Two Years Since the Violent Eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, Lewisham Council’s Housing Policy Still Puts Profits Before People

30.10.20

A photo taken after the violent eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford on October 29, 2018 (Photo: Hat Vickers).

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Two years ago yesterday, a bold experiment in people power — the two-month occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, a community garden in Deptford, in south east London, to prevent its destruction and inappropriate development as part of a profit-led housing project — came to a violent end when union-busting bailiffs from County Enforcement, hired by Lewisham Council, stormed the garden at dawn, terrorising the handful of campaigners camping overnight.

Throughout the day, as locals gathered to show their disgust at the heavy-handed tactics, a line of bailiffs, protected by a line of police, prevented anyone returning to the garden as the hired thugs began tearing down the garden’s structures and trees.

Like an invading army, they tore down the garden’s beautiful Indian bean trees, the brightly-painted tree house that stood next to it, and a beautiful shed made by campaigners from found materials, which had been used just weeks before as an exhibition space when the garden featured in the annual Deptford X arts festival. (For my article about the eviction, see The Violent Eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden: Lewisham Councillors Make Sure They Will Never Be Welcome in Deptford Again, and also check out my archive of articles about Tidemill here, and this Corporate Watch report).

The trees — which mitigated the worst effects of pollution on nearby Deptford Church Street, where particulate levels have been measured that are six times the recommended WHO safety limits — had been planted when the garden was first created at the end of the ’90s by pupils at the old Tidemill primary school, their parents and their teachers, for whom it was a haven of green, before the school moved out in 2012. 

As the local community was allowed “meanwhile use” access to the garden, the focus shifted onto the long-intended development plans for the site — in which the old school would be turned into private housing for sale, while flats for rent would be built on the garden and on the site of Reginald House, an unlucky block of council flats next door that the council and the developers also intend to destroy, even though it is structurally sound. 

In total, 209 properties are planned for the site — 51 for private sale, 38 for shared ownership, 104 for rent, and 16 to replace the maisonettes lost in Reginald House. The properties for rent are at ‘London Affordable Rent’, an innovation of London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, which, in Lewisham, is 63% higher than social rents for a two-bedroom flat — although that hasn’t stopped the council from deviously proclaiming on their website that the 104 flats are “new social homes.”

For months after the eviction, the council paid Country Enforcement to protect the now-violated garden from the local community for 24 hours a day, with spotlights and dogs in the garden itself, and an attitude to the locals that made them feel that they were living in a war zone. The cost was astronomical, both financially and in terms of the council’s credibility. Four months after the eviction, Cllr. Paul Bell, the Cabinet Member for Housing, admitted that £1,372,890 had been spent on evicting and guarding the Tidemill site, a cost that has obviously increased since, and which also doesn’t take into account the £1m-plus spent on guarding the old Tidemill school over several years.

Another blow came on February 27, 2019, when the remaining trees in the garden were destroyed by an unprincipled tree services company hired by the council (in the same week that the council hypocritically declared a climate emergency), but despite all this major building works have not yet begun at Tidemill, although yesterday, of all days, a visit to the site alerted me to the fact that ground clearance works have begun in the old school’s former playground, with a digger hard at work next to a giant skip. I can only wonder whether the timing was coincidental.

A photo of a digger and a skip in the playground of the former Tidemill primary school, where ground clearance works have begun in preparation for full-scale building work, October 29, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Amersham Vale, Tidemill’s secret twin

The reason why no work has taken place at Tidemill until now became clear last September, when building work started on Tidemill’s sister site, at Amersham Vale in New Cross, the former site of another former school, Deptford Green, a secondary school. This site had been stealthily twinned with Tidemill in the planning phase, although the council had worked strenuously to keep that fact hidden, because it rather ruined their claims that the Tidemill development would deliver over 50% ‘social homes.’ 

With two-thirds of the properties at Amersham Vale for private sale (80 out of 120, with 24 being for rent and 16 for shared ownership), the percentage of rental properties over both sites fell to less than 40%, and, in any case, none of the new properties will be at social rents (what social housing tenants pay if their tenancies pre-date Tory reforms in 2011), but will, instead, also be at ‘London Affordable Rent’ (63% higher than social rent for a two-bedroom flat). 

More inappropriate development: Achilles Street, Besson Street and 1 Creekside

And while work at Amersham Vale — shamefully named ‘The Muse’ — has been underway, Lewisham Council has also been busy pursuing other dubious plans involving housing elsewhere in Deptford and New Cross. Last autumn, residents in a number of housing blocks in Achilles Street in New Cross were, as a result of an initiative introduced by Jeremy Corbyn, when he was Labour leader, required to be balloted about the future of their homes after proposals were put forward to demolish them to create a much denser new development in which, crucially, half the properties will be for private sale.

This was a monstrously one-sided process in which the council, which intends to be its own developer to trouser more of the perceived profits, pursued a massive and lavishly-funded charm offensive, while those opposing it had no budget whatsoever. Given the imbalance — imagine an election in which only the government was allowed to spend money — and the fact that there was nothing to stop councillors from promising whatever it took to get the desired result, it was no surprise that the council won, but it remains to be seen how they will fund it when it depends so heavily on half the homes being for private sale, and the Covid situation has introduced massive uncertainty into the new build marketplace. (For more about Achilles Street, see my article for Novara Media, Refurbishment Is the Dirty Word We Should Be Using, Just Look at the Achilles Street Estate).

