuddington and Chearsley low-rises August 2012
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2012

Architect Tim Tinker revisiting the Heygate in February 2013
© London Intelligence 2013

Shaded red 

By Paul Coleman

'The Great Silver Maple'. 
'Walworth Woods'.
'Cuddington Copse'.
Titles evoking scenes of a tree-sheltered pub in some distant shire.
Yet, they are tree-filled quadrants named after blocks of homes on a south London council estate.

But there is trouble for the trees in this Elephant and Castle urban forest in south London. 
A developer's notice, clipped to a formidable metal fence, labels three trees as ‘T80’, ‘T81’ and ‘T82’.
And colour codes the them, as 'shaded red'.
Red for felling and removal.
Just three of the 450 mature trees that, according to local people, formed a magnificent 'urban forest' or 'secret woodland' on a council estate - just a hop from the Elephant and Castle's grunge of traffic.
Felled trees, local housing activists say, that symbolise Britain’s national housing crisis – with more than 1.4 million people waiting years for public housing and with an estimated 85,000 children living in temporary accommodation.
A crisis biting deep in the south London borough of Southwark.
With over 18,000 households languishing on Southwark's waiting list.
And, with the Council saying it intends to build 11,000 new council homes - by 2043. 

Remnants of felled Heygate trees - 'T80, T81 and T82' - and conserved in background
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2014

Removal notice of Heygate trees, shaded red
© London Intelligence 2014

For 40 years, Heygate's natural canopy of trees - mainly maples and London Plane - shielded thousands of residents living in low-rise blocks at the heart of the council estate.
The trees themselves sheltered inside an estate periphery of high-rise blocks.
Blocks that presented a stark external face to the rest of the world.
But deliberately designed by Heygate architect Tim Tinker to protect many of the estate’s 1,212 homes from traffic noise and pollution.
But they couldn't protect Heygate tenants and leaseholders from being 'decanted' and evicted - a consequence of a plan by 'development partners' Lend Lease and Southwark Council to 'regenerate' the Heygate with new 2,735 high-density, luxury apartments and 'affordable homes, as well as shops, a new park, and open spaces.
Tinker told a 2013 public inquiry that Lend Lease and Southwark Council had "stigmatised" the Heygate and his brutalist 'concretopia' design as a crime-ridden labyrinth.
"It's notorious reputation is a farrago of half-truths and lies put together by people who should have known better," said Tinker.

By December 2014, demolition crews have weeded out nature.
Trees, including T80, T81 and T82, lie hacked, sliced and removed – next to council homes reduced to piles of rubble.
Tinker tells London Intelligence: "I think the Heygate was fundamentally and reasonably sound. The flat inside were very spacious.
"And the high-rise blocks intentionally created a surprisingly very peaceful place inside the estate."
Tinker says Southwark Council wasn't entirely to blame for the estate's poor management and maintenance in later years.
"We didn't get everything right at the Heygate but we got a lot right," adds Tinker.

Tinker re-visted the Heygate in February 2013 - just as Southwark Council and Lend Lease sought compulsory purchase orders to weed out the estate's last few right-to-buy leaseholders. 
Tinker noted nature's intensifying presence in the hiatus between Heygate residents being 'decanted' and their homes being demolished.
Birds, bats and butterflies flitted between the trees.
Violets and Forget-Me-Nots covered lush, frothy patches of grass.
‘Guerilla gardeners’ grew vegetables on plots and in poly-tunnels.
They kept bees.
Tended chickens.

Chicken on Heygate's Chearnley block © London Intelligence 2012

Butterfly on a wildflower in the 'Heygate hiatus' © London Intelligence 2012

But, by December 2014, demolition has exposed this oasis to the choke and roar of traffic. 
Little or no trace remains of the thousands of council tenants and clutch of leaseholders who lived on the Heygate.
In the Heygate’s heyday, anyone could enter the estate.
Yet property developers now own this 25-acre expanse of formerly public owned land.
Fences, CCTV and security guards secure perimeters.
And, once the construction site fences go, local people say the new development will be a highly patrolled privately owned area.
Restricted mainly to residents living in 2,735 new ‘Elephant Park’ luxury apartments and houses.
Lend Lease says it is 'creating central London's new green heart' at Elephant Park - although it seems to have dropped references to 'creating London's largest new park'.
Tinker isn't convinced by Lend Lease's green credentials.
"New residents in expensive flats will complain they can't use Lend Lease's little tuppenny ha'penny toy park as people are coming in from outside," says Tinker. 
"They'll expect to have priority use of the park."

Lend Lease model of 'Elephant Park' at former Heygate site
© London Intelligence 2014

Lend Lease says it will ‘plant new trees to ensure there is no net loss of trees’, saying its 'Elephant Park' development will 'contribute to the 1,200 plus new trees being planted throughout the area over the next ten years'.
"Maybe, it's not the place of an architect to say, but I regard the loss of the trees as symbolic of the manipulation involved in the new development," says Tinker.
"The tragedy is that developer has run rings around promises made about relocating tenants and providing affordable housing. 
"Somehow they've managed to persuade everyone they can't build hardly any affordable housing."

Tinker says some degree of 'gentrification' in the Elephant and Walworth areas was inevitable and even necessary. 
"But central government seems to say to councils they can only build new homes by cutting deals with large developers," says Tinker. 
"Gentrification has small-scale advantages but is highly dubious on this huge scale."
Tinker worries similar mistakes will be made at the Aylesbury estate just down the road from the Heygate.
"I'm a bit saddened that Notting Hill Housing are developing the Aylesbury in a similar way to Lend Lease at the Heygate," says Tinker. 
"Notting Hill used to sensitively do up blocks of houses to improve neighbourhoods.
"Their Aylesbury scheme looks more like the plans of a corporate developer."

Councils and developers engaged in 'developer-led regeneration' of 'new neighbourhoods’ dismiss such views as naive romanticism.
Developer Lend Lease and Southwark Council mantra that urban ‘quarters’ like the Elephant and Castle need ‘new homes’.
Tinker accepts their arguments remain persuasive to many outsiders.
Especially, to people with no sense of the family and neighbourhood ties uprooted and torn asunder by such large-scale, long-term schemes.

Tinker has heard many local people say they simply won’t be able to afford any of the 2,735 new luxury homes to be built for sale on the site.
Homes on the first phase at 'Trafalgar Place' on Rodney Road were pre-sold 'off-plan', many to overseas investors - with one-bedroom apartments selling for £380,000.
Tinker feels a ‘right of return’ once offered by the development partners to former Heygate residents now increasingly looks more like a misleading sop.

Shading red powerless working people.
And mature trees.
To be uprooted.
"Why should people who need public housing be pushed out of central London?" asks  Tinker.
"I think this is already being seen as a mistake."

Guerilla gardeners grow vegetables on the Heygate 2012
© London Intelligence 2012

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, December 2014

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