Radio: I Discuss London’s Housing Crisis and Covid’s Impact on Business Rents with Andy Bungay, Plus Three Four Fathers Songs

3.1.21

A deserted Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Day, 2020, an unpublished photo from Andy Worthington’s photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

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Recently I spoke to Andy Bungay of Riverside Radio, a community radio station in Wandsworth, for his show ‘The Chiminea’, which was broadcast on Boxing Day, and is available here on Mixcloud.

Andy and I have been speaking for several years, and it’s always great to talk to him.  Our 50-minute segment of the two and a half hour show began just under 21 minutes in, when Andy played ‘Fighting Injustice’, the first of three songs by my band The Four Fathers, which has long been a live favourite, and whose chorus is something of a mantra of mine — “If you ain’t fighting injustice / You’re living on the dark side.”

We then began our discussion by taking about my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, which I began in 2012, and which involves me cycling and taking photos on a daily basis throughout London’s 120 postcodes, and, since 2017, posting a photo a day, with an accompanying story, on Facebook.

Andy and I spoke on December 11, when I had just returned from a trip to Notting Hill (from south east London), and where, as I told Andy, local businesspeople were bemoaning the Covid-induced demise of the foreign tourist industry, although on Portobello Road it was a market day, and I actually found the area quite busy, although not as much so as the West End, which was packed with shoppers and revellers.

This was in the brief period between the month-long lockdown in November, and the Tier 4 restrictions that were introduced just two weeks after that lockdown ended, when shopping and socialising was quite massively encouraged by the government — and by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan — even though, on the government’s part, at least, it was already known that a much more infectious stain of Covid was already on the loose.

Andy also asked me about Grenfell Tower, and the fire in June 2017 that killed 72 of its inhabitants, which led directly to my involvement in housing activism in the years since. We spoke about the ongoing official inquiry, and how it has been hearing about the shameful — and criminal — behaviour of the firms responsible for the flammable cladding that was used during the tower’s refurbishment, and how they knew how dangerous it was, but worked assiduously to cover up the truth, and I lamented how little the mainstream media seemed to be interested.

I also spoke about how, when it comes to the cladding scandal, it involves leaseholders of private flats, as well as tenants of social housing, and in response to a question from Andy about how the authorities like to dismiss those in Grenfell as having lower incomes, I explained how that unacceptable point of view doesn’t even reflect reality, because social housing estates almost always include private renters in flats bought through Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ initiative, and often sold on to private landlords. This ought to undermine the “sink estate” narrative used by cynical politicians to justify estate demolition programmes for the profits of builders and developers, but somehow — presumably largely because of mainstream media bias — it doesn’t.

40 minutes into the show, Andy played ‘Grenfell’, the second song by The Four Fathers, playing the live version recorded by a German TV crew that is available on YouTube, although anyone interested can also find the studio version, recorded with Charlie Hart, who also played accordion on it, here.

Afterwards, Andy and I spoke about how the mixture of tenures in social housing actually demonstrates aspects of social mobility, and provides what is often the only affordable rent for “aspirational” young people in an overheated, out of control rental market, and I stressed how unjust it is that, if you try to do what society suggests you should do if you’re ambitious — buy an “entry-level” flat on a council estate — you will be punished rather than rewarded if you buy on an estate where demolition is planned.

At 46 minutes, we discussed the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign, in which activists, myself included, tried to save a community garden in Deptford from destruction for an inappropriate housing development. The garden, as I told Andy, had been built in the late ‘90s for the Tidemill primary school, designed by teachers, parents and pupils, and it remained the school’s garden until 2012, when the old Victorian school closed, and moved to a brand-new site nearby.

Property guardians then moved into the old school, also opening up the garden, and when they were moved on, the local community took on the garden until final plans for its redevelopment were approved. That happened in September 2017, which was when I got involved, and we then began putting on regular events in the garden, and when, at the end of August 2018, the council wanted the garden back, we occupied it instead, because, for the previous six years, they had persistently refused to listen to local demands — for a green space that was also environmentally significant, because the garden’s trees had been found to absorb some of the worst of the particulate pollution on the nearby roads, where pollution levels had been measured that were six times over the safety limits recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The occupation lasted for two months, and included our participation in the internationally known Deptford X arts festival, but we were, eventually, violently evicted by famously union-busting bailiffs hired by Lewisham Council, a Labour council. We then saw off the first set of tree-killers hired to cut down all the garden’s trees, but in February 2019 a second company finished the job, bulldozing all the trees. It has taken until now for the development to proceed, but it was always, sadly, about the money. As I explained to Andy, the entire development site — the old school, the garden and a block of council flats next door, Reginald House — is worth between £80m and £100m, and the garden, therefore, is worth at least £20m to £25m —  money that our autonomous space simply didn’t have, of course.

