Doreen Fletcher: artwashing the east end with Bow Arts

It is beyond question that Doreen Fletcher is a talented painter, and her paintings display a nostalgic sentimentality for a rapidly changing east London, an east London whose communities have faced a turbulent time over the past 20 years, as the east end is changed beyond recognition.

Bartlett Park by Doreen Fletcher. Bartlett Park in Poplar has seen heavy residential development, and now houses an arts organisation under the control of Poplar Harca.

Fletcher has been adopted by the East London Group, which promote the works of painters such as Albert Turpin and Harold Steggles, “mostly working class, realist painters whose formal education had often stopped at elementary school”, they portrayed a grimy smoke-filled vision of the east end. Doreen has been promoted as a “lost artist”, an artist previously ignored by the art establishment, whose work is now being brought to the attention of the public by Paul Godfrey, aka The Gentle Author. Godfrey has published the monograph Doreen Fletcher: Paintings under his own Spitalfields Life publishing house. The book is published to accompany her exhibition with Bow Arts at The Nunnery.

Doreen’s paintings at best visually fit the canon, and at worst are derivative of the East London Group, who primarily worked in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time as the East London Group were painting the streets of east London, a wider revolution was happening in British society. In Poplar, a rates rebellion had led George Lansbury, a Labour Councillor that fought and was jailed for fighting for the rights of the working classes in his community, to become MP for Bow and Bromley and Chairman of the Labour Party. The horror that had been the 1st World War led to a boom in the building of social housing for working class communities, and the fallout from the 2nd World War led to the creation of the welfare state; free medical coverage, free education and most importantly, a safety net for those who fell through the cracks.

Shakey’s Yard in Winter by Albert Turpin

However, in post-Thatcher austerity Britain, a neoliberal agenda is being pursued by everybody from government, education to the arts. In the current turbulent political climate, comfort can be found in a romantic painting of an east end long since vanished, and Doreen provides plenty of comfort for us to reminisce over the past.

Godfrey’s claims that Fletcher is a lost artist however are all part of a smokescreen, an illusion that preaches community and integrity and celebrates the working class artisan, whilst imposing its singular view upon us; that of white, middle-class gentrification.

Fletcher’s CV reveals she is far from that of a lost artist, with paintings held in the collections of many civic and financial institutions. The lost artist claim serves to build up Fletcher’s mythology; to sell books, to sell paintings, but even more sinister: to sell the east end to an affluent class of investor, for them to romanticise its history; nostalgia for displaced communities that they themselves are replacing.

Stop the Blocks campaign poster featuring Balfron Social Club

Paul Godfrey, aka the Gentle Author, first came to my attention in 2015 over his involvement in the Stop the Blocks movement. Stop the Blocks first appeared in June 2015 and disappeared just a few months later. Stop the Blocks campaigned to “save Shoreditch from the shadows” and a well attended rally was held and glossy leaflets and a large poster were produced. The poster featured local activist campaigns, including Balfron Social Club and Save Chrisp Street, accompanied by hand drawn pictures of the territory we were fighting for, including Balfron Tower.

Godfrey wrote about Balfron Tower:

Built as council housing, designed by Erno Goldfinger in 1963 and made a Grade II listed building in 1996, Balfron Tower is now being sold off by Poplar Housing & Regeneration Association. Current long-term residents are being forced to sell and moved out while the famous block is being fetishised in a sixties-style marketing campaign to attract private owners. The circumstances at Balfron Tower are a prime example of how social restructuring is devastating London’s working-class communities. Another layer of social division was added when artists renting emptied properties were co-opted tacitly into PR for the sell-off – a process that has become known as ‘art wash.’ 

And he wrote about the campaign to Save Chrisp Street Market:

‘Save Chrisp St Market’ is campaigning to inform local residents and traders about the proposed ‘regeneration’ of Chrisp St Market by Poplar Housing & Regeneration Association (HARCA). The plans include ‘luxury’ housing and stores, at the expense of shops and accommodation affordable for local people. Traders will be booted out for the period of redevelopment, or longer – if they cannot afford the increased rents. Traders say they have been left in the dark about the future of the market. Save Chrisp St intends to do their own consultation in parallel with­­­ Poplar HARCA’s, by going door-to-door asking people about what they would like to see for the area. So far, many people have said they want the market to be improved, but not at the cost of their ability to live there. Save Chrisp St are working to make sure that the community has a proper voice. 

Stop the Blocks, August 2015 (pic: Rab Harling)

Despite involvement in two of the campaigns featured, no contact was ever received from Godfrey, or any of his associates before publishing the Stop the Blocks campaign poster. Stop the Blocks claimed to be a “network of grassroots Tower Hamlets campaigns fighting gentrification and social cleansing,” but seemed to be co-opting other groups, many grateful for the exposure for their campaign, for their own short-lived cause. So, it later came as no surprise to discover Godfrey had joined forces with Bow Arts.

Bow Arts had been at the forefront of the recent trend of using artists to help property developers displace communities. Their poorly managed occupation of a number of estates managed by the housing association Poplar Harca had imposed arts-led gentrification across a number of sites in the process of being socially cleansed in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

The Albion Public House by Doreen Fletcher

The use of artists as the foot soldiers of gentrification had various levels of success, depending upon who you asked. The Bow Arts Balfron Tower Case Study, which was no doubt lapped up without question by housing association Peabody when choosing Bow Arts to help artwash their social cleansing program in the London suburb of Thamesmead, told of a fantasy that existed inside the head of Bow Arts CEO Marcel Baettig, a fantasy where artists benefitted from targeted harassment, monitoring of their social media accounts and happily donated their landlord, a registered charity, thousands of pounds a year as a donation, taken illegally from their rent.

Bow Arts purpose was clear: it was, and remains, a publicly-funded charity who supply artists to property developers to help artwash the social cleansing and the dismantlement of social housing. Their involvement in the artwash and social cleansing of the infamous Balfron Tower serves to remind us of the direction being taken by Arts Council England, to take the lottery receipts from the Heritage Lottery ticket customers, and use it to artwash the dismantlement of our social assets.

So, is Fletcher innocent for turning a blind-eye to how Bow Arts operate? I certainly made Fletcher aware of how Bow Arts operate many months ago, but like so many artists, she chose to ignore the behaviour of who she is working with, giving them her endorsement, as well as the endorsement of the East London Group. Godfrey’s prior co-optation of sites of contestation in the east end, such as Balfron Tower suggest he was already fully aware of Bow Arts controversial role in the artwash of the east end, but chose to collaborate with them regardless. No support was ever received by Godfrey in our campaigns to save Balfron Tower or Chrisp Street Market from gentrification.

