Violent and Unforgivable: The Destruction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford

28.2.19

The destruction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden on February 27, 2019 (photo by David Aylward).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.




 

Today is my birthday, and I find myself in a reflective place, looking, at one side, on death and destruction, and, on the other, at life and love and solidarity.

Perhaps this is appropriate at the age of 56, when I am neither young nor truly old — and, believe me, I reflect on aging, and mortality, and what it means, with some regularity, as my restless brain refuses to settle, endlessly asking questions and seeking new perspectives and insights into the human condition. But that is not why I’m in this reflective place today.

Yesterday, in the hallucinatory light and heat of one of the hottest February days in London’s history, I stood on a small triangle of grass by the horrendously polluted Deptford Church Street in south east London, and watched as a small group of tree-killers, SDL Solutions, brought in from Gloucestershire, tore down almost all the trees in a beautiful community garden, the Old Tidemill Garden, whose tree canopy, which would imminently have returned as spring arrives, had, over 20 years, become an increasingly efficient absorber of that horrendous pollution.

As the heat waned and night fell, Lewisham Council held a meeting at which councillors — the same councillors responsible for the destruction of the garden — declared, with no trace of irony, a ‘climate emergency’, which involved calling on the Mayor and Cabinet to “pledge to do everything within their power to make Lewisham carbon neutral by 2030.” As the Lib Dems later tweeted, “you know going (net) zero carbon means you’ll need to store up more carbon in soil & trees? What you’re doing at Tidemill Garden isn’t really compatible with that.”

I cite this as just one example of the abundant contradictions, greed, lies, spin, class prejudice, racism and bureaucratic sickness involved in the destruction of the Tidemill garden — and the proposed destruction of the structurally sound council flats of Reginald House next door, whose residents, by an overwhelming majority, don’t want to have their homes destroyed, but haven’t been asked their wishes by the council.

For ten years, local people have fought to get the council to change their plans regarding a proposed housing development on the site of the Tidemill primary school, the garden (created by pupils, parents and teachers in 1998), and Reginald House, but to no avail. The school moved out in 2012, and guardians then moved into the vacant Victorian school, opening up the garden as part of their social and artistic activities. When they were evicted, the community was given “meanwhile use” of the garden until the development plans were finalised. However, when the council asked for the keys back, on August 29 last year, the community had built up such support for the garden as a genuinely autonomous space for the people of Deptford, and as a precious environmental asset — and the council had shown such  a persistent refusal to listen to why the garden was too precious, too genuinely invaluable to be sacrificed on the altar of profit — that we occupied it instead.

Two months later, on October 29, the council violently evicted us, using the union-busting bailiffs of County Enforcement, with the support of the police. When the council hired a tree services company to begin cutting down the trees in November, we persuaded them to very publicly withdraw from their contract, and the resulting impasse lasted until yesterday, when, in just a few hours, most of the trees were felled by chainsaws and a huge digger, and the entire garden turned into what looked like a war zone.

This is an apt metaphor, because, in a constant search for easy and excessive profits in the broken economy that crawled out of the Western establishment’s self-inflicted global crash of 2008 — when the money-making financiers who claimed to have come up with an endlessly self-fulfilling economic miracle were revealed as the criminals they are, and the politicians who had all gone along with it lost their credibility — the last refuge of all these scoundrels is a kind of cannibalistic capitalism, in which wars are now waged on poorer British people by their own leaders, and by an array of self-serving hypocrites who constantly lie about what they’re doing.

Driving all this is, of course, the open-ended and seemingly endless ‘age of austerity’ that was cynically declared by David Cameron and George Osborne when the Tories got back into power in 2010. This was — and still is — a naked onslaught on the state provision of almost all services essential for civil society and for anything resembling a society that can regard itself as fair and just. The cuts, which are both ongoing, and increasingly savage, hacked away at the funding available to councils and to those providing social housing, pushing both towards a harsh new political and economic reality that, to be honest, both parties have generally taken to with largely undisguised zeal.