Andy and I then spoke about the crisis in local democracy, in which I pointed out how councillors are elected on a shockingly low turnout (often by less than 20% of the registered electorate), and how, in Lewisham, the tendency for power to be concentrated in one party’s hands is so extreme that all 54 councillors are Labour, meaning that there is absolutely no dissent. As I told Andy, imagine the House of Commons with just one party as a way of realising quite how unbalanced this situation is.

Andy then mentioned the Tories’ recently announced intention to overhaul local planning, enabling developers to bypass councils entirely, but I noted that this high-handed approach was not only criticised by housing experts, but also by councils — both Tory and Labour — who resented what amounted to a deranged power grab by central government.

As I noted, however, this particular revolt doesn’t upset the bigger picture of the housing crisis, driven by government cuts in David Cameron and George Osborne’s cynical “age of austerity”, which began eleven years ago, and has never ended, and which has obliged housing associations and Labour councils to either largely become private developers themselves, or to cosy up to developers and to put their profiteering priorities before any other concerns. I also explained, however, that I don’t think social housing providers or local politicians should be let off the hook for the enthusiasm with which so many of them have embraced these effects, because, sadly, the reality is that they “don’t really want to have to deal with poorer people.”

57 minutes into the show, Andy played the third and last song by The Four Fathers — ‘Affordable’ , a punky blast of indignation about the most-abused word in the English language when it comes to housing.

Resuming the discussion afterwards, I described a general policy, at the local government level, of pushing poorer people out, and, instead, attracting “aspirational” people, and explained how this was not only an insult to hard-working underpaid Londoners, but also completely failed to understand quite how many Londoners are not paid enough to buy into, or even to rent in London’s greedily overheated housing bubble. As I described it, the politics aims at a wealthier demographic than what actually exists on the ground.

Andy then spoke about the numbers of families left with almost no disposable income because of the cost of living, and we then moved on to discuss whether or not the entire overpriced property economy can survive Covid, with both residential and business rents hit hard by the collapse of tourism and the hospitality and entertainment sectors, and with most of the retail sector also severely damaged.

On a positive note, I mentioned how, although some homeowners are leaving the city for the country, driving up house prices there, in central London residential rents are down by as much as 34%, in large part, it seems, because there are no longer any foreign students with wealthy parents, while the entire office rental sector is also under pressure, because so many office workers are now working successfully from home, and happy to avoid crushing, overpriced commuter journeys.

I also pointed out how retail businesses were paying an insane amount of money pre-Covid, explaining how, in general, it meant that only corporate chains could afford to be in business in central London in the first place. I cited an example I had uncovered during my research for ‘The State of London’, establishing that, in a single site on the ground floor of a newly built office block in Soho, The Ivy, as part of its banker-backed expansion, was paying £670,000 a year in rent; in other words, nearly £2,000 a day, 365 days a year, just for the rent for a single restaurant.

As I noted, the pre-Covid West End was reliant on huge numbers of people just to get by, and that world has suddenly crashed, with landlords put in a position where they only have two choices — either to be supportive to their existing tenants, cutting rents and not seeking repayment later, or facing the prospect of having their properties empty and shuttered for the foreseeable future, with no income whatsoever.

I pointed out that this should lead to a massive reduction in profiteering, and hoped that it will lead to a situation in which small and interesting businesses can open in the West End, because has become so samey, but whether or not that happens is, like so much in life right now, largely unknown and unknowable.

Our discussion ended at 1:09:30, and I hope you have time to listen to it — and I look forward to talking to Andy again sometime this year.

* * * * *

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.

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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, linking to, and providing a detailed description of a recent interview I undertook with Andy Bungay for his show on Riverside Radio, a community radio station in Wandsworth.

    Our 50-minute section of the show included discussion of the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign, the Grenfell Tower fire, and, of course, the impact of Covid-19 on residential and business rents in the capital. We also discussed my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, and Andy also played three songs by my band The Four Fathers.

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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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