It disheartens me that artists allow their art to be deployed as a weapon against society, artwashing the reputation of some thoroughly greedy individuals and organisations, and there is no doubt that this is what Fletcher’s retrospective at Bow Arts does. Fletcher’s baby-boomer narcissism may allow her to ignore, support or collaborate in the social cleansing of the communities that she painted, but the rest of the East London Group, now deceased, have now had her ethics imposed upon them. This association with Bow Arts damages the legacy of the East London Group of painters; painters unable to object.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar, 25th January 2019

Notes:

Doreen Fletchers website https://www.doreenfletcherartist.com/

East London Group on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_London_Group

George Lansbury and the Poplar rates rebellion on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poplar_Rates_Rebellion

Closed House Weekend by Stop the Blocks in Design Exchange Magazine http://www.demagazine.co.uk/architecture/closed-house-weekend-spitalfields-life

Balfron Tower: the Artwash of an Icon by Rab Harling in Urban Transcripts Journal http://journal.urbantranscripts.org/article/balfron-tower-artwash-icon-rab-harling/

Artist squares up to Regulator over “manifestly unreasonable” fundraising investigation by Christy Romer https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/exclusive-artist-squares-regulator-over-manifestly-unreasonable-fundraising-investigation

The Battle of Chrisp Street

The Battle of Chrisp Street by Rab Harling

A public market serving the daily needs of the local working class community has existed in Poplar at Chrisp Street since Victorian times. In 1951, the market underwent a significant redesign by modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, in celebration of the Festival of Britain, creating the UK’s first pedestrianised shopping centre.

After years of managed decline, regeneration is looming for Chrisp Street Market. A Registered Social Landlord, a property developer, and a Labour authority seek to create their vision of “the New Shoreditch”, with a brief to “change the social mix” of this 9-acre site, situated in the shadow of Canary Wharf, no matter the cost to the established community.

A mass home building program is underway in east London and new homes are rapidly being built on the graveyard of social housing, with regeneration proposals aiming to serve incoming middle class residents. Yet social housing is desperately needed by the local working class community; the people who live & work in Poplar now, rather than the people developers want to attract here.

Chrisp Street Market serves long established and diverse communities which come together 6 days a week in the market square. It serves the everyday needs of the community, and has done for over 100 years. If current regeneration proposals go ahead, a unique east end market will be purposefully gentrified beyond recognition, displacing its community and bustling marketplace in the process.

Please note that this film is displayed here for personal viewing only. Commercial or educational screening of this film is unauthorised without prior consent. Please use the Contact button for all enquiries.

Balfron Tower: The Artwash of an Icon by Rab Harling

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It was with great excitement and optimism when in late 2010, at the cusp of attaining my MA in Photography, that I wrote a proposal for my next project: Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out, a plan to work with the architecture and community of Ernö Goldfinger’s 27-storey brutalist masterpiece Balfron Tower in East London.

I wrote a proposal to turn the tower inside out using large format transparencies, an optimistic and ambitious aim considering Balfron Tower had been in a state of flux since 2007 when housing association Poplar Harca took control of the tower and was in the process of ruthlessly clearing out the tenants, many who had lived there for generations, so that the tower could be redeveloped into luxury flats. I submitted a proposal to Bow Arts, who were renting flats in the tower to artists, “end of life” properties where I was told “you can do anything you like except knock walls down.”

The first few months in the tower were a strange and isolating experience. It became clear very quickly that Bow Arts had alienated most of the remaining residents in the tower and that there was an active campaign to disrupt and sabotage the work of the live/work scheme artists. A formal ban on film & photography, already in place by the time I arrived in February 2011, was being aggressively enforced.

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No filming and no photography (Pic: Copyright @BalfronSocial)

Despite some minor disruption to one of my project’s ‘A Delicate Sense of Terror” which was to be made in the communal areas of the tower, I carried on regardless, aware that my main project did not breach the ban as it was to be made entirely within people’s homes upon their invitation.

Fully aware that things were not as Bow Arts had made them seem in their literature, and were not addressing issues we were facing in the building, but who were still happy to send me in to the tower, my rent money and security deposit attained, but with no advance warning of the hostilities or issues that they had already caused in the community.

I was later told by an artist neighbour, who had been in the tower since the beginning of the Bow Arts scheme, that they believed that I would just give up and abandon my work, as so many other artists who had come in to the tower to create work had already done, following a lack of co-operation from the community.

Bow Arts and Poplar Harca had already commissioned an artist to produce their master artwash event, in which the community got to take part by standing on their balconies as a photograph was taken of the building. Few residents chose to take part with many boycotting the event as a way of protesting their evictions. They were not being offered any possibility to express their opinions on the landgrab and ‘regeneration’ of their homes that would later see a raft of star architects and designers drafted in, whilst Poplar Harca ruthlessly set about dismantling an entire community, using a host of tactics that would send most people with a conscience into a state of shock.

What particularly shocked me was how they used divide and conquer tactics amongst the community, playing people according to the level of resistance they would give and the level of education they had attained and their ability to fight for their rights. This included threatening ‘difficult’ leaseholders with Compulsory Purchase Orders, and in one case reportedly attaining leasehold possession of a flat from a resident with learning difficulties for £14,000.

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Still from ”What Does Balfron Tower Meant to You? By @RabHarling

I didn’t hear of a single occasion where tenants were offered anything that would allow them to attain a similar home in the area with their settlement for surrendering their homes, with the exception of the resident’s committee, who had been purposefully disruptive to artists, but who overall remained silent on the subject of the brutality with which Harca were ripping through the community.

In hindsight it was with no surprise that Bow Arts intimidated and bullied artists in the tower, making it clear that we were to turn a blind eye to the ruthless attacks on our (new) neighbours. Was our privilege as artists just there to be abused? The promises of gallery flats and community funding were shallow and empty lies, lies to be reinforced with Terrill’s commissioned portrait of the tower.

Large and frequent rent increases meant that most artists in the tower were forced to give up their studio spaces and take in flatmates, whilst those that complained privately about rent increases on Facebook, received intimidating letters from Bow Arts, or were summoned into their office and confronted for innocently speaking to an interested media.

It seemed artists were just here to pay up and shut up about the way our community was being treated, but also to carry on regardless and pretend that what we were witnessing in front of us was not happening. I could never accept that we were simply there for artwash and were to avoid and ignore our new neighbours and the predicaments they were in over their evictions. Sadly, it seems, for many artists who have heralded from greater wealth and privilege than I did, this did not seem to raise many ethical dilemmas for them and they seemed quite happy turn a blind eye to what was going on, if not actively engage in the artwash process.

