A Radical Proposal to Save the Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald House in Deptford: Use Besson Street, an Empty Site in New Cross

15.10.18

One of the two beautiful Indian bean trees in the occupied Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, October 11, 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).In Deptford, in south east London, a battle is taking place. On one side are Lewisham Council and the developer Peabody, who intend to destroy the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, a garden that has been used by local children and the wider community for 20 years, and Reginald House, a block of structurally sound council flats next door, for a new housing project centred on the old Tidemill primary school. 

Opposing the council and Peabody — in the manner of that little Gaulish village that held out against Julius Caesar in ‘Asterix the Gaul’ — are representatives of the local community, who have occupied the garden since August 29 to prevent it being boarded up prior to its intended destruction, and also to prevent the demolition of Reginald House, whose tenants are also involved in the campaign.

The Tidemill campaign has, very noticeably, the moral high ground, while the council and Peabody have nothing but spin and deception. The garden is a magical green space and community asset that is also of notable environmental significance, mitigating the horrendous effects of pollution on the traffic-choked roads nearby, and is therefore genuinely priceless. As for Reginald House next door, there can be no rational justification for knocking down structurally sound social housing to build new properties that are also described as “homes for social rent”, unless some subterfuge is involved.

That subterfuge involves the council and Peabody being part of a London-wide movement, sanctioned by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to do away with homes at genuine social rents, and to replace them with new homes that purport to be at social rent, but are no such thing. The new rental regime that will be in place at Tidemill — for the 104 new properties that are not either for private sale (51) or for shared ownership (41), an expensive rental scam that creates the illusion of home ownership — will involve ‘London Affordable Rent’, an innovation of Sadiq Khan’s that, in Lewisham, according to the council’s own documents, is actually 63% higher than social rents; meaning an extra £3,000 a year that is simply not available to many hard-working families.

The council and Peabody have no interest in addressing any of these salient points raised by campaigners, just as they are not interested in campaigners pointing out that other land is available in the borough if, as is apparent, they cannot build as many properties as they would like on the Tidemill site. 

Years ago, at the start of the planning process for Tidemill, an architect working with campaigners came up with an alternative vision of the site showing how, theoretically, the garden and Reginald House could be spared by building more densely on the old school site. That suggestion, however, was never taken seriously by the council, and is now used against campaigners to suggest that the only alternative we came up with is not viable.

So here’s a radical proposal for Lewisham Council and Peabody: build the extra homes that you can’t build on the garden or by knocking down Reginald House elsewhere in the borough.

I understand, of course, that Lewisham Council, like all councils, has a housing problem — there aren’t enough homes that are genuinely affordable, and housing waiting lists are out of control. In Lewisham, for example, as of February 2018, there were 1,930 residents in temporary accommodation – 530 of whom were in paid nightly accommodation, with 9,905 residents in total on the housing register.

This is a problem that dates back to Margaret Thatcher’s housing policies in the 1980s, when she sold off council homes but refused to allow councils to build any new council housing. However, instead of thinking creatively about an adequate response, Lewisham Council has slavishly accepted a flawed model promoted by the Tory government — selling off land on the cheap to private developers and housing associations, which are increasingly acting like private developers; all in all, a broken and inadequate response to Tory cuts.

As a result, inappropriate developments are rising up everywhere — in the dreadful Lewisham Gateway development, for example, and at Lendlease’s Timberyard development in Deptford, where genuinely affordable social housing has been outlawed, and the new housing is primarily for private sale, with some ropey shared ownership deals thrown in to placate criticism. And the worst of all is yet to come — a Dubai-style development of 3,500 properties, with 85% for private sale, at Convoys Wharf, by the River Thames, where King Henry VIII used to have his Royal Dockyard. Also looming is the proposed destruction of Catford town centre — the shopping centre and Milford Towers estate above it — to be replaced by over-priced “luxury” tower blocks and retail properties that will only be affordable for the dreary corporate chains that plague almost every town centre in the country (please follow Catford Against Social Cleansing if this concerns you), and the proposed destruction of the Achilles Street area in New Cross, where the intention is to demolish 87 homes and numerous associated shops, because their proximity to Fordham Park has the council and developers salivating over the opportunity to build another batch of over-priced “luxury” tower blocks (for the resistance to this, please follow the Save Achilles Area Twitter account).

Elsewhere, however, housing association-led developments are not much more helpful — as can be seen not only in the proposals for the Tidemill site, but also at numerous other developments across the borough, including L&Q’s replacement for the beautiful prefab Excalibur Estate in Catford, and at Parkside, Peabody’s replacement for the Heathside and Lethbridge Estates on the border with Greenwich. Private sales subsidise rented properties, but as at Tidemill the shared ownership scam is still prominent, and the rental properties that purport to be social housing (“affordable” properties) are increasingly being rented at ‘London Affordable Rent.’ While this is less preposterous than Boris Johnson’s definition of “affordable” as 80% of market rents, a 63% rent hike is, as mentioned above, unaffordable for many people, and, in any case, the stealthy replacement of social rent with ‘London Affordable Rent’ is not something that should be allowed to proceed without being challenged.

