One Year Since the Tidemill Occupation Began, Is the Tide Turning Against the ‘Regeneration’ Industry?


The Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford on August 28, 2018, the day before its occupation, to prevent its destruction, officially began (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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One year ago, local residents and activists in Deptford, in south east London — myself included — occupied a community garden, the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, to try to prevent its destruction by Lewisham Council for a housing project. Strenuous efforts had been made by members of the local community for many years to persuade the council that their plans for the garden — originally part of the Tidemill primary school, which moved out of its premises in 2012 — were environmentally deranged, because the garden miligated the worst effects of the horrendous pollution on nearby Deptford Church Street, but they had refused to listen.

The plans involved not just the garden — a magical space created by pupils, parents and teachers 20 years before — but also Reginald House, a block of 16 structurally sound flats next door, which, cynically, were to be destroyed to make way for the new development, and the old school itself. Campaigners had no fundamental objections to the former school buildings being converted into housing, but the plans for the garden and for Reginald House were so profoundly unacceptable that, when the council approved the development in September 2017, campaigners began to hatch plans for the occupation.

The garden had been kept open by guardians who had been installed in the old school buildings after it closed in 2012, and when that contract was terminated, the local community were given “meanwhile use” of the garden instead. A handful of volunteers had opened it at weekends, but as time went on the numbers of people drawn to it increased, and after Lewisham Council made its decision, ironically, interest in the garden mushroomed. Numerous musical and artistic events took place throughout spring and summer 2018, and when the council called for campaigners to hand the keys back on August 29, the long-mooted plan to occupy the garden instead went into effect.

It was a truly wonderful campaign to have been part of. The BBC evening news gave the occupation positive coverage when it began, Sian Berry of the Green Party came to visit and expressed her support, and numerous independent media outlets also took an interest. In environmental circles, news of the occupation spread around the world, with visitors from France and Switzerland turning up almost immediately. Closer to home, campaigners from Grow Heathrow turned up to show support, and there was also solidarity from the Hambach Forest in Germany.

Just as significantly, on the ground in Deptford, solidarity came from many local residents who had been pupils at the Tidemill school, or who had been parents of pupils, and the campaign also tapped into long-simmering resentment at the ‘gentrification’ of Deptford, and throughout the borough of Lewisham in general.

Although the story of the garden overshadowed the story of Reginald House, campaigners made sure that the problems with the proposed housing plans for the site were always mentioned. This part of the story had actually begun ten years ago, when residents of Reginald House were first informed about the proposed plans. At that time, two bigger blocks of flats on Giffin Street were also included in the plans, but they were later dropped, either because the council feared the combative nature of some of the residents, or because there were perceived to be too many leaseholders for the viability of the project.

For many years before the occupation, campaigners had also fought to improve the social housing component of the plans, with the council, and the developers, the housing association Family Mosaic (who merged with Peabody in the summer of 2016), and the private company Sherrygreen Homes being prevailed upon to increase the amount of homes in the plans at “affordable” rents. These efforts had been successful, but the struggle to prevent the proposed destruction of Reginald House had not been successful, even though the block is structurally sound, and 80% of its residents don’t want to have their homes destroyed — something they have told the council and the GLA by letter, because the council has refused to allow them a ballot.

At the time of the occupation, the council spent much of its time bragging about how the “social housing” component of the proposed development was over 50%. This was a lie. 209 homes are planned for the Tidemill site, with 51 for private sale, 41 for shared ownership, and 117 for rent — at allegedly “affordable” levels (or 104, if the 13 rented flats in Reginald House, which are to be replaced according to the plans, are removed from the picture).

What the council failed to mention was that the Tidemill site had been stealthily twinned with Amersham Vale in New Cross, the former site of Deptford Green secondary school, empty since 2012, and on that site Peabody and Sherrygreen are planning to build 120 new homes — 81 for private sale, 15 for shared ownership, and just 24 for allegedly “affordable” rent — meaning that, over both sites, the so-called “affordable” rent component is just 43%.

