Deptford’s Tidemill Campaign and the Dawning Environmental Rebellion Against the Dirty Housing ‘Regeneration’ Industry

24.5.19

Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaigners photographed in the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford in November 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Yesterday, May 23, 2019, another phase in the ten-year struggle by the local community in Deptford to prevent environmental destruction, social cleansing, and the creation of new and inappropriate housing came to an end when campaigners with the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign withdrew from a protest camp —  which had existed for the last seven months — on the green next to the contested site of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden.

However, while Lewisham Council and Peabody, the main proposed developer of the site, will be tempted to see this withdrawal as some sort of victory, they should pay attention to the fact that campaigners have also resolutely pledged to continue to resist the plans to build new homes on the site of the garden, and to demolish Reginald House, a block of 16 structurally sound council flats next door.

Moreover, the council and Peabody also need be aware that the contested Tidemill site is part of a much bigger picture — involving a critical awareness of  environmental destruction and of the need for major systemic change to mitigate the worst effects of an already unfolding global environmental crisis — that has generated considerable awareness and support both globally and locally in recent months via the direct action embraced by the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes inspired by the 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg

In addition, the entire model of the housing and ‘regeneration’ industry is under greater scrutiny than ever before, as activists from all walks of life recognise that destroying trees and green spaces, and endorsing a building industry that is, fundamentally, environmentally blind, is no longer acceptable. 

While architects congratulate themselves on designs that are sometimes more environmentally sound than in the past, the dirty route to their creation remains shamefully ignored. A movement amongst campaigners is growing to insist that the building industry reflects the urgency of the call for a massive cut in the emissions that contribute to climate change, which, at present, it shows no willingness to recognise.

As campaigners work towards a united call for all housing developments to be able to demonstrate that they are zero carbon, the current state of affairs is nothing short of an environmental disaster.

What is needed, firstly, is for the environmental impact of destroying existing buildings that could and should be refurbished rather than destroyed to be taken on board. This is the case with Reginald House, of course, but, on a larger scale, it is also still playing out across London, as massive ‘regeneration’ projects continue across the capital — at the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, for example, where a demolition company is currently in the early stages of what will be many months of work demolishing one of the estate’s huge blocks, which was built to last and should have been refurbished. 

In Lewisham, too, Reginald House is just one example of shocking environmental vandalism planned by the council with regard to existing buildings. In New Cross, for example, the council is planning to destroy an entire estate at Achilles Street, instead of refurbishing it, and in Catford Town Centre is planning to destroy the 1970s shopping centre and Milford Towers, the estate above it, when, yet again, the only environmentally sane way to proceed is to refurbish it.

Lewisham Council shouldn’t really need too be told all of this, as they declared a climate emergency at the end of February, but, as so often with politicians, that appears to be nothing but an empty gesture, as councillors passed it the same week that the 74 trees of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden were destroyed by tree-killers hired by the same council.

However, the environmental damage caused by the building industry doesn’t just involve the reckless destruction of existing buildings. All across London, developments on brownfield sites, like the dystopian future rising up at Nine Elms and at Battersea Power Station, present a harrowing picture of nothing more than profit and pollution. The industry, as a whole, sources materials without any regard for the environmental impact of doing so, both in terms of the global plunder that is so much a part of modern-day capitalism, and even, as the Grenfell disaster showed, through the use of man-made materials that are so toxic and unsafe that they led to the deaths of 72 people. 

In addition, the capital’s streets are choked with lorries carrying material to and from building sites, contributing significantly to the emissions that are harmful to our health as individuals living in London, but which also add to the global warming associated with climate change that threatens to destroy us within our lifetimes if we don’t change our behaviour with immediate effect.

Logically, any development site should start with the necessity of refurbishment rather than demolition, and should also involve environmentally sound materials and practices. A brave council would recognise this and act on it — and in Lewisham the example of sustainable self-build homes pioneered in the 1980s by Walter Segal should be drawn upon — but logic and courage are, of course, in short supply when what is actually driving everything — however much those involved are required to spin alternative conclusions — is profit: for the developers, for demolition companies, building companies, chains of suppliers and manufacturers, lawyers, estate agents, advertisers and PR companies.

As Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and even the sainted David Attenborough have shown (in his recently, and devastatingly powerful BBC documentary, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’), nothing less than a complete re-think of how our omnivorous capitalist system operates is required, and the building industry is not only a part of that, but, in many ways, one of its key components, degrading our environments locally, while also contributing to the ongoing global crisis.   

The history of the Tidemill campaign

To give some necessary perspective to the Tidemill story, it’s ten years since the residents of Reginald House were first told that the council wanted to demolish their homes, as part of the proposed redevelopment of the old Tidemill primary school, which moved to a new site in 2012. The garden — a magical oasis created by pupils, teachers and parents over 20 years ago  — was also intended to be part of this development, as, at the time, were two other larger blocks of council flats on Giffin Street, but they were subsequently dropped from the plans, either because the council feared resistance from residents, or because it was considered that there were too many leaseholders, who, unlike council tenants, have to have their homes bought before they can be demolished.

The old Tidemill school — an attractive Victorian affair that is the key component of the Tidemill plans, as it is where the private properties for sale are intended to be located — was then rented to guardians while the plans continued to be developed, and they began opening up the garden to the local community, many of whom, of course, had fond memories of it either as pupils or as parents.

They, in turn, were kicked out by the council when, prematurely, councillors thought their plans had been finalised, at which point the local community were given use of the garden. Throughout this period, strenuous efforts were made to engage with the council, and the developers, Family Mosaic (who merged with Peabody in 2016) and Sherry Green Homes, but to no avail. An architect-led proposal to spare the garden and Reginald House by building more densely on the old school site was summarily dismissed, without any genuine effort made to assess its viability.

In September 2017, Lewisham Council finally approved plans for the Tidemill development. Years of campaigning by the defenders of the garden and Reginald House had led to an increase in the number of proposed “affordable” homes for rent on the site, but there was still no recognition that the garden was too precious an asset to be destroyed — not only providing a rare green space in a part of Deptford that is woefully short of green spaces, but also mitigating the worst effects of pollution on nearby Deptford Church Street, where particulate levels have been measured at six times the safety levels recommended by the World Health Organisation — and that it was completely unacceptable to destroy Reginald House.

The campaign to save the garden and Reginald House only grew stronger after the council made its decision to approve the development plans. Gardening regularly took place, and people seeking peace and quiet were regularly drawn to it as a uniquely calm green enveloping space amidst the urban sprawl and the constant air pollution. In the spring and summer of 2018, numerous events took place, including gigs (one including a hustings, prior to last year’s council elections, at which local councillor Joe Dromey seemed to be the only person to visit the garden who was immune to its charms), and well-attended Jamaican, Peruvian and Brazilian events. 

However, Lewisham Council persistently ignored the community’s requests for new plans to be drawn up, and, instead, stealthily twinned the Tidemill site with Amersham Vale in New Cross — the former site of Deptford Green school — where Peabody and Sherry Green Homes intend to build more new housing, 

The stealth was required because, although the council was persistently trumpeting the number of alleged “social homes” at Tidemill — 104 out of 209 homes, with 51 for private sale, 13 to replace tenants’ flats in Reginald House, and the rest (42) for shared ownership, which I have previously described as “a notorious scam that shouldn’t even be allowed to exist” — its claim that around half the housing at Tidemill would be “social homes” (a proportion that Labour politicians, led by the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, constantly brandish as a fixed policy) was undermined by the plans for Amersham Vale.

On that site, as I explained in an article last October, “just 24 units out of 120 in total” are for so-called ‘social’ rents, with a whopping 81 being for private sale, and 15 for shared ownership, reducing the so-called ‘social’ component over both sites to just 39%. In addition, what the council also didn’t wish to have publicised was the fact that, under a new tiered system of alleged ‘social rents’ developed by Sadiq Khan (with the support of Labour councils), the ‘social’ component of the development wouldn’t consist of social rents (those paid by current council and housing association tenants), which, in Lewisham, average £95.54 a week for a two-bedroom flat, but ‘London Affordable Rent’, which is 63% higher, at £152.73 a week.

Lewisham Council’s own statistics regarding different rent levels in the borough (thanks to Sue Lawes).