At Tidemill, we have always made the provision of new housing at social rent an element of our campaigning, and we’re even more committed to that position as we watch the stealthy spread of ‘London Affordable Rent.’ However, while we’re not in a position to dictate to the council and to Peabody what they should do with the old school site — although we would love for them to work with the local community on making new homes on the site for social rent, rather than for private sale — we can more easily suggest an alternative site for the properties that they cannot build on the ashes of the garden or by knocking down Reginald House.

An aerial view of the Besson Street site in New Cross.That site is Besson Street, in New Cross, owned by the council, where previous social housing was demolished in 2008. In December, the council announced its intention to enter into a partnership with Grainger plc, a Newcastle-based firm that, as the council trumpeted in a press release at the time, “has been recognised as the market leader in the emergence of a professional private rented sector in the UK.”

Yes, you read that right. Lewisham Council is proud to be entering into a development vehicle with a company that will make it a developer of private homes for rent, a scheme that has been on the cards for some time, as a report from November 2016, reflecting community opposition at the time, shows.

And it gets worse. Of the 232 homes planned for the site, none will be at social rent or at ’London Affordable Rent.’ 65% will be at market rents (a minimum of £323.08 a week for a two-bedroom flat, while 35% will be let at ‘London Living Rent’, another inadequate innovation by Sadiq Khan. While ‘London Affordable Rent’ is intended to be a stealthy destroyer of social rent, ‘London Living Rent’ is an absurd admission that the market is out of control. Aimed at those with a household income of up to £60,000 a year, who, of course, can no longer afford to buy anywhere in London, it would be set in Lewisham at £225.46 a week for a two-bedroom flat, £100 less than the median private rent, but more than double existing social rents, which average £95.54 a week for a two-bedroom flat. In addition, of course, hidden costs include potentially unfettered service charges.

Moreover, ’London Living Rent’ also includes a complicated notion of the scheme as a route to home ownership. The Mayor’s website states, “LLR homes delivered in partnership with the GLA should enable tenants to put themselves firmly on the route to home ownership. Providers are expected to take into account prospective tenants’ ability to save as part of their affordability assessment and to actively support tenants into home ownership within ten years. In most cases tenants should be offered the right to buy their current home on shared ownership terms at any time during the tenancy, and if no tenant has taken up that right within ten years in most cases the provider would be expected to sell it to another eligible purchaser on a shared ownership basis.”

So, instead of ramming through unsuitable plans for Tidemill, it seems to me, and to other Tidemill campaigners, that it would make much more sense to build the homes that can’t be built at Tidemill at Besson Street instead, scaling down the Grainger proposals, or, preferably, abandoning them altogether.

After all, with Theresa May having just announced at the Conservative Party conference that she is removing the cap on council borrowing to build new homes that has done so much to cripple the creation of social homes since Margaret Thatcher, Lewisham Council could now think about using the site in a genuinely novel manner, seeking proposals for how to build new social housing at social rents. Low-cost, cutting edge, ecologically sound options are all out there, waiting to be picked up on, as are options to, for example, look at self-build options, like those pioneered in Lewisham by Walter Segal in the 1980s, or new community-led options options that could involve employing local people. All of this could make a huge dent in the numbers of those currently consigned to temporary accommodation or stuck on the council’s waiting list.

What we need is innovative, genuinely low-cost housing for those in need, not another profit-motivated development that only focuses on so called middle-income earners, as at Besson Street, or the unacceptable destructiveness of the Tidemill plans. What we all need is more homes at social rent, not an acceptance of a heavily bureaucratised system of sliding scales — ‘London Affordable Rent’ ‘London Living Rent’ and ‘London Shared Ownership’ — that will do little to address the underlying injustice of the housing market.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. Since August 2018 he has been part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article – a radical proposal for Lewisham Council and the developer Peabody, to allow them to not do the unthinkable and destroy the extraordinary Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford (which has been occupied by Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaigners since August 29 to prevent it being boarded up prior to its planned destruction) and the 16 structurally sound flats next door in Reginald House: use the empty Besson Street site in New Cross instead.
    In addition, this will allow Lewisham Council not to have to enter into a partnership with Grainger plc that will otherwise see the council, at Besson Street, officially building homes for private rent (i.e. full market rents), and others at Sadiq Khan’s ‘London Living Rent’, a ‘rent to buy’ farrago designed for people earning up to £60,000 a year but who are unable to get on the increasingly inaccessible home-owning ladder.
    What we need is for the magical garden not to be destroyed, and for new properties to be built at social rent, not for new and more expensive rental levels to be introduced, with the cynical intention of doing away with social rents altogether. We need more properties for social rent, not less!

  2. “Tidemill Garden is part of the cohesiveness of Deptford” – Deptford is changing says...

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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