Moreover, there is also a huge problem with the so-called “affordable” rents; namely, that they will not be social rents, which in Lewisham, according to the council’s own figures, are £95.54 a week for a two-bedroom flat, but ‘London Affordable Rent’, an innovation of London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, that appears to have been designed to stealthily do away with social rents altogether, are 63% higher, at £152.73 a week.

Lewisham Council’s own assessment of the different rental scenarios that currently apply in the borough. ‘Lewisham Stock’ refers to social rents, for council properties and housing association tenants whose tenures preceded changes implemented by the Tories after they came to power in 2010.

Both before and during the occupation, campaigners continued to demand that the Tidemill plans were withdrawn, and that the council and Peabody meet with the local community to work out how to proceed with plans that spared the garden and Reginald House, and that delivered genuinely affordable properties for rent; in other words, at social rents.

However, Lewisham Council and Peabody had no interest in changing their plans, and on October 29 the council hired 130 bailiffs from the notoriously brutal and historically union-busting company County Enforcement to evict the occupiers, who, on the day, were protected by the police, despite their demonstrable violence. That shameful day has, I believe, forever blackened the council’s name in significant sections of the population of Deptford, and will never be forgiven, and it was also very clearly premature, given that the campaigners had an outstanding submission for a judicial review of the legality of the developments in the High Court.

The legal effort was subsequently thwarted by the court of appeals, but the council and Peabody should not have proceeded with an eviction until that approach had been exhausted, leaving attentive observers able only to conclude that the council’s violence was specifically directed at the occupiers, to punish them for having dared to resist the council’s plans.

What has happened since has failed to justify the actions of the council and Peabody. The eviction, whose brutality was most effectively written about by local resident Ruby Radburn (and which I also wrote about here), cost £105,188, and was followed by the presence of a significant number of bailiffs — who were frequently anti-social and antagonistic to local residents — 24 hours a day, complete with floodlights at night and dogs barking at all hours.

In November, campaigners saw off efforts by the council and Peabody to destroy all the trees in the garden, when the company responsible, Artemis Tree Services, very publicly withdrew from their contract, explaining that they had “heard the voice of the Lewisham people” and had “decided to remove themselves from the Tidemill Project.”

On February 27, another dark day, another tree services company, SDL Services, succeeded in destroying all the trees, and, at a council meeting that day, it was revealed that, by that point, the cost of keeping the security in place was a further £1.37 million. Further costs have, of course, been added since, as well as the costs of maintaining permanent security at the old Tidemill school site since 2016, meaning that the whole process of evicting the garden and guarding it, as well as guarding the empty school, may well have cost at least £2.5m in total.

And for what? One year since the occupation began, and ten months since the eviction, no building work has yet taken place, either at Tidemill or at Amersham Vale, and, when it comes to the environmental costs of housing developments, the tide is decisively turning against the recklessness with which the entire building industry has been behaving.

Over the last year, thanks to Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the environmental costs of our hugely destructive way of life have finally gone mainstream. Cynical politicians — including Lewisham Council — have jumped on the bandwagon, declaring a climate emergency the same week that Tidemill’s trees were cut down, but doing nothing to actually tackle the problem. Killing a garden was bad enough, but knocking down a structurally sound block of council flats is also completely unacceptable.

And this particular problem doesn’t just involve Tidemill. Down the road in New Cross, the council wants to demolish the 87 flats that make up the Achilles Street estate, which is also structurally sound, but has been subjected to “managed decline” over many years. As with Reginald House, the answer is not demolition, but refurbishment, but at every level of politics — central government, the GLA and local government — no provision has been made for the refurbishment of estates.

This urgently needs to change, as the environmental cost of demolition means that it shouldn’t be undertaken unless it is absolutely necessary — and at Reginald House, at Achilles Street, and at another big planned regeneration scheme, Catford Town Centre, no such case exists. These are all planned demolitions of choice, intended to make money for the developers, with residents treated with contempt, and the environmental costs disregarded.

As I explained in an article in May, Deptford’s Tidemill Campaign and the Dawning Environmental Rebellion Against the Dirty Housing ‘Regeneration’ Industry, I hope that environmental campaigners will consider taking action when building work finally begins at Tidemill, and I also hope that, at Achilles Street, where the council cannot proceed without a ballot, which may be approved within the next month, residents will spurn the council’s efforts to get them to approve the destruction of their homes.