Not coincidentally, Amersham Vale’s general invisibility from the plans presented by the council to the public also made it difficult for campaigners to present a case that the best way to proceed would be for the number of private homes at Amersham Vale to be cut, and for it to be used for the ‘social’ homes that would otherwise be built on the Tidemill garden and on the site of Reginald House. 

The council also kept quiet about Besson Street in New Cross, which campaigners also suggested as an alternative site for the proposed Tidemill development, but where the council intends to build new homes in partnership with Grainger plc, one of the country’s biggest builders of homes for private rents, where, if the scheme goes ahead, a Labour council will, shamefully, be putting its name to new homes at full market rent, while also providing additional homes at ‘London Living Rent’, the highest rate of rent in the new rental regime dreamt up by Sadiq Khan, where a two-bedroom flat will cost £225.46 a week. I wrote about Besson Street in October, in an article entitled, A Radical Proposal to Save the Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald House in Deptford: Use Besson Street, an Empty Site in New Cross, and I also recommend recent analysis by Corporate Watch (see here and here).

The long-running campaign to save the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden and Reginald House came to a head on August 29, 2018, when the council terminated the lease on the garden, but, instead of giving the keys back, campaigners occupied the garden to prevent its destruction — and please also see my Novara Media article, The Battle for Deptford and Beyond.

The occupation drew support from environmental campaigners and housing activists around the world, and was an inspiring experience to have been part of, but on October 29, 2018 the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs hired by Lewisham Council — at a cost of over £105,188, with a further £1.37m (as of March) spent on the eviction and on guarding the garden from the community via the 24/7 presence of bailiffs, to add to the £1m at least that has been spent on guarding the old Tidemill school site via permanent security guards over the last two years. To add insult to injury, the eviction took place while campaigners were seeking a judicial review of the legality of a specific aspect of the plans, which had begun in the summer, a process that was only finally exhausted in February this year.

Following the eviction, campaigners then set up a protest camp on the green next to the garden, which is part of the development site.

In November, an effort to cut down all the trees in the garden failed when campaigners let the company in question, Artemis Tree Services, know how bitterly contested the Tidemill site was, and Artemis very publicly withdrew from their contract, stating, “Artemis Tree Services have heard the voice of the Lewisham people and have decided to remove themselves from the Tidemill Project.”

However, on February 27, 2019, another firm, SDL Solutions, destroyed the garden’s 74 trees, in the same week that the council declared a climate emergency. This was an act of stunning hypocrisy given that the garden’s tree cover helped to mitigate the worst effects of the horrendous local pollution.

Just over a week later, on March 8, the council sought a possession order for the green at Bromley County Court, but barristers acting for the campaign pointed out to the judge that the council had failed to take into account the protestors’ human rights under Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge agreed, and a date for a hearing was set for May 23. However, to avoid potentially onerous costs being awarded against them, campaigners agreed to withdraw from the green, while maintaining their opposition to the council and Peabody’s plans for the site.

In a statement for the campaign, I noted, “We are withdrawing amicably from the protest camp, but our campaign against this misplaced development continues. Through the council’s failure to recognise the human rights issues involved in the protest camp, we have secured a two and a half month delay to the plans for the site, which should have encouraged Lewisham Council and Peabody to think again.” 

I added, “We put up 74 white crosses to commemorate the trees that were destroyed in the garden, and we have continued to secure community support for resistance to these ill-conceived plans. We continue to demand that the council and Peabody drop their current plans, allow the garden to be re-planted, and give up on the proposed destruction of Reginald House, where 80% of residents want to stay but have not been allowed a ballot by the council.”

In the News Shopper, Paul Bell, Lewisham Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing, said he was “pleased that we can progress the scheme to house people, and hope we can avoid any unnecessary eviction.” he added, “I respect their right to protest. We all live in a democracy.” 

Cllr. Bell and his colleagues, however, seem to be completely unaware not only of how their hypocrisy regarding the climate emergency they declared three months ago is being received in the communities they claim to represent, but also of the extent to which the landscape of protest has been changing in recent months, as outlined above. 