Having been made aware reasonably quickly after moving into Balfron Tower that things were not quite as they seemed, I got my head down and started working, I had thrown everything I had into this work, and failure was not an option. I didn’t put notices up in the lift seeking participants, notices that would have been removed immediately anyway. I set about getting to know my neighbours by word of mouth, discovering through degrees of separation how isolated, alone and vulnerable many of the remaining tenants in the building were.

Living on the 2nd floor of a 27-storey building, where the lift was the most sociable place, made meeting my neighbours difficult and progress was initially slow. Many artists simply refused to participate in my work, but many did and this allowed me to shoot a number of flats and build up a small catalogue of work which better allowed me to visually explain to other residents what my plans were and what their role was within them. Slowly doors started to open, particularly when residents started to become more familiar with me around and about the building, and slowly the archive of homes I had photographed grew.

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Promises made to residents of Balfron Tower by Poplar Harca ahead of the nil value stock transfer.

It was really only when doors started opening for me that I really started to hear the horror stories from an embattled community over how they were being treated. Poplar Harca lied to the residents of Balfron Tower over their plans to refurbish their homes, promising new windows, bathrooms and kitchens if they voted to transfer the housing stock to them, free of charge from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. They also told many residents that they could return to their homes, only for them to find out after they had already moved that they could not return.

It was very clear to me from the start that all was not well with the decant of Balfron Tower, and the stories I heard were heart-breaking, but consistently told of ruthless and nefarious tactics to clear the building so that the homes could be redeveloped by a luxury property developer and sold off with zero percent social housing.

It is wrong to believe that residents did not value what they had, that it was wasted on them. It was rare to meet anyone who did not speak passionately about the building and / or their community.

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As more residents took part, the lightboxes grew (Pic: Copyright @RabHarling)

As the number of participants in my project grew, and as more and more people took part in my work, allowing me into their homes to document and record their private interior worlds, the more the hostility increased from Poplar Harca. Despite some early co-operation, they quickly stopped assisting me, perhaps aware that I was photographing the homes of people they were desperately trying to evict, and were worried that my work could be used to highlight the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. This wasn’t something that was in my original proposal, but was something that I was finding it more and more difficult to ignore.

By the time Bow Arts started forcibly inspecting our flats, widely rumoured to be so that artists who had made their mostly dilapidated flats into something habitable, could be evicted to make way for event & meeting rooms, supper clubs and theatre productions etc. I had already been invited in to photograph nearly 120 of my neighbour’s homes. Despite receiving no funding for the first two and half years, but dozens of rejection letters, I sustained and supported my work by eating at Occupy LSX and volunteering my time in exchange, just so I could continue to buy film and pay for processing.

Throughout this process Bow Arts seemed to be actively working against me, refusing to provide any support or assistance whatsoever, omitting my name from internal mailing lists that would have assisted me etc. It became very clear that they were using artists to artwash the tower, abandoning us to be ruthless pawns in the game of social cleansing that they were engaging in; to artwash and change the demographic of the local community, and were offering us very little in return.

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Still from ”What Does Balfron Tower Meant to You? By @RabHarling

Artists whose work challenged or threatened this shiny happy example of community engagement / valuable revenue stream, challenging or criticising the role that artists play for property developers, were targeted and intimidated.

By the time I had made numerous formal complaints to Bow Arts, following the complaints procedure outlined on their website, the intimidation had not stopped and demands to inspect my flat were being made daily, under the guise of a gas meter inspection. My request for a Gas Safe engineer to attend were refused. A subsequent phone call to Marcel Baettig, the CEO of Bow Arts, advised him that the intimidation by his co-director had not ceased despite earlier promises to me that it would, I raised a question that had been on my mind since a rent increase several months earlier, which advised me for the first time ever, that Bow Arts were taking a significant proportion of my rent and donating it to themselves as a charitable donation, a sum total of over £5,000 over three years; money I could have quite happily used to buy film, and food. I raised this and expressed my dissatisfaction that this money was being forcibly taken from me and donated to themselves.

I received an eviction notice in the post the following day.

Revenge eviction was the perfect way for Bow Arts to punish me. Completely legal and required no explanation beyond a simple lie, a lie lapped up by everybody in authority.

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The view East from Balfron Tower (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)

I remain adamant that I should be able to choose freely with whom I give any charitable donation, and that I would not and do not choose to give it to an organisation that uses artists to artwash social housing on behalf of property developers and fails to provide anything that they claim to offer in their PR regarding community engagement in return.

By this time, I had received a Leverhulme Trust funded artist residency for my work in Balfron Tower, hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory (after two and half years of rejected funding applications.) Bow Arts had done nothing to assist with me this, other than act as a slum landlord, and attempts to negotiate with them over my impending eviction and their purposeful sabotage of my work were fruitless.

There was simply no negotiating with them and they aggressively pushed for an eviction on 31st December 2013. Bow Arts had purposefully decided to try and destroy my work and then they employed High Court bailiffs to expedite the process of removing me from my home in the tower (nearly three years before the ultimate decant date of August 2016).  I subsequently spent two and half years homeless, desperately trying to keep my residency at UCL together, to make films, host exhibitions and give talks about my work at Universities, all whilst living in a squat with no power or water.

During this period, I spent as much time as I could trying to highlight what was going on at Bow Arts. Their literature promoted themselves as a community arts organisation, yet I had been made homeless for actually successfully working with my community. Meanwhile, homeless charity CRISIS defended their ongoing partnership with Bow Arts, despite being signatories to the campaign to end revenge evictions.

Why were Bow Arts so aggressive toward me just for questioning why part of my rent was being donated to a charitable cause? Why was a charity promoting community arts trying to use me to help displace a working class community from their homes, so they could be sold off to luxury property developers, all using public funds received from Arts Council England?  It didn’t take a great deal of research to discover that Bow Arts were taking public funds to do something that they were not providing, but nobody was listening.

What followed was two and a half years of hell. Trying to get anybody to believe what was happening in Balfron Tower; that artists were being used in this way; that I was apparently volunteering to give my landlord nearly £2,000 a year donation without even being aware that I was doing so. I reported my complaints to the police, to Arts Council England, to the Charities Commission and to HMRC.