Councils, pleading impotence — but, in general, secretly happy to not have to actually do anything themselves, because they prefer to be either lazy, or pimps, or both — have been hooking up with developers in order to build new housing, in deals that are cynical, and nothing but contemptuous of those displaced by these arrangements — in general, the poorer members of these communities, those who, in Labour boroughs, actually vote for those dispossessing them, but who, in the post-Blair Labour Party, are of no concern to the Party’s aspirational, middle class bureaucrats, who actually have contempt for the working class, and are only interested in gentrifying anything that smacks of poverty or the working class.

And these unholy deals involve two routes to the current disaster in which we find ourselves. The first involves private companies awash with international investors’ cash, who are given land by councils — or sold it for a pittance — so they can throw up the almost uncountable number of priapic towers that have risen across the capital in recent years for largely gullible foreign buyers. As this speculative housing market has started to lose its sheen, through unfettered greed and the negative effects on international investor confidence of the self-inflicted madness of Brexit, a new source of profiteering has emerged, via housing associations, who, traditionally, provided genuinely affordable, long-term social housing — and who, since Margaret Thatcher began her destruction of council housing through her ‘Right to Buy’ programme, have also been given control of an increasing number of former council properties.

In recent years, the larger housing associations, who have come together under an organisational mega-umbrella, the G15, which is dangerously large and unaccountable, have almost completely lost touch with their role as social housing providers, becoming an unhealthy public/private Frankenstein’s Monster, knocking down estates or finding other huge empty sites to build a mix of housing for sale, for the scam known as shared ownership, or for rent, with genuinely affordable social rents being devoured by a new regime of allegedly “affordable” rents that are not actually affordable at all, as I have written about on a regular basis — see, for example, The Eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and the Mainstream Media’s Inadequacy in Reporting Stories About “Social Homes” and “Affordable Rents” and Video: I Discuss the Tidemill Eviction, the Broken ‘Regeneration’ Industry and Sadiq Khan’s Stealthy Elimination of Social Rents.

At Tidemill, the main developer is Peabody, which still trades on its history as a philanthropic Victorian provider of housing for the poor, even though it is now completely unrecognisable, even from what it was ten years ago. We realised this when, in October, we went to their head offices to protest about their involvement in the project, and were fobbed off by their Head of Corporate Services, who had come to Peabody after working for Barclays on global finance. For some further insight into how Peabody has changed, check out this Corporate Watch report, compiled during our occupation.

To give just one example of how Peabody are now very fundamentally a part of the problem rather than any sort of solution, the former social housing provider recently signed an £8bn deal — yes, you read that correctly — with the rapacious Australian-based international property developer Lendlease to raze to the ground the whole of the Thamesmead estate in the far reaches of south east London over the coming years, in what will undoubtedly be — if it goes ahead — the biggest clearance programme to date in the wholesale social cleansing of London. (Lendlease, in case anyone doesn’t know, are notorious as the destroyers of Southwark’s Heygate Estate, as the would-be destroyers of Haringey’s social housing, and, in Lewisham, they are already malevolently present at the Timberyard in Deptford, near the Thames and right next to the vulnerable Pepys Estate).

In this destruction — which can, and should, very genuinely, be described as an epidemic of social cleansing — both Labour and Conservative councils are complicit, along with, since 2016, the hapless puppet Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is, fundamentally, little or no improvement on the previous Mayor, the wretched Boris Johnson. To put it simply, an establishment bully and thug has been replaced by the working class son of a Pakistani immigrant who looks perpetually craven and cowed in the presence of big business’s representatives, and who has forgotten — if he ever knew — how to genuinely stand up for the working class people of London, whether they are white British or part of the capital’s extraordinary melting pot of cultures and ethnicities.

And so, yesterday, on the eve of my birthday, as I stood on a small triangle of grass by Deptford Church Street, in that hallucinatory light and heat that, if you lost your focus for a moment, snapped you back to reality with the genuine sensation that it was the height of summer, I watched what I can genuinely describe as a war on the ordinary people of Deptford — and, by extension working class people of all backgrounds and ethnicities across the whole of the UK — by the cannibalistic capitalists of here and now: the councillors who falsely claim to be members of a caring Labour Party, the self-serving highly-paid executives of Peabody, spinning their endless lies about being a charity that provides social housing, the money-grubbing tree-killers of SDL Solutions, and the various other leeches waiting in the wings, salivating over their potential cut of the £100m that, in total, the Tidemill site will deliver to all of those involved in its development as a dull collection of tiny identikit prison units punctuated by pockets of supremely unimaginative landscaping, including the inevitable ‘private’ gated garden for those with the most money.