Council officials — and Studio Raw, consultants they have employed to butter up residents — are currently making all kinds of wonderful-sounding promises about what they will receive if they vote to approve the destruction of their homes — like for like social rents for life in shiny new properties.

The problem, however, is that none of these promises are legally binding, and what the history of ‘regeneration’ shows us is that, further down the line, costs rise, developers’ profits are threatened, and promises evaporate like the mirages that, in reality, they always were.

And if you have any doubts about this, watch what happened when the comedian Geoff Norcott, who spent a day with Tidemill campaigners as part of his recently broadcast BBC2 programme, ‘How the Middle Class Ruined Britain’, challenged Lewisham councillor Joe Dromey about the ‘promises’ made to residents of Reginald House about them getting like for like social rents for life in the new Tidemill development.

The exchange begins about 35 minutes into the programme, and when Geoff asked Joe Dromey what he had to say about Reginald House residents’ concerns about there being no guarantees about them getting new homes at social rents, and not facing rent hikes further down the line, he wasn’t reassured by Dromey telling him that residents had received a “written guarantee” that they wouldn’t pay more. “Is it legally binding?” Geoff asked, repeatedly, to silence from Dromey, who ended up, at Geoff’s prompting, claiming that he would resign if the ‘promise’ was broken.

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that, when it comes to housing, Lewisham Council — and their development partners, like Peabody — cannot be trusted at all.

So is there any hope? Well, there’s always hope, but to my mind it still seems unlikely to happen with continual struggle — although, if you’re looking for another glimmer of light, Paul Burnham, a campaigner in Haringey, has spent some time examining the latest draft of the London Plan, and states that the demolition of council estates will no longer be encouraged in the next London Plan, due for publication next year.

Let’s hope this is the case.

* * * * *

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 seven 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.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    It’s one year since campaigners – myself included – occupied the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford to prevent its destruction by Lewisham Council and Peabody – because the garden was a magical oasis, because it mitigated the horrendous effects of nearby traffic pollution, and also to try to prevent the destruction of Reginald House, a structurally sound block of council flats next door.

    One year on, I review how badly the council and Peabody behaved, with a violent eviction in October, at least £1.5m spent on the eviction and the subsequent 24/7 presence of bailiffs, and the destruction of the trees in February (the same week that the council hypocritically declared a climate emergency), and yet building work still hasn’t begun.

    Meanwhile, as environmental awareness has grown, via the work of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the demolition not only of gardens, but also of council estates, is coming to be regarded as environmentally unacceptable, which should derail the council’s plans for the destruction of Reginald House, and also for other proposed demolitions – of the Achilles Street estate in New Cross, and of Catford Town Centre, both of which should be refurbished rather than destroyed.

  2. Anna says...

    ‘the demolition of council estates will no longer be encouraged in the next London Plan’, a very slim comfort indeed, considering authorities’ disdain for the truth. What does ‘not encourage’ mean? That it still will be OK, just not specifically advocated?

    I’m getting too old Andy, I just can’t handle the blaring hypocrisy and arrogance anymore. Boris who piles lies upon lies while even the upper class kids whom he tried to bribe yesterday did not seem to believe him. And negative attitudes unfortunately do trickle down and zero empathy and civility is increasingly permeating society. Over here, an investor (supposedly of family flats, in reality in this neighbourhood cheap tourist AirBnB flats) will cut down a number of wonderful at least 20 m tall trees in the courtyard behind mine and replace them with a 15 units, > 15 m tall monstrosity. A local ecological authority told me that fines for cutting down trees have been reduced to such a degree, that they will simply cut them illegally and pay the fines.
    And as soon as I go outside my beloved appartment, I must fight off not just bicycles on the sidewalks but now also a tsunami of electrical mopeds and other electrical contraptions on wheels, parked any which way, driving way too fast and blinding, as their headlights face upwards instead of down to illuminate the road…

    With all cars now having airco, their owners tend to keep the engine running while parked and fiddling with their I-phones. Who cares about the people who live there and have their windows open in this heat, and therefore have to put up with the endless humming (not to mention exhaust fumes) of their engines?
    Cranky? You bet!