And nothing happened. Nobody wanted to know. Bow Arts had also retained my tenancy deposit claiming I had vandalised the flat, the near-derelict end of life property rented to me as an art studio, which I used: as an art studio. I was broke and homeless. I tweeted, I shouted and I did whatever I could to raise awareness of what was going on. It was outrageous, a publicly funded charity had evicted me from my home, had sabotaged my work and was now threatening organisations where I was engaged to speak, such as The Royal Geographical Society and Goldsmiths.

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Balfron Social Club (@BalfronSocial/BalfronSocialClub.org)

It was in late-2014, still incensed by what was happening at Balfron Tower, that I started Balfron Social Club, an activist campaign to try to put pressure on decision makers and expose the privatisation of the tower, and to demand that a minimum of 50% social housing is retained in all regeneration projects.

It is unfortunate that in the solidly Labour borough of Tower Hamlets, with Labour councillors, Labour MP’s and a Labour mayor that they were steamrollering ahead with the social cleansing of large swathes of the borough, pioneering Tory policies to disrupt and displace working class communities whilst they profit from the regeneration of their homes.

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Robin Hood Gardens, Tower Hamlets (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)

The most notable attacks on communities in the Eastern side of Tower Hamlets being the anticipated demolition of the Smithson’s brutalist masterpiece Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the regeneration of Balfron Tower which will contain no social or affordable housing whatsoever. This is not to mention dozens of other estates, all in the process of being ‘regenerated’ to dismantle the social housing element, instead favouring private sale and part-ownership models. No community is safe in the hands of so-called Registered Social Landlord Poplar Harca.

Despite a successful campaign to upgrade the listing of Balfron Tower to a Grade II* status by David Roberts of UCL and architect James Dunnett, the plans for the redevelopment of the tower were announced to great surprise.

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Balfron Tower’s fenestration: before & after

The recommendations in the heritage listing had almost been completely ignored and plans are afoot for a Goldfinger theme park, visually aimed at hipsters and bankers, but even more critically aimed at investors. Figures released recently for one of Poplar Harca’s preferred developers Telford Homes show that 93% of their sales were to investors, with only 7% to owner occupiers. The proposals were to dramatically modify both the interior and exterior of the building. Despite it’s recent heritage listing upgrade, the proposed plans were approved by Historic England and were accepted unanimously by the planning committee for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 16th December 2015.

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Mayor Biggs interrupts proceedings during the vote to approve planning permission for Balfron Tower (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)

But why did Cllr Sharia Khatun, now Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets, fail to disclose her current and former interests in Poplar Harca, something she had declared on previous occasions and something that would have made her ineligible to vote? Why did Mayor John Biggs interrupt the committee mid-session and then take a seat directly in front of them and glare at them whilst they voted? Claims that the majority of the timber-framed windows in Balfron Tower’s iconic elevation were dilapidated and beyond repair were also not true, as is witnessed in my photographs. Plans have been approved to replace this beautiful fenestration with aluminium frames and sheet glass, fundamentally changing the visual appearance of the tower.

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Balfron Social Clubs’ Change.org petition

A petition organised by Balfron Social Club objecting to the privatisation of the tower had gained over 3000 signatures and had forced the planning meeting to be conducted in a public session, but was otherwise completely ignored. The decision seemed to have already been made and our protestations on both architectural and social grounds fell on deaf ears.

Debating the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords on 5th November 2015, Lord Cashman of Limehouse, speaking in a debate about regeneration legacies following the London Olympics, declared “there has been incredibly poor communication with, and an incredibly poor attitude towards, tenants and leaseholders from the current landlord Poplar HARCA over the decant and refurbishment, with changing plans, the insidious decanting of tenants, years of delay and an eventual declaration that Balfron Tower would be 100% privatised”. Lord Cashman also stated that he did not consider our demands for 50% social housing as too vigorous.

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Lord Cashman of Limehouse debates Poplar Harca and Balfron Tower in the House of Lords. Click here for the video.

I remain committed to exposing the swindle that is the removal of Balfron Tower from public ownership into the hands of investors and will continue to fight to ensure that those involved in the process are exposed.

The use of artists in this role must also be challenged, especially when artists are being forced, just by association with Bow Arts to fund their involvement in artwash on behalf of housing associations turned property developers, like Poplar Harca in East London and most recently Peabody in Thamesmead.

In June 2016 I made a formal complaint to the Fundraising Regulator to complain about charitable donations taken from me by Bow Arts. Taking ten months to reach a decision, the regulator has ruled that the statement in Bow Arts tenancy application pack that “all successful applicants will have to be committed to supporting the arts, arts events and arts education in the local area” was adequate notice that I was willingly and knowingly making them a charitable donation.

The regulator has made a decision that without my knowledge Bow Arts can take £5k from me and use it as they see fit, even though I remain fundamentally opposed to their use of artwash on behalf of property developers.

All choice has been taken out of my hands. The regulator has chosen to ignore a witness who has spoken out, on the record, to a journalist investigating corruption, that confirms that Bow Arts in no way advised us that we would be making a charitable donation to them during our initial visit to the tower as they have claimed, and has been accepted by the regulator.

Allegations by another former Balfron Tower live/work resident that match my own experience of bullying and intimidation have also not been investigated. According to the regulator, if they do not complain to them, then it simply did not happen. The regulator seems to take no responsibility to actually investigate nor follow-up allegations.

Despite being made aware of others speaking out, on the record, the Fundraising Regulator has shown no interest. It has also failed to address allegations and evidence that Bow Arts lied to tenants claiming changes in government legislation to absolve them retrospectively of fours years of Gift Aid donations taken without permission or authority.

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According to the Fundraising Regulator, Bow Arts do not need your permission to make themselves charitable donations and claim Gift Aid against your taxes (Pic: @RabHarling)

Regardless of how the regulator has chosen to rule, including finding Bow Arts in breach of Section 5.2(h) of the Fundraising Standards Code, I remain adamant that I was never advised of any charitable donations and that I fundamentally do not nor have I ever approved of making donations which are in any way associated with an artwash agenda. I believe that I should have the right to choose where and how I give money to charity or charitable causes. The regulator has chosen to side with Bow Arts on the basis of probability, despite the availability of witnesses and evidence which dispute their conclusions.

Following this ruling, artwash is now funded and supported by everybody that has a studio space with Bow Arts. You do not have a choice anymore. Art no longer equals freedom of expression, but forced oppression, a violent assault on working class communities by a class of educated and privileged people who choose, in the most part, to turn a blind eye to what is going on, at least until it directly affects them.

