Homelessness charity The Big Issue gives working-class communities in London’s east end a slap in the face, as it rewards Katharine Hibbert & Dot Dot Dot for helping property developers to dismantle social housing.
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.
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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 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.
Terry McGrenera investigates the social cleansing of Chrisp Street Market by Poplar Harca and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
A Balfron Social Club guest blog post.
PRESENTATION TO STRATEGIC DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE 15th FEBRUARY 2018
One of the first decisions taken by the New Labour government in 1997 was to establish local housing companies as a symbolic act of how they would embrace new thinking as a means to provide homes. Poplar HARCA, after receiving a loan of £223,100 from Tower Hamlets Council, was one of the first local housing companies. In just over twenty years it has gone from being a community housing provider to a commercial housing provider, predominantly, as is clear from the plans for the redevelopment of Chrisp Street market.
The growing anger at the lack of involvement in the plans for the redevelopment of Chrisp Street market between residents, shopkeepers, market traders and Poplar HARCA was seen by the demonstration outside their head offices last Wednesday. Also shopkeepers are very unhappy with the unacceptable behaviour of one particular person who has been pressurising them to sign new contracts.
Poplar HARCA failed to set up a Chrisp Street market redevelopment committee to engage and involve people. The whole approach has been top-down not bottom-up. It was only when the planning application was published last week that the full extent of what is proposed was learned, despite page 88 of the 100 page application stating that for the past FOUR years there has been “detailed pre-application discussions around layout, heritage assets and intricate design detailing and specifications.” For the past four years there have been NO detailed discussions about such matters as car parking and social housing provided by Poplar HARCA.
Poplar HARCA has been promoting the regeneration of Chrisp Street market by telling people of the number of new homes that would be built. In total there will be 649 new homes. The number of new homes for sale will increase by several hundred percent whilst the increase of new homes to replace the 124 social rented homes demolished will be SEVEN. In the recently completed Watts Grove site build by Tower Hamlets there are 148
homes. There are no studio flats. It is the same for Chrisp Street. Why is Tower Hamlets council failing to include single people – young and old – in its housing plans? Page 98 of the plans states that it complies with the Equalities Act. It doesn’t.
The land where the new homes will be built is used presently by shopkeepers to unload supplies and park their cars. They have been told that space will be provided somewhere off-site. I tried to find ‘the space’ on a large A-Z; I couldn’t.
Car parking is just another example of how the planners have failed to comprehend what Chrisp Street market means to everyone affected by the current plans. That was best expressed by Sr. Christine Frost from SPLASH – South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Social Housing – at the meeting organised by shopkeepers on 10 February at St Matthias church hall attended by 200 people, including the Mayor. Sr. Christine rebutted the loss of retail space and the assumption that people could always travel to Stratford or Canary Wharf to go shopping by saying, “Iceland in Chrisp Street is where people go to shop, not Waitrose (in Canary Wharf).”
The ultimate irony and insult is that although the plans have considered factors such as air quality, biodiversity, contaminated land, flood risk, microclimate, crime prevention, aerial reception and noise impact there is no study on the social impact the plans will have because it is beyond the remit of the planners. In other words, people don’t matter but I think they will come May 3rd. Irrespective of tonight’s vote it will not be the end because on page 69 it states “The current scheme ASSUMES grant funding from the GLA for the reprovision of the social rented units.” Under the new guidelines issued by the Mayor of London that will require a vote of everyone affected by the plans.
• The eight members of the committee rejected the plans by SEVEN votes to ONE.
In the week before the vote Poplar HARCA stuck posters about their plans onto pillars in the marketplace. Some people were not amused.
DEFEAT OF THE PLANS TO REDEVELOP CHRISP STREET MARKET IS A REMINDER OF GEORGE LANSBURY’S CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE POOR LAWS A CENTURY AGO
Shortly after the 1997 general election I was walking towards Bow Road tube station when I met Jim Fitzpatrick, the newly elected Labour MP for Limehouse and Poplar, coming out of the station. I had got to know him during the campaign whilst working for a magazine based in Docklands. I was at York Hall on the night he was elected. Anyway he asked me what I knew of a housing organisation called Poplar HARCA. Very little, I said. Over the following twenty years, I and a lot more people were to get to know a lot about Poplar HARCA and the man who was became its chief executive and the way he ran the organisation. He was also to become the chief motivator for the plans to redevelop Chrisp Street market.