In conclusion, then — and to offset all this terrible news — where is my hope on this ill-timed birthday?

Well, that, of course, lies with the community that I have grown to be part of over the last year and a half — the local people, the artists, the musicians, the shopkeepers, the market traders, social tenants, private tenants, sympathetic owner-occupiers, the residents of Reginald House, the homeless, the inspiring, hard-working squatters from across the UK and the EU, the environmental activists, visionaries and dreamers who have come together to defend an extraordinarily beautiful community space and green oasis, and who will continue to work together to resist the social cleansing plans of Lewisham Council, Peabody and other developers.

The battle for Tidemill, of course, is still not over, as Reginald House still stands, and the building work has yet to begin, but other battles await elsewhere — primarily, in New Cross, where the council intends to destroy the Achilles Street estate, and a number of shops attached to it, as part of its intended re-making of the whole of the centre of New Cross, and in Catford, where the council intends to destroy the town centre — the 1970s shopping centre and Milford Towers, a council estate above it. In both cases it would make much more sense for Achilles Street and the Catford shopping centre and Milford Towers to be refurbished rather than destroyed and re-created, in developments worth hundreds of millions pounds to developers and other profiteers, but that will do nothing for local people, except to exile former social tenants, to create empty glass towers of over-priced flats that no local people can afford, and to wipe out all existing local businesses, replacing them with empty shops or drearily ubiquitous corporate chains.

Please join us in whichever way you can. The Tidemill garden gave birth to a very powerful notion of what an autonomous space can be, and what an autonomous community can be, as, from the ground up, we dealt with Deptford as it is, not Deptford as its gentrifiers want it to be — providing a safe space for homeless people, providing a green space for children to play in, and for grown-ups to reflect and relax and escape the pressures of the outside world, providing opportunities for gardening, providing opportunities for anyone who wanted to put on arts events and musical events for free to do so, creating a venue for the internationally renowned Deptford X arts festival, and providing a space in which, genuinely, societal change seemed possible — via, for example, the structures that some of the occupiers built using scavenged materials, which could have been replicated to provide homes for the homeless, but which were, instead, smashed up by bailiffs within hours of the garden’s eviction four months ago.

* * * * *

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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was 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. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, the resistance continues.

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.

35 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    On my birthday I’m in a reflective mood following yesterday’s violent destruction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, which I fought to save with numerous other locals and activists as part of a ten-year campaign that escalated over its last year, as the garden increasingly became a wonderful and much-used community space, and, eventually, was occupied for two months – an occupation I was very involved in – until its violent eviction four months ago.

    In my birthday reflections, I tell, on the one hand, the tawdry, uninspiring story of politicians and developers involved in social cleansing programmes to turn a profit in a vicious and cynical “age of austerity” imposed by central government, and, on the other, the community that grew up to challenge it, that created a vibrant autonomous community space in what became our little green oasis in the heart of Deptford, where we looked after each other from the ground up, and began exploring new ways of living, of working together and of creating a community as a direct response to austerity, social cleansing, and the persistent systemic failures of both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, and predatory organisations like Peabody, which pretend to be benevolent social housing providers, but are now largely indistinguishable from voracious private housing developers.

    Yesterday was a bleak day, but we’re not crushed, and will continue to oppose austerity and social cleansing in all its forms.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Bloor wrote:

    Andy, very reflective.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Very much so, Boss…

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, David and Jan. I hope there’s some power to it.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Gilburt wrote:

    Happy birthday Andy – I hope you celebrated, despite the deep upset of yesterday xxx

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I had a bit of loving and laughing with the family, Ruth, which was nice, but the weather was tricky after that insane heatwave broke, and, of course, I visited Deptford and the garden, and that was a bit difficult.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Saira Khan wrote:

    Happy B- Earth day Andy!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Saira!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    World has gone mad

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sounds about right, Aleksey …

  11. Damo says...

    FUCK LABOUR their the biggest snakes of all sorry to hear about the garden but keep going keep fighting on a lighter note happy birthday was mine also your not leap year are you?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    No, I’m the 28th, Damo. 1963 – but as a kid I always got those leap year jokes – a bunch of 8-year olds sniggering, and going, “you’re only two har har.” So is yours the 28th too?