I chose to stand up and protest the forced use of artists in this way, and the consequences I suffered were barely imaginable. Bullying and intimidation by some some arts administrators has left all of us in the arts worse off, and a climate of bullying and fear have ensured that few people attempt to challenge the worst offenders.

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Fight back: join Artists Against Social Cleansing

Organisations who abuse and exploit artists, that force artists to contribute to processes of artwash on behalf of property developers; that use artists to artwash the social cleansing of social housing need to be exposed. It is time that funding models serve communities and artists, and not just the needs of an arts organisations and their PR machine.

The East End is ripe pickings for developers as London expands eastwards, and the arrival of organisations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the London College of Fashion and the Wellcome Trust in Poplar would be a lot more welcome if they weren’t working in partnership with the developer that is brutally dismantling our social housing, and if they were offering something genuine to the local community, rather than documenting, displacing and replacing it.

It is not acceptable to force artists upon communities that were doing just fine before an Arts Council funded artist turns up to collect community memories on behalf of whichever property developer is currently ‘regenerating’ their home.

Funding bodies such as Arts Council England need to address the corruption at some of their National Portfolio Organisations. Property developer led agendas do not serve artists and they do not serve communities. They are turning communities against artists, exposing us for exactly what we have become; the shock troops of gentrification.

Rab Harling

for

Balfron Social Club

10th May 2017


@RabHarling

rabharling.com


@BalfronSocial

BalfronSocialClub.org

If only Balfron Tower could talk, if only we could see

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Balfron Tower (pic: @balfronsocial)

 

If only Balfron Tower could talk, if only we could see

A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard

 

Time lapses.  Remembrances.  Lives once fixed, now in transit.  Different places.  Other spaces.

If only Balfron Tower could talk.

Each wall, window, walkway.  Every conduit, fixture, fitting, lock.  The underground garages.  The lifts.  The noticeboards.  Dispossessed.

The views.  People’s views.  Displaced.

If only we could see.

No filming.  No photography.

Fixed perspectives.  Fixed outlooks.

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No filming, no photography (pic: @etiennelefleur)

All the while, the City creeps nearer.  Beacons.  Warning signs.  Shiny neoliberal lights.  Precursors of forthcoming “redevelopment”.  Glass fronted.  Flimsy giants.  Harbingers of impending gentrification.  They are coming.  They will come.  They will erase generations, feast on the past, wipe clean past lives, past happiness, past hardships.  Brutal.

Call in the artists, the property guardians, dark soundtracks, bleak CGI mock ups trumpeting “We’re coming home, baby!”

Not yet.  Just Sitex doors.  Left possessions tipped in skips.  Locks.  For now.

Business suits, fluorescent-clad workers, white-shirted private security guards. Builders or destroyers?

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A Sitex door bars access to the former home of an elderly Balfron Tower leaseholder, bullied from his home through the courts with threats of a Compulsory Purchase Order (pic: @balfronsocial)

Balfron Tower was a refuge for its many social housing tenants.  Soon it will be another vacuous space filled with neoliberal lifestyle choice, as empty of lives, real lives, as the empty promises made by the local “housing regeneration and community association” and the luxury residential property developers.  A haven for thieving City bankers.  Left-empty overseas billionaire investments. Hedge fund safe bets.  Tax evasion.  Buy-to-leave.

And now the last resident has gone, decanted to God knows where, they have wiped the soul from Balfron Tower.  It will never return.  They will make sure of it.  They have replaced people with assets for private investors, homes with a “new world” bereft of communities – another dead world of capital investment. A global world of shadowy deals and care-free exploitation.  Their world.

Cinema.  Launderette.  Play Room.  Garden Room.  Cocktail bar.  Goldfinger Archive.  Trunk Store. Treehouse.  What?  Social housing transformed into 1960s “design icon”, how lovely.  How incredibly ironic.  How to “unlock the potential for an unprecedented cast of stakeholders”.

So wrong.  So, so wrong.

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Up for the Yoga Room, down for the Music Room, design proposals for the Balfron Tower regeneration (Source: unknown)

And yet, Balfron Tower remembers its proud past.  Its residents will never forget.  Their ups and downs are cast in screed.  Their births and deaths, breakups and marriages haunt stairwells and walkways.  Lifts murmur songs from decades of everyday living.  Everyday hymns to everyone and no one.

Balfron Tower, like its past residents, remembers.  Together, they remember things heard and overheard; seen, unseen and overseen; touched and untouched.  Spoken, now muted, conversations.  Different people, living together high above London, through good and bad. Sharing.  Learning from one another.  Partying.  Playing.  Fighting.  Living.  Always living.

Inversion / Reflection shares little bits of some of these stories.  Resident’s lives. Balfron Tower’s life.  The film is not a crass product of socially engaged artists in the pay of profiteering property developers or housing associations hell bent on gentrification by a wryly smiling social art practice that paints a thinly disguised veil over gentrification.  It stands sensitive.  Understated.  Peaceful. Honest.  Proud.  A fitting commemoration of those displaced at the hands of unbridled gentrifiers who will, with their own rabid teeth, devour themselves eventually.  Cindy.  Gavin.  Felicity.  Shiraz. Evelyn.

Inversion/Reflection: What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You? A short film by Rab Harling

Balfron Tower.

It didn’t have to be this way.  Those involved didn’t need to exploit people. They didn’t have to lie. They didn’t have to socially cleanse.

This is not what Goldfinger planned.

He turns in his grave as capitalist greed stamps out the dying embers of our hopes and dreams for social housing.  Balfron Tower was and still is a symbol of our welfare state.  Built on optimism. Killed by selfishness.  Justice for all replaced by the dog-eat-dog world of possessive hyper-individualism and neoliberal capital accumulation by dispossession.  Systematic asset-stripping and land grabbing.

Balfron Tower is another battleground in a class struggle – a class war.  The rich elite may have temporarily taken control but one day we will assert our right to the city and we will take it back!

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A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard

@etiennelefleur

http://colouringinculture.org/

Balfron Social Club

Poplar

The Fall of Goldfinger’s Brutalist Balfron Tower and its Social Heritage

After nearly ten years of bullying the social tenants from their homes in Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, so-called “social housing” provider Poplar Harca, with the full support & backing of Tower Hamlets Labour, who created Poplar Harca in order to transfer billions of pounds worth of property into the hands of their friends, have now gained vacant possession of the tower. Hurrah!

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Ernö Goldfinger’s icon of brutalist architecture Balfron Tower on 31st August 2016, the day its final residents left ahead of refurbishment (pic: @balfronsocial)


For an organisation that claims to be a “charity” and a “social enterprise” their motives couldn’t be seen more clearly than in their intentions for this iconic purpose built 27-storey social housing block.

