'The homes in Aragon Tower will be sold or let on the open market and those Pepys residents who wished to do so would be able to register an interest in them.' -- Lewisham council
'We want to offer new opportunities for neighbourhoods everywhere. We want people to help shape the local public services they receive, and we want them to become more involved in the democratic life of their community. By action at the neighbourhood level, people everywhere can make a significant difference to the quality of our country’s public services. In this way, local people, working with local councillors, can play their part in creating sustainable communities.' -- Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
The Pepys estate in Deptford is a model social housing estate in London on the banks of the River Thames. Set in an open park setting, with pathways criss-crossing the estate, it consists of three 24-story tower blocks and ten 8-story blocks, plus several other 4-story blocks.
The 8-story blocks have a strange internal arrangement. From the front door to each flat, you either go up or down a short flight of steps, and the floors are on three split levels.
Apart from the tower blocks, the blocks are red brick, and very reminiscent of 1920s red-brick apartments found in upmarket parts of London.
Pepys estate was developed on the site of the former Royal Naval Victualling Yard at Deptford in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The quality of the build was high.
The Pepys estate occupies a major part of the only element of river frontage in Lewisham.
When completed the Pepys estate was seen as a prestigious move forward in social housing provision and was a very popular place to move in to. The legacy of this is that many tenants have subsequently remained on the estate, and it is not at all uncommon to find that people have lived on the estate for 20-30 years or more.
The Pepys estate won a Civic Trust design award.
Walking around the estate one winter evening, I was struck by how peaceful and quiet it was, no yobs hanging around, very little rubbish or graffiti.
The view from the river walk is stunning. Upstream central London, on the opposite bank Canary Wharf, and down river Greenwich. The sort of location people would pay millions for, which explains a lot, as will be seen.
In the early 1990s, an Estate Action plan was mooted for Pepys. It was to have run for seven years and have been completed by 1999.
Like the original concept for the estate, the action plan was radical in that it involved the people themselves from the Pepys estate, Council officers, architects and planners. All were as equally involved in thinking through the planning proposal. The proposal eventually put forward and agreed involved very little demolition.
This direct involvement of the people deciding their own future, was so unusual, that John Gummer, then Environment Minister, visited the estate to see the scheme for himself.
What was finally agreed, following community involvement, was refurbishment of existing buildings. The only demolition was of one block of flats - Merrick House of 44 flats, located in the central area of the estate. The proposed replacement was to be new social housing of fourteen 3-bed houses and four 4-bed houses. The existing Community Centre and existing shops were to be demolished, and a new Community Centre and ground level shops built.
The new houses were to have their own enclosed gardens. This was seen as a plus for the estate as none of the existing flats on the estate had gardens.
What we saw at this stage was a 'hands-on' planning approach facilitated by community architects working together with local people. A Council working with and on behalf of a local community, the people it is elected to serve
Just when the scheme should have reached completion, it all began to fall apart. The Council, Lewisham, claimed it had run out of money. It could no longer afford refurbishment, the blocks left were not worthy of refurbishment. By strange coincidence, the blocks left occupied prime riverside sites!
New architects were appointed, with no input from the tenants.
The new scheme involves sale of the riverside tower block, Aragon Tower, to a private property developer, Berkeley Homes, for sale or let as expensive riverside apartments, and the sale for redevelopment of the remaining land and blocks to Hyde Housing Association for redevelopment. The marketing exercise was carried out in secret. There was to be no further public involvement.
The cream was about to be dished out and the local community wasn't to be invited to the table.
The Council concluded it was too expensive to refurbish Aragon Tower for social tenants (but could afford to refurbish the other two tower blocks) but okay to refurbish for private tenants, and the remaining blocks are not fit for refurbishment (although all the other blocks were), and that they are nearing the end of their useful life. The houses with gardens, bar a few houses, had been lost from the scheme.
Aragon Tower is to have five more floors added by extending the building upwards.
The decision to appoint Hyde as the housing association had no input from tenants or their representatives.
Refurbishment of the remaining blocks, works out at a third of the cost of the Hyde demolish and rebuild!
Two of the blocks sold to Hyde, Barfleur and Dolben did not have vacant possession as required under the 1985 Housing Act when contract for sale was exchanged. The two sites are being sold for less than £1 million each!
Hyde are to receive a grant of a little under £9 million from the Housing Corporation, and that is for only part of the new scheme.
Questions that need to be asked of the Housing Corporation: are they aware of the original scheme which had widespread public support, that the new scheme does not have local support, that it will reduce the availability of social housing in an area of acute social deprivation, why are they grant aiding a redevelopment that works out at three times the cost of refurbishment with no social benefits to the local community, why are they squandering public money?
There has been minimum consultation over the new scheme. Most of the affected tenants had already been evicted from their homes. Tenants lack a guaranteed right to return if and when the scheme is completed.
If the new scheme goes ahead, there will be a net loss of social housing in Lewisham. This at a time when the demand in London for social housing has never been higher, a demand Lewisham are failing to meet.