Business as usual is no longer tenable, and, at Tidemill, campaigners’ demands for the current plans to be dropped, and for alternative plans to be developed with the local community, are not going away. Soon, no doubt, the green will be fenced off, and the builders will start to move in, but this is still not a battle that the council can win. 

They — and Peabody — still have the opportunity to scrap the plans and to go back to the drawing board, agreeing to re-plant the garden and to spare Reginald House. If they don’t, it may well be that the rising enthusiasm for environmental direct action will make itself felt in this bitterly contested corner of Deptford. 

* * * * *

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, 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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    As the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign strategically withdraws from a protest camp by the site of the bitterly-contested Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford — which I was part of the occupation of for two months last year — I look at how the plans to build new housing on the now-destroyed garden and to demolish a block of structurally sound council housing next door are still deeply contentious.

    With the recent examples of direct action provided by Extinction Rebellion, it’s time for all industries to think environmental scrutiny — and that really isn’t good news for the dirty housing ‘regeneration’ industry, and, specifically, for Tidemill, where Lewisham Council and Peabody, not content with killing off a vital green space and intending to demolish a structurally sound block of council flats, also intend to create a polluted building site for the next few years.

    Campaigners — myself included — are still calling for them to change their plans, to re-instate the garden and to spare the flats — or they may find that environmental activists will be taking action instead.

  2. Julie Wiater says...

    After reading your article i went to look at SDL Solutions website and Facebook page, seems all the negative comments have been deleted and there are no Google reviews – I am sure there were lots of negative google reviews before ( I know because I wrote one) bringing their star rating down. I thought Google reviews couldn’t be deleted? Time to get reviewing again, why should they get away with thier reputation untarnished?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Julie. I had a quick look – on Google, ironically – and there are lots of links about how to get rid of bad reviews. I was a bit surprised, but not too much. I’d imagine that money can make most bad things go away.
    Criticising SDL would be good, I think. They got off very lightly back in February, in contrast to what happened earlier with Artemis. I think we were all so shocked by the destruction.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Burnham wrote:

    We learned quite a lot from the Examination in Public of the Draft New London Plan, over the last 5 long months at City Hall.

    For instance, we learned that all of your hard work is paying off, big time!

    The existing London Plan 2016 (Policy 3.3) advocates estate demolition because the estates are seen as bad in themselves: supposedly mono-tenure estates that entrench social exclusion, etc.

    This is all changing in the draft new Plan, which lists in Policy H1, six sources of new housing supply, which do NOT include the redevelopment of council estates. The GLA is now saying that it is not encouraging estate demolitions in particular.

    Some Council leaders have learned something from the bitter opposition to demolition plans. This was very evident at a recent meeting I attended, where the Mayor of Lewisham said that estate redevelopments are problematic, because people do not like them – and he was screwing up his face in some distress, as he said this.

    However, the Mayor of London’s team still want huge rent increases for council tenants when estates are demolished – and there are two versions of this: £45 pw more, and £60 pw more. The people driving this though just do not know or care about the household budgets of the communities which they are planning to disperse.

    Under policy H10 of the Draft Plan, which is still being argued about and has not been formally adopted, the GLA has already approved the demolition and replacement of council rent homes by £60 pw higher London Affordable Rent (Mayor’s Rent) at Reginald House.

    Here is the evidence.

    The GLA’s planning report on the former Tidemill School (demolition of Reginald House) dated 11 June 2018 states at paragraph 9,

    >>The reprovision of social rented units with London Affordable Rent (LAR) units is acceptable. As such the proposal is compliant with Draft London Plan Policy H10 and the GPGER [Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration].<< In Lewisham, Barnet, Southwark, Lambeth, Newham, and in Haringey, council officers have been faced with sudden and unexpected (to them) resistance, when they planned to knock down people’s homes. We say, Gas masks on, and keep up the good work! Save our environment. And there should never be any rent increases because of demolition. Spread the word – demolitions can be stopped.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that very helpful update and analysis and encouragement, Paul. I’m heartened to hear that estate demolitions no longer appear to be so fashionable with politicians. And if refurbishment is chosen instead of demolition, of course, the rationale for huge rent hikes ought to disappear as well.

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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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