Poplar Harca have engaged the services of “luxury” property developers LondoNewcastle to manage the conversion of the tower into 100% privately owned investment properties, along with developers Telford Homes and United House, who both specialise in the conversion of publicly owned social housing into private investment “units”. Figures recently released show that 93% of the homes that Telford Homes develop, most commonly on land they have acquired from Registered Social Landlords, is sold on as investments. Only 7% have been sold to owner occupiers, people who actually want to live in the area.

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The “decant” of Balfron Tower has been particularly “brutal”. Poplar Harca used all sorts of nefarious tactics to get vacant possession, including lying to tenants to remove them from their homes. Balfron Tower’s social tenants were initially told, when they were asked to vote for the NIL value stock transfer from council ownership into RSL ownership, that they would be given new windows and new kitchens. They were later told that they would need to leave their homes for the work to be carried out, but could return post-refurbishment. These were blatant lies. Many moved out having been told they could return, only to be told after they had left that they could not move back. We are in no doubt that Poplar Harca and their bible-bashing Chief Executive Steve Stride, knew exactly what they were doing. How can “street-fighting man” Stride actually have any empathy with the communities he is destroying? He is on record as saying that he plans to turn Poplar into “the New Shoreditch”, another part of London where the wealth and selfishness of the City’s rich uncomfortably co-exists with those struggling with and being ground down by poverty. Steve Stride’s salary in 2016 was £159,197, upon which he received an additional £19,000 bonus.

Poplar Harca’s intention is clear. The development of the world famous iconic Balfron Tower would serve as a flagship property, a jewel in the crown of an area with little but run-down housing stock, and bland high-density modern investment units, all uncomfortably close to the HQ of global capitalist corruption, Canary Wharf.

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Labour peer Lord Cashman debates the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords, November 2015 (click HERE for the full video on parliamentlive.tv)


Another tactic in the arsenal of the social cleansers was so-called “artwash”, the use of young middle-class graduates to change the demographic of the area. This may have seemed like a good idea to Poplar Harca, in their dastardly plan to dismantle this traditional working-class East end community, but things don’t always go to plan.

Artists, desperate for studio space in a city evicting them further out to the margins as their studios are developed into luxury flats, were shipped in by Bow Arts Trust, a local Arts Council funded studio provider, who then bullied and intimidated its new creative inhabitants to discourage them from speaking out about the social cleansing of the tower, threatening them with evictions if they spoke to the media, or even wrote anything at all about them on Facebook, especially if it fell foul of their “artwash” agenda, and often even when it didn’t.

Poplar Harca, then despicably evicted a large number of property guardians they had contracted to be put in place by Ad-Hoc Property Guardians, and then gave the guardian contract to Cambridge-educated Katharine Hibbert, who set up “social enterprise” Dot Dot Dot. Dot Dot Dot with the help of Poplar Harca then forced its guardian’s, mostly young middle class graduates, to volunteer in the community in order to keep their homes. Dot Dot Dot were another organisation that treated many of their residents like vermin, who along with Bow Arts, illegally refused to carry out any maintenance or repairs in the flats they were charging a considerable rent for. Dot Dot Dot, an organisation that was purposefully created in order to offer social cleansing services to Housing Associations like Poplar Harca, were funded, at the request of Poplar Harca, by another local “community” organisation (that Harca’s CEO used to be a director of), the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.

Sadly, in an age of neoliberal austerity, the funding of social cleansing of a community by an organisation like Bromley by Bow Centre, that is itself funded with public funds to support the community, doesn’t even seem to raise many eyebrow’s.

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Recent comment by a Dot Dot Dot guardian who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.


Many young middle-class graduates and “socially-engaged” artists like Simon Terril and 2015’s Turner-prize “winners” Assemble Studios have shown a severe lack of social conscience and have been happy to take the money being offered to them and get involved with the social cleansing of this traditional East end working-class community. Perhaps due to the level of privilege their parents money has bought them, they have failed to relate to the people whose homes and communities they are destroying, trampling all over them, and serving their own agenda rather than those who really need their assistance, not their top-down patronising, selfish and destructive attitude.

Poplar Harca, Bow Arts and Dot Dot Dot all failed to take into account that not all of these incomers herald from elitist privilege. I believe that this is why the bullying and intimidation was so fierce. It is now easier to scare people into remaining silent, than it is to be ethical with public money, especially given that this level of brutal community destruction is sanctioned by the privileged in their well paid administrative positions, who view social housing as being wasted upon the poor.

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Some of the mess left behind in Balfron Tower following the departure of its temporary residents (pic: @balfronsocial)


Thanks to the perseverance of some artists, evicted from their homes for questioning the widespread fraud, corruption and bullying at Bow Arts, and their involvement in tax fraud and tax evasion, using public funds gained from Arts Council England, the reputation of Balfron Tower will now forever be known as “the socially-cleansed Goldfinger”.  After significant attempts to cover up the criminal behaviour of Bow Arts Trust’s directors, the authorities are currently investigating Bow Arts for their charity tax fraud and tax evasion. Meanwhile, the ethics of Poplar Harca are clearly visible in the fact they continue to engage the services of Bow Arts and Dot Dot Dot to this day.

But where is the Mayor? Where are our MP’s? (ALL Labour, incidentally). Who in authority is fighting for the rights of the people Balfron Tower was built for in the first place? The reality is that the level of collusion between those that are supposed to protect us, such as local government, the “free” press, Historic England and the National Trust, is thoroughly frightening. They have shown that the greed of the neoliberal asset-stripping generation will stop at nothing to get their way. They will destroy lives; destroy communities to line the pockets of property developers and bankers at Canary Wharf. This is not what they were set up to do, and they need to be stopped. Is there anybody in authority out there prepared to look past the glossy PR and the recent £4m Poplar Harca re-brand to see and intervene in this devastating attack on the city’s working-class communities?

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Respectable comment from @charliegilmour in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, 14th September 2016.


Balfron Tower has been one the worst examples of state-planned gentrification and social cleansing. But it is not alone. There are many examples out there, particularly in London, where property prices have forced the middle-classes to seek out homes in places that 3 years ago they would have planned a route around to avoid.

So, next time you wonder why a small flat in a social housing block is on sale for £350,000 or “affordable” 1-bed flats are being marketed for £495,000 and why this outrageous land grab and dismantlement of social housing is scarcely covered by the mainstream media in any depth, ask yourself, who benefits?