Tenants have been forced out of their homes by hook or by crook.
Those who had the longest wait for refurbishment, now find they are to get nothing other than eviction from their homes.
Tenants in this late phase have been doubly-disadvantaged - not refurbished for several years, neglected by Council in maintenance and repairs (harassment by neglect to force them out of their homes), lose their Council secure tenancy. And to top it all, are not only being forced out of their homes, but being forced off their estate and out of the local community where they belong.
Tenants who have been kicked out of their homes and turfed off the estate, have no guaranteed right of return to the estate.
Within the unwanted new development, Hyde is offering first letting to Lewisham (no such guarantees on subsequent lettings). What tenant would wish voluntarily to transfer a secure tenancy, to an insecure tenancy under a landlord over who they have no control, at a higher rent?
To see how bad housing association tenancies are compared with council tenancies, look no further than Pavilion Housing Association in north east Hampshire. Hyde also operate in NE Hants, and they are seen locally as no better than Pavilion.
An unusual feature of Pepys, is that it utilises waste heat from power stations. The new blocks already built by Hyde, do not, they have individual gas-fired central heating, thus the Hyde tenants face higher occupancy costs. Unlike the blocks they replace, or will replace, the Hyde blocks lack the views of either the river or the parkland. And to add insult to injury, a higher rent will be charged.
The promise to demolish one block in the centre of Pepys and replace with houses with gardens, seems to have been quietly forgotten.
Evelyn Ward in which Pepys is located is one of the most deprived areas in the country. The Council's own surveys have identified an acute need for social housing:
"Housing need in the borough is acute. The Lewisham Housing Needs Survey carried out in 2002 revealed that 9.3% of all households ... are living in unsuitable housing ... 91.6% of households living in unsuitable housing ... cannot afford market housing."
"The social housing sector represents the most affordable housing within Lewisham, and therefore demand is extremely high. On 1st April 2003 there were 15,341 households on the Council's housing waiting list, and a further 6000 tenants on the transfer list."
"Homelessness applications are also increasing.“
And yet, the Council can sell-off a 24-story tower block to a private developer, and other blocks to a housing association.
Lack of money is the excuse why the original agreed refurbishment cannot be carried through to completion. Money has though been found to install CCTV on the estate, 600 cameras. There was not a problem of anti-social behaviour to justify the installation of a CCTV system, no consultation with the residents to see if that was how they wished to see their money spent. But whether or not there was a need for CCTV, it has proved to be a very costly white elephant, as the cameras are not being monitored. A squandering of public money that maybe the District Auditor should look into.
Money or lack thereof, is not the only pathetic excuse the Council has found to abandon the original scheme, a scheme that had the approval of all parties.
Several of the blocks are raised on stilts. The Council sees this as a waste of space. Maybe the original architects were visionaries in more ways than one and foresaw global warming. If this space cannot be used for housing, it could be used as community space, start-up businesses and workshops.
One such space was used by Cor Blimey Arts group and others as a musicians rehearsal and recording studio. Council threatened withdrawal of funding, and moved the organisation to Deptford High Street.
The Council claims the blocks are in poor condition and not worthy of refurbishment. This would be unusual for quality build, and is not the view of the residents. The exteriors are in poor condition, as are the steps in the surrounding areas and poorly maintained footpaths, but that is down to the failure of the Council to maintain.
In June 2000, Joe Montgomery, Head of Regeneration, visited affected blocks of Barfleur and Limberg. He was surprised by the good condition of the blocks and the way that tenants maintained their own flats, and their commitment to the estate. This was despite the Council's neglect of exterior fabric and communal areas.
The Council claims the footpaths around the estate are confusing. I did not find it so, and I had never been there before.
Demolition and handing over to a housing association and property developer, is seen as introducing diversity of ownership, ie kick out social housing tenants and replace with more profitable private sector tenants.
There has been no consultation with existing tenants over transfer to Hyde, other than circulating a note explaining who Hyde are.
Transfer to a housing association requires a ballot of tenants, and such transfers are vigorously fought up and down the country. Lewisham appear to be forcing through back-door privatisation under the guise of 'redevelopment'.
Other reasons that Lewisham have put forward to justify their new scheme include: dampness, windows reaching the end of their life, poor heat insulation, poor sound insulation, lack of security.
In the block I visited I found none of these problems, and even if they did exist, it could not justify demolition.
The block I visited, I commented at the time at how quiet it was, the windows lacked a lick of paint, nothing more, there was no dampness. The blocks are heated by 'waste' heat, that otherwise would have been a problem to be disposed off, either by pumping hot water into the Thames, or to the atmosphere via cooling towers. The block had an intercom entry system with steel reinforced entry doors!
All sorts of dirty tricks have been played by the Council, from the deployment of a tame residents association (the tenants have since formed their own tenants action group) to changing the venue of meetings to wrong-foot objectors.
By hook or by crook, people have been forced out of their homes. Those who have agreed to move, have been offered a miserly £1500 in compensation.