    I increasingly feel I live in a gilded cage in some tourist Disneyland where no basic human politeness applies anymore.
    The city council has joined a number of European tourist destinations which expect the EU to legislate AirBnBs, but not because far too many appartments are turned into tourist hostels, thus depleting the number of available housing and evidently driving up real estate prices and rents, not to mention the racket drunk tourists create which makes living in the city centre hell anyway. No, they only reacted when local hotel owners complained about losing customers…

    I think cheap airlines are a scourge which contributes to the destruction of world-wide beauty and the climate. We want to fly & live cheap when travelling while not having an ecological disaster.
    Once we’ve ruined one place – be it a city, a beach or any pristine nature – we simply move on to the next ones. What we need is not cheap airlines, but cheaper trains and proper people-centred government planning rather than eternally ‘growing economies’ and maximum financial gains for a happy few.
    Ah well, this old grouch will now seriously start looking for some deserted village in Calabria :-).

  3. Anna says...

    Should of course have added, that I’m one of the happy increasingly few, with my own place to live in, no debts, no hunger, no war zone, no lethal epidemics, not even hurricanes. Just never expected that while living in a city with 800.000 inhabitants, one day 13,5 million tourists a year (2018), would ruin that magic beyond repair and what I 20 years ago expected to be my final destination, would turn out to be merely one more temporary stop.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna.
    Quite what’s in store for the London Plan isn’t entirely clear, and I kept my commentary deliberately quite vague as a result. What I’ve heard is that Labour councils have been feeding back to the Labour Mayor that estate demolition programmes have been causing them problems, in term son PR and expenditure, because people are mounting resistance to the lies and spin that they’re being told, and this is causing second thoughts about advocating estate demolitions as a good thing.
    Everything in politics moves so slowly, however – too slowly – that I doubt that the environmental reason for not demolishing estates (or any other buildings, for that matter, unless absolutely necessary) is in the process of becoming a major part of the way of thinking in City Hall generally (with the exception of the Greens), even though it’s clearly necessary in the environmentally-awake world of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.
    Your problems in Krakow are part of the same absence of responsibility in positions of power. Tourism now seems to be the biggest industry on earth, and yet it is dangerously parasitical. Cheap, subsidised flights are an environmental insanity, AirBNB (like all California’s great leaps forward) is a destroyer, this time removing the ability of residents to live in their own cities, and tourists themselves have become hollower and hollower, as the combination of mobile phone technology and the selfishness of our current excuse for a culture deliver a double whammy of zombie tourists with a massive sense of their own importance.
    It all needs to stop now, but our politicians are useless, and only the people can make a change, if we rise up in sufficient numbers. I have great admiration for Greta Thunberg, and the children inspired by her, and I hope they can bring the world to a halt if everyone older won’t listen.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, those tourist numbers are deranged, Anna – as they are in London. Unfortunately, politicians, being cowardly, don’t want to tell the people uncomfortable truths – like the fact that unfettered air travel is a major contributor to climate change, and that, one way or another, we have to seriously reduce the number of flights.

  6. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, of course I followed the debates and while I now know a lot more about the functioning of your parliament as such – never too old to learn – I’m mostly baffled.
    I thought our politics in Poland were backward for lack of experience with democracy, but that cannot be the reason in Britain. Even Cabinet members – including the rogue PM – can get away with never answering even the simplest questions by anything more specific than other questions and/or accusations, spiteful sneers and worse.
    So if I understand it correctly, now the Commons won the first two rounds, but the Lords will be blackmailing them : if you want us to pass this law and not filibuster it to death, you’ll have to accept B’s snap election. Apart from all the mentioned reasons for not wanting an election right away, as well as more subtle ones, I doubt the EU will agree to any more extension if it either coincides with or immediately follows a general election. Simply because it would be a carbon copy of May’s snap election with everyone 100 % busy campaigning instead of working 24/7 to prepare a more acceptable deal. In other words, another X months totally wasted for internal UK politics. After they said when agreeing to the latest extention, that that extra time should be used efficiently. Why would they settle for more of the same?