In addition, Lewisham Council has been pumping out misinformation about the status of the rented properties planned for the new Achilles Street development, which it is calling social rent, even though it is actually ‘London Affordable Rent.’ The council has been misquoting the housing charity Shelter in its publicity, claiming that Shelter regards ‘London Affordable Rent’ as social rent, when that is patently untrue. As Shelter explained in a recent tweet, “we don’t consider London Affordable Rent to be social rent.”   

Undeterred, however, this summer the council also forged ahead with another long-fermenting plan, this one plumbing new depths of wrong-headedness for a Labour council. These proposals involve Besson Street, a long-empty site in New Cross where a council estate stood until the council knocked it down over a decade ago.

In July, the council confirmed its intention to enter into a joint partnership on the site with Grainger plc, a builder of rented properties for market rent. Yes, you read that correctly: Lewisham Council, a Labour council, intends to put its name to a project in which it will co-own homes that it will rent at the full rate that the market can bear. 

Other properties in the development — for rent — will be slightly cheaper, but not much: they will be at ‘London Living Rent’, a new rental model set up under Sadiq Khan, along with ‘London Affordable Rent.’ ‘London Living Rent’ is aimed at people on higher incomes, but who are unable to afford a mortgage, and in Lewisham, ’London Living Rent’ is 136% higher than social rent for a two-bedroom flat. (For more on Besson Street, see my article, A Radical Proposal to Save the Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald House in Deptford: Use Besson Street, an Empty Site in New Cross, and this article by Corporate Watch).

The latest news involves another site in Deptford, just across the road from Tidemill.

1 Creekside was going to involve a private developer, but has been taken over by the council, perhaps because the proposal — for two towers right by pollution hot spot Deptford Church Street — received such bad press when it was revealed that planning documents had included advice that these living in the development shouldn’t open their windows at rush hour. 

Once you’ve heard that, there isn’t really anything that can be said to make the development acceptable, and yet the council, undeterred, is forging ahead, and is currently engaged in clearing the site, which consisted of an MOT garage and a whole bunch of scraggly trees that, nevertheless, helped to soak up some of the traffic pollution, albeit in a much less significant manner than the lost and lamented trees of Tidemill. 

Noticeably, Lewisham Homes, the council’s housing body, continues the council’s inappropriate descriptions of properties for rent, claiming, in an article trumpeting the purchase of the site in August, that the development “will now be 100% affordable, offering 22 homes at social rent (an increase of 50% from the planning target) and 34 on a shared ownership basis (an increase of 74%).” 

As well as describing ‘London Affordable Rent’ as social rent yet again, Lewisham Homes also fails o recognise that shared ownership is not a form of affordable housing, but is, instead, a hybrid of rent and ownership that is fraught with its own problems — primarily, that, until residents own 100% of the property, they are merely assured tenants, and lose everything they think they have bought if they fall into arrears. In addition, they are also subject to often astronomical and unjustifiable service charges.

The urgent need for a massive programme of genuinely affordable social housing

I don’t want excuse Lewisham Council’s lack of vision in any way, but it is also worth bearing in mind that councils elsewhere in the capital — enthusiastically led, I would say, by Labour councils — also continue to press on with developments that were inadequate even before Covid hit, because they are not, for the most part, providing the kind of homes that hard-working Londoners need at the kind of rents that they can actually afford, and are, instead, simply devices for creating profits for developers and everyone else involved in the borderline criminal enterprise that is the housing development industry.

Since Covid hit, however, these councils have shown no interest whatsoever in examining what the future holds in terms of the absolutely unavoidable increase in poverty, accompanying increased unemployment, which makes the existing model of overcharging tenants to feed developer profits even more untenable.

But with the government almost certainly intent on squeezing councils even more than they have done over a decade of austerity, to satisfy their obsessive need to “pay” for the losses incurred through Covid by, as usual, punishing those at the poorer end of society, the future looks bleaker than ever unless councils wake up to the realities of a Covid-ravaged economy.

In short, there is an absolute need for as much new social housing as can be provided; not “subsidised”, as its detractors call it, but not-for-profit, providing genuinely affordable homes for those who need it — or want it — and removing the profiteering greed that has blighted housing, which, of course, ought to be a right, rather than the artificially stimulated and sustained basis of economic growth that it has been for over 20 years, endlessly siphoning money from the poor to the rich.

Post-Covid, the creeping reality of ten years of Tory rule — that you can only squeeze people until they have no more money to give — is going to become more and more apparent, in housing and across the economy as a whole. It is time for broken systems — like Labour councils’ housing policy — to be brought to an end, and for this country’s genuinely massive housing need to be properly addressed for the first time since before the days of Margaret Thatcher, the first great destroyer of a drive to create social housing that had been a dominant thread of British political life for over 60 years (since the Addison Act of 1918) until she became Prime Minister in 1979.

* * * * *

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 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight 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 the 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, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, 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.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the second anniversary of the violent eviction of the occupied Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, which had been occupied by campaigners two months before to prevent its destruction – and that of a block of 16 structurally sound council flats next door – for an inappropriate housing development.

    I recall that experiment in community solidarity, and also cast a critical eye over other current housing developments in the London Borough of Lewisham (‘The Muse’ in New Cross, Achilles Street, Besson Street and 1 Creekside), ending with a call for councils across the capital to come to terms with the Covid-induced end of “business as usual” in a housing market that, for far too long now, has been shamefully devoted to private housing profits, unaffordable rents and social cleansing.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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