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.