We at Balfron Social Club reiterate our demands that Balfron Tower remain at least 50% social housing after refurbishment. In the word’s of Lord Cashman, a “not too vigorous a demand”. Please help us make this happen and expose and penalise the worst offenders, like Poplar Harca, intent upon dismantling our social housing.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar, East London

15th September 2016

Thanks to KWS for inspiration.

HIGH RISE SUBTERFUGE AT BALFRON TOWER

Welcome to another in our series of guest blog posts, this time by the Little People in the City 

https://littlepeopleinthecity.wordpress.com/

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!

Balfron Tower redevelopment video by Hawkins\Brown

This controversial video has now been removed from Vimeo, but thankfully we we were so shocked by it that we made a copy and are distributing it here in the belief that the dissemination of its contents are in the best public interest. 

We do not believe that the wholesale removal of social housing from Balfron Tower, and the exploitation of its architectural heritage, will ever be acceptable, or accepted by our community. 

The transfer of housing to registered social landlord Poplar Harca from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was made based upon promises to tenants of new windows, kitchens and bathrooms, yet what has followed has been a successive sequence of landgrabs, as they sweep through estates, displacing our communities, devouring social housing, demolishing our homes and replacing them with increased density, low-quality flats with only 11%* social housing. 1-bed flats in the redevelopments are renting for £350 per week.

This video was originally published on Vimeo on July 2014. We believe it shows a vision horrific to the true intention of Ernö Goldfinger.

We reiterate that there should be a minimum of 50% social housing retained in all social housing redevelopments. 

Stop social cleansing. Stop the #landgrab.

 

 

 

* See separate blog post on the 89% landgrab on Linton and Printon Houses: http://50percentbalfron.tumblr.com/post/123355006549/our-area-is-nice-when-it-wants-to-be

 

Balfron Social Club

Poplar

20th July 2015

Our Area is Nice When it Wants to Be.

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A mural by local children outside condemned social housing block Linton House in Mile End                                       pic: @balfronsocial

“Our area is nice when it wants to be
This depends on everyone in our community
It is our home where we are brought up
Our friends and family mean a lot to us”

-by The Junior Club Members

Were these words and this mural created in more optimistic days? Days when a vote to transfer the management of your council flat from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was based upon promises made by Poplar Harca of new kitchens, bathrooms and windows?

Welcome to the new reality of social housing in Poplar, Bow and Mile End; a reality now outsourced to “Registered Social Landlord” Poplar Harca; a reality in which community art murals by Junior Club members are ripped down (along with their homes) and replaced with “community art” that isn’t really made by members of the community, but by those drafted in and curated by Poplar Harca’s “Head of Creativity and Innovation”, curated into his own bland view of what community art is: art that “placeshapes” community, artwash for the mass destruction of social housing and the dismantlement and social cleansing of our communities.

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Linton House in Mile End. Awaiting demolition.           pic: @balfronsocial

The same community that not so long ago was deemed worthy of creating a mural that celebrated being brought up in a community; that recognised the importance of being surrounded by a network of family and friends.

It continues to mean something to us. It still depends on everyone in the community being nice. Its just that the ones who aren’t being nice anymore aren’t hanging out on street corners scaring the elderly, but are hanging out in their corporate headquarters, doing deals with bankers at HSBC, eager to get their hands on the tax-payer funded capital assets that are (or were) our homes.

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Printon House in Mile End. Social Housing by Poplar Harca: Decanted, Demolished, Rebuilt and Sold               pic: @balfronsocial

So, what about the community on the Burdett Estate in Bow where that mural sits? For Printon House and Linton House the wrecking ball is imminent. An established pattern that has already seen most of the Poplar Harca-managed Leopold Estate demolished, with the remaining blocks (and their residents) still anxiously awaiting their fate. Their sin was simply not having a great enough density in their housing, and that they are social housing tenants, who have a level of housing security that those in the private rented sector could only dream of, and rents that aren’t “affordable” but are actually affordable. Just who is it that can afford to pay the £350 per week for a 1-bed flat in these re-developments?

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Demolition Notice nailed to a “door” in Printon House            pic: @balfronsocial

But surely Poplar Harca are a registered social landlord? Surely they wouldn’t act like a private property developer ruthlessly dismantling communities to build luxury flats for the financial service employees at nearby Canary Wharf? Would they?

Why don’t we take a look at some numbers? These demolition notices recently appeared on the doors in Linton and Printon House, although they are dated 4th November 2013. Their recent appearance could surely not in any way appear intimidating to the remaining residents, as they discover demolition notices stapled to every door in the block. They do however reveal replacement plans for what will materialise to replace the 78 socially rented flats that currently occupy this space.

And that is 11% social housing, with the rest available for sale.

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Initial Demolition Notice for Linton and Printon House          pic: @balfronsocial

Yes. 11%.

Does this really sound like a registered social landlord with its interests representing the community? Or does this sound like an exploitative property developer ripping apart the carcass of social housing to divide up the spoils?

To break down the figures further: Printon and Linton currently contain 78 socially rented flats. They are to be replaced with 12 flats for social rent, 12 flats for shared ownership and 85 flats for private sale. These numbers are a scandal and a disgrace.

Yes, Poplar Harca are also planning to provide other facilities such as a mosque, a primary school and a ‘cultural’ facility, but none of these additional facilities are the responsibility of a registered social landlord. Building schools etc. are the responsibility of the council; the same council who gave away our social housing to an organisation that has ripped through our community socially cleansing it as they go.

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A resident of Linton House has their possessions loaded into a van.                pic: @Balfronsocial

11% social housing retention is quite simply a land grab.

We reiterate our calls for retention of a minimum of 50% social housing in all re-developments of social housing blocks and estates.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar

6th July 2015

A View From Balfron Tower

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Balfron Tower in 2011                                                          pic: @BalfronSocial

I am not so idealistic as to think there was no conflict in a mixed
demographic, but a society will always find conflict regardless of
the social strata. For the statutory services it seems that in times
of greater austerity, then the goal is to reduce cost to one’s own
organisation and to profit regardless of the human lives fragmented
in the midst of the business transactions. There seems to be
ignorance of the reality that for us all to function we need the
complex mix of people, who provide all the services, the support to
their community, friends and families and that wholesale export of
those with low income will destroy that delicate balance.