  13. Damo says...

    No mines leap year 1968 I’m 12 lol

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    So how are you liking secondary school, Damo? 😉
    And when it comes to your birthday, three years out of every four, how do you choose whether to celebrate on Feb. 28 or Mar. 1?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    I am sorry to hear and see that Andy. It is terrible and insane. All that love that was poured into that space over the years, ripped apart by greedy money men! You never forget a space like that, and the good that came out of it, and the sense of community and friendship it created, is still there, and will be for decades. x

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Neil. What a lovely, powerful message. We must meet soon, yes?

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Anita In-Deptford wrote:

    Very powerful and heartbreaking article Andy – so eloquent, informed and emotional, really capturing the mood in Deptford. I’ve been working lots and couldn’t be there Wednesday but went there today. I feel numb and long for that soothing green canopy and light that Tidemill provided. Where do we go now to soothe our moods and escape the noise and pollution?

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m glad you liked it, Anita. I think it’s my contribution to your project – finally! As for where we go now, I don’t know, but we very definitely do need a new Tidemill, don’t we? (although I still harbour fantasies of banishing the council and Peabody and reviving it, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of its destruction.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Saira Khan wrote:

    Time to demand that Sadiq Khan should now provide the community with a plot/space for the New Tidemill Wildlife community garden.
    Though it feels like nothing can compensate for the loss of the trees and the unique wildlife habitat that the garden nurtured and we tried so hard to protect.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Nice idea about asking Sadiq for Tidemill II, Saira – that’d freak him out! We should all rock up at City Hall – Dave and Rizz on drums, others with guitars and horns and accordions – and take some trees with us too!

  21. Tom says...

    Happy birthday. It’s only a number.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Good to hear from you, Tom. That’s undoubtedly true, and it reminded me of how, when I was younger, one of my great impulses was to live in the moment rather than soberly planning for my future. That hasn’t fundamentally changed, but I do now spend some time thinking about aging and mortality – just not too much, hopefully!

  23. Damo says...

    Goodbye keith flint of the prodigy there goes part of that whole great scene the last gasp of UK youth culture

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s sad news, Damo – and he was just 49.

  25. Damo says...

    Just got my council tax bill it’s £1.875 I’m on benefits as are many others how how are we supposed to pay.. This is the.. Labour borough of Ealing.. It seems the labour councils are the most vile and greedy of all I’m tearing up my membership of the labour party their no better than the tories I just don’t believe in any of them they haven’t got people’s interests at heart

  26. Damo says...

    Labour are no better than the tories Andy their all pigs in the same trough

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s so shocking, Damo – nearly £40 a week. I haven’t had my bill yet, but I’m not looking forward to it, although it won’t be as much as that. Labour councils are pathetic. They complain about the savagery of the Tory cuts, but they don’t fight back, and they end up implementing policies that are indistinguishable from what the Tories would have done. They’re either cowards, or they’re hypocritical, or they actually have an almost identical superiority complex to the Tories, in which they think that they’re better than poor people, better than working class people, and they think that their boroughs will be “improved” by attracting people who are “aspirational.” Time to get rid of all of them!

