Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'Not for Sale': John Walsh and Fred Wigg Towers, Leytonstone

The loss of council homes on another London estate means an uncertain future for tenants.

Residents and campaigners protest against the loss of their council homes
© London Intelligence 2015

By Paul Coleman

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower…
'Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.’

No, this isn’t written about London in 2015.
Urban sociologist Ruth Glass wrote this about London in 1964.
In the book, London: Aspects of Change’,* Glass inserted ‘gentrification’ into London’s urban vocabulary.

To some observers, Glass’ description remains brutally apt for 21st Century London.
To others, ‘gentrification’ - where middle class people cheaply buy and renovate rundown properties - seems far too gentle.
They say 'social engineering' continues to eclipse ‘gentrification’.
By social engineering, they mean a process where property developers and local politicians - key elements of London's 'market state' - systematically dispossess and displace working class people from their traditional homes and neighbourhoods in virtually every London borough.
Local councils sell public land and council homes to developers.
Developers refurbish or demolish these homes and sell new luxury apartments to High Net Worth Individuals and global property speculators.
'Market state' politicians throw in a low percentage of often unaffordable 'affordable' homes for sale and rent to massage public opinion.

Jasmine, member of Focus E15 Mothers
© London Intelligence 2015

The residents of Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers are seen as the latest targets of this market state ‘regeneration’.
On Wednesday 14 January, a band of 'Fred and John' residents and housing activists brave a bitterly cold evening in Leytonstone in north-east London.
They systematically drop leaflets through letterboxes.
They knock on doors and encourage council tenants to resist plans by Waltham Forest Council to 'temporarily' decant tenants whilst the 'Fred and John' towers undergo a six-year 'refurbishment'.

Overlooking the open spaces of Wanstead Flats, the Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers on Montague Road, completed in the 1960s, have provided council homes at genuinely affordable rents to thousands of households over decades.
Some may remember too the Ministry of Defence controversially placed surface-to-air missiles on top of the towers to bolster security at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
But, last November, the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest agreed to cut the number of council homes in Fred Wigg and John Walsh from 234 to 160.

Local residents face being removed from the 'Fred and John' towers ahead of the six-year 'refurbishment' scheme.
A number of new flats in a third block to be built between the Wigg and Walsh towers are planned to be sold on the open market.
Leading to accusations the Council wants to privatise the blocks at a time when 20,000 people wait for a Waltham Forest council property.

Waltham Forest Council is working with Ascham Homes to 'improve the estate'. 
Ascham Homes run a 'project shop' in between the blocks to explain the scheme to tenants.
The author was denied access to the 'shop' and told to make an appointment.

© London Intelligence 2015

Displacement looms as a big worry for Fred Wigg and John Walsh residents. Several residents, speaking on their doorsteps, worry they might be forced to move out of London altogether given the city's chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes.
They worry their children face disrupted schooling.
Family life could face severe challenges.
Chloe, another tenant, tells the campaigners: "I don't think this building is structurally sound enough to be reduced back to its core and refurbished."

Waltham Forest Council says revenue from private sales could raise three-quarters of £40 million needed for the refurbishment.
Waltham Forest cabinet member for housing, councillor Khevyn Limbajee, says every resident will get a chance to return to the refurbished towers. 
Renovation will provide better homes, says Limbajee.
“We’re not privatising the blocks,” adds Limbajee. 
“But selling some of the flats is needed to finance the build.”

Residents and campaigners speaking with other residents
 © London Intelligence 2015

Some residents, like Barbara, say they might be prepared to move.
But only if provided with a secure council tenancy elsewhere in the borough or in north-east London.
"I'd like to move but with all my rights intact," says Barbara.

Social housing campaigner Alice then tells Barbara that council tenants could be moved to private rented housing rather than an equivalent secure council tenancy.
"I wouldn't agree to that," replies Barbara, who has lived in Fred Wigg for 13 years with her two sons.
Jasmine, one of the Focus E15 mothers, a group of mainly women that fought evictions from the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, adds: "A lot of people are being put in private accommodation and many are being sent to Manchester and Birmingham."
"I won't let them send us out of London," replies Barbara. 
Barbara then tells Jasmine and Alice she will attend a 'Fred & John Towers Not for Sale' campaign meeting scheduled for Tuesday, 24 February at the Epicentre in Leytonstone.

Council tenancy
Limbajee says Focus E15 are acting as "scaremongers".
Yet residents say they don't believe council politicians and officers when they say refurbishment of 'Fred and John' would mean only a temporary move away.
When the Council says 'temporary', they believe the Council really means 'permanent' exile.
Daniel, a ground floor resident, says: "I'm not sure this is a fight we can win. 
"But if they're kicking us out of our council homes, we will tell them we don't want any housing associations but a council tenancy."

© London Intelligence 2015

* Glass, Ruth: London, Aspects of Change, University College London, Centre for Urban Studies, MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1964.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2015

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