The London I loved as a teenager was one of diversity, a city where
rich and poor lived in close proximity with cross-fertilisation of
cultures and ideas. My grandfather lived in Ilford and we would drive
to East London from Kingston-Upon-Thames in the late 1970s, passing
Blooms Restaurant in Whitechapel, to visit him on Sundays. Before
retirement he used to work at Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane making
copper pots. I’m sure that the drive through London cemented my love of the East London. I also wonder whether my father’s working-class start
grounded me with a sense of gratitude for my own privilege and a
respect for others who are down on their luck or living happily on a
lower income. This has never left me and despite now realising I am
part of the problem, as a property owner, I also feel the need to
speak out for those who are being treated as if their connections and
lives were transitory and insignificant. There has always been social
cleansing and gentrification, but if feels now as though we should
know better and not allow councils that want to remove ‘these
people’, who may cost more in terms of support needs than the
wealthy new tenants of privatised developments.

The view from Balfron Tower.                                                pic: @BalfronSocial

I bought my Balfron Tower flat in 2001; I love tower blocks, the
solid build of old council flats, the Goldfinger ethos and
architecture, the history and the area and I wanted an investment
property to rent out. In 2010 I received a letter re: a meeting for
tenants and leaseholders regarding the refurbishment of the block.
From the meeting the original provisional cost proposed was £120k
for my flat alone: this is always a risk as a leaseholder, but
perhaps rare to incur such an extreme cost. In October 2011 I wrote
for an update, in the absence of communication from Poplar Harca, and
was told that the start date for works may be at the end of 2012 or
the start of 2013. There was uncertainty for the tenants, with no
definitive decision as to whether they would be able to return, nor
an explanation as to what was causing the delay in decision making.
Transparency would have been appreciated. I was
asked to move my tenants out in December 2013, when I checked whether
their tenancy could be renewed. I believe I am one of around 10
leaseholders and am awaiting a notice re: the detailed works, the
date of which keeps slipping and is now around September 2015.

There has been very poor communication (despite
a named person for a very small number of leaseholders), shifting
deadlines and money wasted in leaving the block empty. The money
needs to be made somehow for a Grade II listed concrete tower block
to be refurbished, but I question why there has not been ongoing
maintenance given the very high service charges (nearly £4000 per
year for a 4-bedroom flat)? However, given the <10% leaseholders,
perhaps this service charge has only been realised for <10% of the
flats. Also given the heritage interest I wonder how much grant money
/ philanthropic investment options have been explored, in order to keep the
properties predominantly as social housing. If the situation is that
only Balfron’s sale will make enough money to provide many more
low-rent homes, then there needs to be transparency through a
financial breakdown available to all. I am not convinced the
wholesale loss of social housing is for altruistic means, nor that
there will be the local good quality low rent properties available to
those being moved out. The communication I have received has been
incredibly vague and intermittent. As a tenant the stress of the
unknown and whether to leave or hold out must have been pretty
unbearable and potentially led to some forced decision making.

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The View from Balfron Tower                                           pic: @BalfronSocial

I
also feel that some housing organisations do not maintain their
housing well, sometimes pay obscene rents to private landlords way
above an acceptable level and do not manage empty properties. My
(perhaps naïve) view is that there should be rent caps for landlords
and there needs to be improved legislation re: taking back empty
properties and refurbishing them at a reasonable cost. I support
private housing supporting the costs in a mixed property with a
shared entrance; I do not support forced eviction of individuals and
families. I would support assessing the desires of all residents /
owners when such a project is proposed, but not in a tokenistic way
if this is not going to affect the outcome. If I have had
difficulties getting appropriate responses and adequate property
maintenance from Poplar Harca, I fear that tenants will have had a
much poorer response. The mail had piled up, despite an agreement
that Poplar Harca were to manage the post. There was also a late rent
payment to me, with little concern for the fact: would this have been
their response if a tenant had been late in paying their rent? This
is not a great role model for an organisation that is quick to
challenge tenants for their behaviour.

I was not happy to hand over the keys to Poplar Harca without some
form of contract, which took quite some chasing up to achieve despite
the transfer of tenancy having happened. Poplar Harca took on the
flat 12th January 2014 and have been paying the rent
(value as confirmed by the estate agents) ever since; the rent for a
four double bedroom flat on two floors was £1500 per month. In
December 2013 I was given the following information re: the potential
cost to me as a leaseholder: ‘looking at an average cost slightly
above the £70k mark’. In September 2014 I received a letter from
Poplar Harca with cost to owners possibly from £105-135k. This is
the time when it became known to me that there would be no social
housing in the block.

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Has the sun set on mixed community in Balfron Tower?      pic: @BalfronSocial

As much as I am an advocate of the arts, even as a leaseholder
hearing via social media of various arts projects in the block and of the use of ‘property guardians’ was galling: perhaps a personal invitation may
have showed some recognition of the lives in the block. There is a
story to be told by the block, but I think these art projects
backfired, as it brought attention to the story of the attempted
gentrification and failure to honour the history and residents of the
block. Residents whose lives were in that block have been dismissed
despite no work occurring. I reflect on what role the ‘property
guardians’ are fulfilling (although fully understand why a person
would be one) and why Poplar Harca is paying me rent for well over a
year when I could have been saving them money and getting that rent
from tenants?  I just wish that Occupy, Focus
E15, Our West Hendon, the New Era group, Tower Hamlets Renters,
Action East End and the other excellent collective housing saviours
had been there in 2010, so that a campaign could have started whilst
tenants were resident. The insidious creep to total privatisation
over more than 4 years has precluded this.

I would like to thank Balfron Social Club
(twitter.com/BalfronSocial)
for inviting me to write this article. Their hard work, passion and
unending knowledge of and dedication to challenging poor practice and
raising awareness of the injustice of social cleansing has been
inspiring. They have supported and guided me in making key links with
other excellent people, who will not stand by and see the most
vulnerable people in our community be treated so badly. It is only by
our collective action that change will happen.

image

Trellick Tower in West London. A mixed tenure block that Balfron Tower should aspire to emulate?                                                                 pic: @BalfronSocial


I am currently working in the shadow of the equally glorious Trellick
Tower in West London, more famous and more coveted than Balfron over
the years, yet still maintaining mixed residency. I think it is still
not too late to challenge the plans for Balfron, as the Section 20
agreement has not been issued. Balfron is a landmark for low cost
housing and could be an amazing model for mixed private and social
housing, with a community that supports each other with skills and
ideas. Or it could become the vision described in J.G. Ballard’s
‘High-Rise’ where the rich create their own ‘Lord of the Flies’
in their battle over the status of floor level in 21st
century tower block envy.

Dr. Vanessa Crawford 

for Balfron Social Club

Poplar

23 June 2015