Now only a hard core, who are refusing to move, remain. A handful who are determined to fight the Council every step of the way.
The few remaining tenants will be forced out with eviction orders. For those who have exercised the right to by, the intention is to serve Compulsory Purchase Orders. CPOs may only be used to benefit the community, not a developer. And yet, that is what is happening at Pepys, as the community has said this new scheme is not wanted.
Those who remain have been joined in their fight by squatters. Squatters now occupy one block, Marlowe.
Since taking over Marlowe, the squatters have improved not only the block, but also the surrounding area. The few remaining residents have said they have seen improvements.
A green fair was held late last summer, even though the Council did their best to stop it on trumped up Health and Safety grounds.
The very fact squatters have taken over a block has stopped vandalism and other criminal activity. Or would Lewisham rather see the building vandalised and occupied by crack heads?
The Council now has the additional problem of evicting the squatters. And like the few remaining residents, they are determined to fight to the bitter end. Currently they are fighting the Council in the courts.
The attempts by the Council to date to evict the squatters have been sloppy, failure to get their case together, badly copied documents, missing documents. All indicative of how badly run is the Council of Lewisham.
Several empty flats are still available in Marlowe. Ideal for green activists who are willing to be part of a community and carry out work in and around the estate. The only mode of permitted personal transport is a bicycle.
When I visited Marlowe, I was reminded of student residencies in the revolutionary '60s. A very friendly atmosphere. An informal co-operative.
Wondering around Pepys both in the early evening and late at night, I felt safe. It wasn't for example, like Pavilion estates in Aldershot, where gangs of youths are roaming the streets looking for trouble and no-one out at night is safe. I was also struck by the community spirit and friendliness. People stopped to say hello, to have a chat, to learn what were the latest developments.
Could this in part be why Lewisham is so determined to destroy the Pepys estate? A Council cannot allow a community to form, a place of radical new ideas, as this will prove a serious challenge to the Council's own power base, as they are now finding to their cost.
What is happening in Lewisham is not unusual. It is all too typical of corrupt councils working hand-in-glove with developers and housing associations, to the detriment of local people, local communities.
In Liverpool, waterside areas are being cleared of social housing to enable the building of expensive housing for sale. In Newcastle, we find the same, riverside housing being cleared to make way for luxury apartments. In Sunderland, vast swathes of social housing are being cleared for new-build housing for sale. In Farnborough, the council is colluding with property developers, half the town centre is to be demolished for a superstore, social housing is to be demolished for a car park for the superstore.
In Liverpool, hundreds of homeowners are defying CPOs served on them. A group of residents have gotten together and produced a 52-minute documentary available on DVD. All too typical of what masquerades as the local press in this country, the Liverpool Echo, has ignored the documentary.
There is a lot of money at stake in these greed-driven developments, we should never underestimate what the thugs employed by developers and their corrupt cohorts in local councils will do. Community activist Mike Lane has been a vocal critic of what has been happening in Liverpool. He helped form, and chairs, an action group. Recently his car was fire-bombed.
A few days before I visited Pepys, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott put out a press release on his latest housing initiative. The press release was to compliment his five year housing plan, Sustainable Communities: Homes For All, released the previous week. His statement that he wants to see the involvement of local communities deciding their own future, has to be seen as a sick joke.
In their short period of occupancy, the squatters have shown far more commitment, dedication, to Pepys than has ever been shown by Lewisham. Instead of trying to evict the squatters, instead of handing Pepys piecemeal to Hyde, who have poor track record of managing social housing, Lewisham should be working with the squatters, providing them with funding to improve Pepys. We would then have, not the weasel words of Prescott, but genuine community involvement, where local communities, with the help and support of local councils, are free to run their own estates. Only then will we see, what Prescott claims he wants: local people, working with local councillors, playing their part in creating sustainable communities.
Come on John, let's see you put your money where your big mouth is. Actions speak louder than words.
Prescott says he wants to see people 'become more involved in the democratic life of their community.' What we are seeing in Lewisham, is a travesty of local democracy.
Mike Lane, Whole communities will be decimated through gentrification!, Indymedia UK, 2 September 2004
Keith Parkins, A sense of the masses - a manifesto for the new revolution, October 2003
Keith Parkins, Social landlords are deviating from their intended purpose, Indymedia UK, 20 January 2004
Keith Parkins, Social housing landlords the new corporations, Corporate Watch newsletter No 17, January-February 2004
Keith Parkins, Registered social landlords – the new corporations, Indymedia UK, 18 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Social housing under attack, Indymedia UK, 5 August 2004
Keith Parkins, Privatisation of council housing, Indymedia UK, 16 August 2004
Keith Parkins, Social housing privatisation scam, Indymedia UK, 2 November 2004
Prescott unveils plans to give communities more say in local decision making, press release, ODPM, 31 January 2005
Michael Rosen, Road to ruin, The Guardian, 3 December 2004
Tenants Action Group, Powerless Residents!, Indymedia UK, 5 February 2005