President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s in the middle of the greatest economic depression that America had ever known introduced what he called the ‘New Deal’ – a series of initiatives to get young people doing something useful and paying them to do so. On the same day as the initiative became operational an ambitious young man put himself forward for the job of administering the programme in his home state of Texas. His quick thinking and eye for seizing an opportunity saw him become the youngest state director of the programme in the whole of America. He was twenty-seven.
He began to find sponsors to provide the material for the various projects he undertook. One of his first tasks was to find housing for his staff. Within six months he had 18,000 young people working on creating parks and building homes. In doing so he came to the attention of politicians which helped him when he decided to stand for election in later life. John Fitzgerald Kennedy turned to him to help the Democratic Party win Texas and become President. His name was Lyndon Johnson. He became President after John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
At the time the position of chief executive of Poplar HARCA became available the person who got the job was working for Tower Hamlets council. He applied and got the job. Although he had no political ambitions – he did become President of the Chartered Institute of Housing in 2014 – Poplar HARCA over the next twenty years grew with more than a little help from a very New Labour council along with the backing of a very New Labour government. Labour was reluctant to spend money on housing and adopted a policy of divesting control of local authority housing stock to such local housing companies as Poplar HARCA. Its property portfolio enlarged as thousands of people voted to transfer with the promise of new kitchens and bathrooms. This was Labour’s ‘New Deal’ for housing.
So what has happened to Poplar HARCA over the past decade since the credit crunch? The simple answer is that its fortunes have changed as did the government from Labour to Conservative in 2010. George Osborne in his first comprehensive spending review ended the capital provision for social housing and as a result social housing providers had to seek an alternative and more profitable source of income from building homes – the private market.
Poplar HARCA changed from renovation to regeneration. It reinvented itself; it followed the money. In doing so, as with other social housing providers it strayed somewhat from its original purpose. Symbolic of the change was its change to a Community Benefit Society. It meant registering with the Financial Conduct Authority and changing some of its internal governance processes, as they state, “to ensure smooth business operations.”
What is clear is that business operations for Poplar HARCA weren’t running smooth. In November 2015 it applied for an exemption from the one per cent rent cut after seeing its credit rating downgraded by Moody’s, the credit ratings
agency. The downgrade was issued because the rating agency believed Poplar HARCA would face difficulty making the savings and conversion of large amounts of property to the higher affordable rent level needed to give it viable scope on its covenants. (Poplar HARCA in 2013, through its finance arm Poplar HARCA capital issued a £140 million bond to support future plans).
The Balfron Tower fiasco did little to inspire confidence. Back in 2007 tenants voted to transfer to Poplar HARCA with the promise not only of improvements to the block but tackling a serious anti-social behaviour problem. Tenants were given the option of moving out to new homes or stay whilst the work took place. The credit crunch forced a change of plans. It meant that to recoup the money spent on improvements; Poplar HARCA had to sell Balfron Tower.
Tenants felt betrayed by the failure of Poplar HARCA to keep its promises. This wasn’t the only instance where Poplar HARCA was forced to sell off properties it had inherited from Tower Hamlets Council. In November 2107 it sold off fifty homes which had originally been part of the council’s social housing stock despite an offer from the Mayor to do a deal.
The voracious appetite of Poplar HARCA to do deals first and then work out the details later has come unstuck over the Chrisp Street market plans. The plans as presented to the Strategic Development Committee had so many faults and mistakes which were obvious to anyone with local knowledge. Elementary mistakes such as the car parking site designated in the plans for shopkeepers didn’t exist. The failure to spot such howlers proved that the consultation process was a joke. Furthermore believing that building private flats upon the Co- op car park and expecting the market to survive is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the plans. Thirdly stating that demolition and building work lasting two years would not significantly impact upon the quality of life of people living around the market is a statement of denial. Fourthly the language used to justify the reduction in retail space is condescending – let people go to Stratford or Canary Wharf. The lack of any confirmed social housing – the reprovision of the social housing which will be demolished is “assumed” upon receiving funds from the Mayor of London. Whoever fiddled the figures on social housing by including shared ownership in the same section should be sacked.
There will be changes in personnel following the failure of Poplar HARCA to obtain planning permission. Whoever approved the plans at Tower Hamlets Council should start packing their cardboard box. At Poplar HARCA it remains to be seen who will carry the can and who will fall on their sword if the plans are to be resurrected for a second coming. The chief executive of the National Housing Federation is retiring in September and a vacancy exists for someone with previous experience at chief executive level of a housing association. Also the question of whether Poplar HARCA remains a separate entity is doubtful considering the number of mergers and acquisitions that have taken place recently.
