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Social cleansing posing as regeneration

The New Era Estate in Hoxton, east London

The New Era Estate in Hoxton, east London

Tucked between the roar of the Kingsland Road and the quiet of the Regent Canal, the New Era Estate was built 70 years ago when Hoxton was a scruffy outpost of the industrial East End.

These days, following the area’s reinvention in the last decade as a trendy hotspot on the City of London’s doorstep, it is prime property whose value has been even more inflated by the current housing bubble.

No surprise, then, that Britain’s richest MP, the Tory Richard Benyon, bought a stake in the estate earlier this year and immediately threatened massive rent hikes.

According to a report in the Daily Mirror in June, the Berkshire MP’s family firm owns 20,000 acres of land from Hampshire to Scotland and has raked in hundreds of thousands of pounds of housing benefit. But this did not stop him decrying the “something for nothing culture” as he voiced his support for the government’s cap on benefit payouts.

In March, when the Benyon Estate took over management of New Era, residents were hit with a 10 per cent rent hike, with a warning to expect more increases in line with market values. In some cases, this could have meant a trebling in rents.

Facing eviction, the residents decided they had nothing to lose by fighting back. Their campaign, which won the support of Russell Brand, saw Benyon suddenly selling his stake in the estate earlier this month, leaving Westbrook Partners – a firm of US property investors – as sole owners. The plucky residents are now turning up the pressure on Westbrook as well, saying the rent increases represent an attempt to socially cleanse the area.

But while we get outraged at the antics of Tory toffs and faceless US investors, let us bear in mind that many of our elected public servants are doing exactly the same thing all over London.

These days many council tenants are suddenly waking up to find that they live in strategically located inner city areas that require urgent regeneration. Their estates are sold off, then demolished and rebuilt for ‘mixed-use tenure’, meaning that the majority of new flats will be for purchase.

The lucky few will move into the limited ‘units’ reserved for social housing, the rest will have to take their chances in the re-housing jungle, with the ever attendant risk of being shipped out to the suburbs and beyond. Those who took advantage of Maggie Thatcher’s right-to-buy, will find that the going market rate does not apply to them when it comes to compensation for the loss of their homes.

Albion St, quiet since the closure of the Civic Centre, pictured left

Albion St, quiet since the closure of the Civic Centre, left

And so it was in July that the flattening of the vast Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle was completed amid much rancour and criticism. Once comprising 1,200 flats, it is being replaced by 2,535 homes by Labour-run Southwark Council’s development partners, the Oz corporate giants Lend Lease. But only 25 per cent will be for so-called affordable housing, with just 79 flats reserved for social rent.

Other councils are operating in a similar manner no matter that people’s lives are being demolished at the same time, all for the sake of over-priced and poorly designed apartment buildings, which in any case do nothing to resolve the capital’s housing crisis.

Newham Council is one that immediately springs to mind. It found itself uncomfortably placed in the media spotlight last month after a group of homeless young mums occupied boarded up flats on the Carpenter’s Estate next to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, whose three high-rise blocks it plans to raze to the ground.

Labour-run councils like Newham claim that the sale of public assets is helping to plug the revenue shortfall created by central government cut backs. But their zeal to balance the books above all else is alarming, as is their eagerness to get into bed with land-grabbing property developers and turn inner London into a vast gated community. The grand social vision of their forebears on the council benches is gone, replaced by a meanness of spirit that Scrooge would have been proud of – “Are there no workhouses?”

Room for a view: community garden up for sale

Room for a view: community garden up for sale

In Rotherhithe, again in Southwark, the once busy shopping thoroughfare of Albion Street, home to the distinctive looking Norwegian and Finnish churches – remnants of the area’s dockland past – is withering on the vine after the council closed down the Civic Centre there a few years back. It seemed Southwark only had eyes for the Canada Water re-development scheme a few streets away on one side and the conversion of riverside warehouses into apartments on the other in pretty Rotherhithe village.

The idea had been to see the Civic Centre, which housed a college and a library, converted into expensive dwellings, too, only it backs onto the Rotherhithe Tunnel and remains stubbornly empty.

Further afield, in north London and just minutes from Camden Town tube station, the Labour-run council plans to sell off a small community garden that lies in between workshops and the attractive Victorian houses of Carol Street. The council had originally wanted to knock down the workshops, home to number of successful businesses, but backed down after a campaign by local residents. This tiny parcel of land’s fate is now inevitable, given its central location and the fact that the former burial ground of St Martin’s Gardens that it abuts would make a lovely view.
Opening image shows boarded up pub, Albion St

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