    What a conundrum ! That pouting, infantile megalomaniac who passes for PM will never give in, were it only to save face he’ll plough on in this blind alley and will blame whatever disaster will follow, on the EU, the opposition and as we have witnessed, even his own star party members. Getting rid of those was the most stupid thing he could do. Now he can be sure they’ll vote against him at any occasion and risks alienating even more of them.

    I’m pretty sure that if he was seriously working on an acceptable solution and would just need a little more time to finish details, they would agree – with a sigh of relief.
    But to accept that the current extension was wasted and grant another one ? They’d be mad. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed, as you guys do not deserve a total disaster.

    I’d vote for another referendum – no matter how unpopular – but a general election will be spiced by too many phoney promises which will distract from the main issue which everyone desperately wants to get rid of. A new referendum should be proper : three options : without deal; with deal; no Brexit, and with proper information about expected + & – impact of each of them. OK, I’ll keep dreaming…
    My favourite Mogg-basher is the one with the dwindling majority graph. Genius !

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    What a headache it is, Anna. I’m happy too see how useless Johnson is at being PM, and the sacking of the distinguished rebels may finally have unleashed the Tory civil war that Theresa May worked so diligently to avoid, but it’s still not clear how we get out of this nightmare.
    Oh, and if you want to see a collage of Rees-Mogg that Dot did last night, it’s here:

  8. Anna says...

    Brilliant ! Beats the purely party-political ones.
    And just read that the Lords decided not to filibuster and accept the law. Uff.. small mercies.
    Looks like there’s also a revolution brewing in Labour with conflicting opinions about the date for an election. With all due respect and admiration for Corbyn, I suppose he asked for it by sitting too long on the fence and also wanting too much to become PM – be it for more noble reasons than Boris.
    Whose spitting-image brother just resigned citing conflict of interests. Sounds like either a decent guy or cleverly realising that betting on his brother is becoming a blind alley. That’s how cynical we become, not trusting anyone’s word.

  9. Anna says...

    Seems Jo Johnson has proper credentials and I – as non-Brit who should know when to remain silent 🙂 – agree with him.
    Quote from Guardian:

    Jo Johnson has achieved a unique distinction; he is the only minister to have resigned twice over Brexit.

    In November last year he resigned as a transport minister in Theresa May’s government because he could not support the withdrawal agreement. Other ministers who resigned at the time, like Dominic Raab, did so because they thought the agreement did not amount to a pure enough form of Brexit. Johnson agreed with them that it was an unsatisfactory compromise, but in a long statement explaining his resignation he said there should be a second referendum. He said:

    “Given that the reality of Brexit has turned out to be so far from what was once promised, the democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say. This would not be about re-running the 2016 referendum, but about asking people whether they want to go ahead with Brexit now that we know the deal that is actually available to us, whether we should leave without any deal at all or whether people on balance would rather stick with the deal we already have inside the European Union.

    To those who say that is an affront to democracy given the 2016 result, I ask this. Is it more democratic to rely on a three-year-old vote based on what an idealised Brexit might offer, or to have a vote based on what we know it does actually entail?

    A majority of Orpington voters chose to leave the EU in 2016 and many of the close friends I have there, among them hard-working local Conservative party members, are passionately pro-Brexit. I respect their position. But I know from meetings I have had with local members that many are as dismayed as me by the course of negotiations and about the actual choice now on offer. Two-and-a-half years on, the practical Brexit options are now clear and the public should be asked to choose between the different paths facing our country: we will all have different positions on that choice, but I think many in my local party, in the Orpington constituency and around the country would welcome having the last word on the government’s Brexit proposals.”

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your updates, Anna. Jo Johnson’s departure has an extraordinary symbolism, I think. Boris Johnson is so inadequate, it suggests, that even his brother is fleeing the sinking ship. His suggestions about the need for a second referendum strike me as thoroughly sensible.

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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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