  28. Damo says...

    Labour disgust me I find them pitiful I want nothing more to do with them they just have betrayed the poorest and most vulnerable people their hypocrites and liars especially ealing council a f..king banana Republic crocked and rotten to the core pretending to be so caring and sharing yet social cleansing people driving them away twice in the last 3 days I’ve seen people lying unconscious on the street like corpses while the police drive by not even blinking I’ve called the ambulance myself.. What the funk is happening to this country it’s toxic

  29. Damo says...

    There is nobody or only a handful of politicians in parliament who are moral or trustworthy and the same applies to any figures of authority within local councils they are corrupt greedy pathologically dishonest and self serving I don’t believe in any of them.. It’s like a resource grab a race to the bottom

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m particularly shocked by your comment that you’ve seen “people lying unconscious on the street like corpses while the police drive by not even blinking.” The glue of civil society is coming unstuck, Damo, and without that glue things will only get more savage. Our model, as ever seems, to be the US; whatever the US can get away with, our politicians think they can copy. But Americans only put up with it because they’re so brainwashed. The poverty everywhere is shocking.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, and that’s the problem with those who still want to believe in Labour, Damo, as though Corbyn is some sort of saviour for all of society’s ills. The Tories have shut down public spending under their austerity scam, and have got away with it. We’re now slowly – or not so slowly – bleeding to death (even without the added Brexit chaos) and no one seems to be able to present a convincing counter-narrative. Labour have embraced austerity. They nod to blaming the Tories for the cuts, but then show no sadness in working with the entire greedy, corrupt ‘regeneration’ industry (including housing associations as well as all the usual private corporate scum), and actively pursue efforts to socially cleanse anyone poor out of the areas they control. They are shallow, greedy, working class-hating snobs who pretend tat they’re “aspirational”, and that only “aspirational” people are worthy, or deserve to have a decent life.

  32. Damo says...

    Right there right there on Acton high street a man just lying there were he dropped people just walking past and a police car just slowly cruised by not even looking people not even looking and yesterday a man in the middle of the pavement someone had a least put a blanket over him can you belive it I went with a friend and sat for a coffee in what’s left of soho wandered down the strand one side street tents everywhere it’s like some kind of dystopia.. Osborne festered and promoted a culture of slackers and scivers pushed by vermin rags like the daily mail promoting hatred of anyone on benefits anyone poor Andy 10s of thousands of disabled poor and vulnerable people have died under this government and helped by their labour stooges I’m reading it’s up to 200,000 people now.. And nobody is being held accountable.. A race to the bottom this is not a civilised country

  33. Damo says...

    The thing that’s so disturbed Andy is nazi policy’s have been adopted by both the tories and labour though neither would dare to admit they see the disabled the poor the unemployed the vulnerable as useless eaters who don’t deserve support unlike the nazis they won’t be sending anyone to the gas chambers so instead they take away their means of survival the very roof over their heads and people disabled or vulnerable start to plummet very quickly if their out on the streets it’s the feeding of the 5,000 the shadow people will come for them but the tories know this… They like it.. It turns them on.. And all the while labour sit there squabbling amongst themselves they are as bad and as guilty as each other

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the heartlessness has taken root quickly and is tied to the contempt for others that also fuelled Brexit, Damo. I remember it was in June 2011 that Cameron and Osborne first started their assault on the unemployed, and it quickly took off – including a message that disabled people were charlatans, and just pretending to be disabled. Remember when people started actually attacking disabled people’s vehicles, and even disabled people themselves in wheelchairs?
    Those working in the bureaucracy are numb. They push paper around and people die, but they don’t confront the reality of it, and no one is able to get through to them to ask what happened to the empathy, the sympathy, without which the darkness spreads. And out on the streets, meanwhile, the tabloids and the politicians have created a country full of violently miserable people with colossal misplaced anger. Goebbels would be laughing at the success of it.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    We’re moving back to the 1860s, Damo, before the welfare state began, and yes, the Tories are well up for it. After all, many of them have actually been brought up to hold essentially the same values as the heartless Victorians with power and influence who created the notion of the “undeserving poor.” Some of these people have added some modern touches – many are quite genuinely not homophobic anymore, for example – but their contempt for the poor is straight out of the drawing rooms of their great grandfathers.
    As for Labour, they and the supposed decent liberal people turning a blind eye all have to bear responsibility for not tackling the UK’s rapid descent into a country of rampant homelessness, deaths on the street and the decimation of the disabled. If our elected officials are useless, the people need to rise up and show them what their priorities should be. But will people do it, Damo? On social media, you can watch videos of homeless people warning that they’re going to commit suicide, and yet no one helps. What kind of dreadful dystopia is this?

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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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