Welcome to another in our series of guest blog posts, this time by the Little People in the City
In the early evening the Balfron Tower stands tall and translucent in a way that my poor photography skills can barely do justice, rather like trying to worship Robert Plant but in fact performing a floor-clearing karaoke version of Kashmir.
But it’s not my photography prowess that is under the microscope here but rather more dark arts. A bit like looking in on a David Lynch scene where something far more macabre and terrifying is about to rip through your skull like a glass coffee table a la Lost Highway.
These dark arts are being performed by Tower Hamlets, and Poplar Housing And Regeneration Community Association (HARCA), those shining beacons of cultural inclusion. Balfron Tower was designed by Ernö Goldfinger whose name was taken by Ian Fleming for his master criminal in the James Bond novel and you can only wonder which one of these two drew greater inspiration from this. But I digress.
The Balfron Tower was created by Goldfinger as part of the Brownfield Estate in 1963 and realised by the then Greater London Council (GLC) between 1965 and 1967. Designed as a testament to the power of social housing in the post war period, the Balfron was an exercise in re-housing those residents primarily blighted by the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.
Its 146 homes on 26 storeys recreated in its covered galleries those terraced streets where the residents previously lived, and indeed wherever possible tenants who had been neighbours were allocated to the same floors to maintain relationships. It is this consideration of the nature of the way in which the building would be occupied which had ensured it stood out as an example to those designing thoughtful social housing in the future. Goldfinger himself stated that:
“The success of any scheme depends on the human factor – the relationship of people to each other and the frame to their daily life which the building provides. These particular buildings have the great advantage of having families with deep roots in the immediate neighbourhood as tenants. In fact most families have been rehoused from the adjoining streets. Of the 160 families, all except two came from the Borough of Tower Hamlets.”
The 1980’s witnessed a period of managed neglect and an ideological sea-change to the extent that by 2007 Tower Hamlets had agreed to a stock transfer to HARCA, forcing this upon the residents by the slimmest margin.
Looking at the Council reports from this time can only cast doubt on the legitimacy of the votes. So if there was no requirement to have a Maths GCSE for a job at the Council maybe that would explain the slip of the pen when the entire 941 homes on the Brownfield Estate were transferred for £nil, I’ll repeat for those who missed that, £NIL, and where obviously some zeros were missed off. (Link:http://moderngov.towerhamlets.gov.uk/documents/s5484/)
By this time some of the homes had also been sold off under Thatcher’s Right to Buy and these long-leasehold tenants were given little say in the transfer, so long as more than half of the social tenants accepted. Why everyone was not treated equally remains a mystery.
The residents were promised modernisation following the transfer, but these clearly did not happen. Instead a ruthless programme of removing the social tenants ensued despite Council and HARCA promises that there would be no loss of council homes, and the long leaseholders equally bullied out of the Tower so that yet another private, luxury (a term so over-used it is now meaningless), unaffordable housing scheme can presented, rubbing yet more salt into the already sore wounds of the locals.
Matters came to a head in September when plans were submitted for approval by the owner of the Tower, by this time a joint venture between HARCA, London Newcastle and United House (which sold its own interest just days ahead of the planning application). (Link: http://www.wharf.co.uk/news/local-news/poplar-harca-accused-pushing-out-10223686)
The Council in considering the two planning applications, one for the refurbishment of the Tower, the second for Listed Building Consent following the Tower’s Grade II listing in 1996, is obliged to seek comments from the public, but was it just coincidence that in the final week before the deadline for such comments to be made the website had barred any access to the planning records for the Brownfield Estate and Balfron Tower? Complaints were lodged with the Council to the effect that due process was not being followed but we won’t hold our breath for the Mayor’s response. (Link:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yBCd1W6O8T1wem8AZot5xItabixDRDcW6d4EjiPr1bM/edit)
The primary objection here is the loss of social housing. Having already once divested its own responsibility by transferring the property back in 2007, Tower Hamlets essentially gave Poplar HARCA a very tasty treat, and now the treat is being repackaged like a second hand Christmas present and represented, as HARCA apply for permission with no social units whatsoever, in-so-doing losing the 99 former council homes forever, in complete contravention of the Balfron Tower’s raison d’être.
The savage disrespect shown not only to the residents but also the building itself is symptomatic of the neo-liberal transfer of capital away from the people and into the hands of private profiteers. The Balfron was built to stand as a monument to social housing but is now being metamorphosed into a mausoleum of greed and capitalism.
What is more than encouraging, however, is the fact that the little people in the city have had enough. So much so that nearly 3,000 have sent a clear message to Tower Hamlets signed a petition demanding that HARCA’s plans be refused. (Link:https://www.change.org/p/stephen-halsey-steve-stride-john-biggs-stop-privatisation-and-social-cleansing-at-balfron-tower).
Once upon a time rampant gentrificleansing in the city caused local objections, and the voice of those locals were little more than a whisper in the collective subconscious. But the little people in the city are rapidly gaining a voice and using it increasingly effectively so that housing is fast becoming the number one issue for Londoners. The fight must go on.
This report is indebted both to David Roberts’ superb resource www.balfrontower.org as well as the unswerving passion of the Balfron Social Club and 50 Percent Balfron. (@BalfronSocial on Twitter). Many thanks!