The survival of Chrisp Street market is occurring almost a century after George Lansbury and Poplar Borough councillors took a stand against proposals to set a rate to pay for the precept on London-wide bodies because of the refusal of the London County Council to equalise the rates London-wide. Their stand became known as ‘Poplarism’. John McDonnell, in the foreword of the book Guilty and Proud of it by Janine Booth about the struggle that ensued, writes, “The Poplar story shows for this generation facing its own periodic crisis of capitalism that people can mobilise and, if determined enough, they can win through.” History is repeating itself.
POPLAR HARCA IS ACCUSED OF PLAYING THE ‘RACE CARD’ IN ITS BID TO WIN PLANNING PERMISSION FOR THE REGENERATION OF CHRISP STREET MARKET
The present situation as regards the plans to regenerate Chrisp Street market all began with the hopes and dreams of the post-war period. It was a time when, after a second world war in a couple of decades, organisations such as the United Nations were founded to provide a forum where any future disputes and conflicts could be settled by other means than warfare. In the years that followed other organisations were established to improve the health and human rights of people on a global basis. At home it was also a time for the newly elected post-war government to seek new ways to improve the everyday lives so that they could it was hoped achieve their dreams. No better example of such ideals that prevailed at the time was to see that everyone who had lost their homes as a result of the war-time bombing, especially in the East End had somewhere to live. It was the nineteenth century social reformer John Ruskin who said it was the first duty of a state to see that all born there within should be well housed.
As W. Eric Jackson in his history of the London County Council, titled Achievement, of the prevailing line of thought of those times, writes, there was an acceptance that a town must not be a “mere assembly of unrelated parcels of private property, but a composite entity, which owners, occupiers and developers can alter and influence. A well-made planning scheme, properly implemented, can improve both happiness and efficiency and make life more agreeable during work and leisure.”
Such an effort would require a grand plan and in the last year of the war a planning act was passed which enabled the LCC to take drastic measures to deal with blitzed and slum areas by way of comprehensive reconstruction. The LCC obtained authority in respect of an area of 1,312 acres in the Boroughs of Poplar and Stepney to begin the reconstruction. W Eric Jackson writes, “The Festival of Britain, 1951, helped the LCC in its intentions for these areas. Special facilities were granted to the LCC to develop the Lansbury Area in Poplar as an exhibition of ‘live architecture’ with provision for schools, dwellings, shops and open space.”
During the summer of 2017, on Fridays and Saturdays, in Chrisp Street market some young staff members from the Victoria and Albert Museum in their little lock-up rather aptly situated directly beneath the Clock Tower displayed some artefacts from the ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition of 1951 to remind people of the historical context of the estate’s development and the impact of architecture on their lives. The leaflet they distributed described the thinking behind their proposals. It states, “In their aspirations to rebuild London in the aftermath of the Second World War, the architects and planners of the London County Council proposed radical new approaches to making successful communities. Poplar and Stepney were chosen as test beds for the development of 11modern, interconnected neighbourhoods and were planned as self-contained ‘towns’. Though housing was their most pressing concern, this need was not considered in isolation. Each neighbourhood – of which the Lansbury Estate was Number Nine – also included designated areas for parks, industry, churches, roads and rail links as part of one overall design.”
The leaflet adds that Neighbourhood Number Nine was the first of these to be built and was exhibited as a live model of progressive planning ideas as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The residents of Lansbury Estate were among the first in London to experience the ideals of post-war social housing; it was to pioneer a modern way of life for a new area.
Unfortunately the idealism of the post-war years and the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ of the 1950s gave way to the decline of the docks in the East End in the 1960s just as the London County Council gave way to the Greater London Council in 1964. The GLC, under Ken Livingstone, was abolished in 1986 as it was seen as a rival source of power to Margaret Thatcher across the River Thames at Westminster.
It was Margaret Thatcher who was also responsible for the transformation of the Docklands east of Tower Bridge. Nobody could have foreseen the metamorphosis that took place under the aegis of the London Docklands Development Corporation since 1981 when it was given complete control of planning in the twenty five years that followed until it was considered to have completed its remit of regenerating the decaying Docklands.
For Rowan Moore, architecture critic of the Observer and author of ‘Slow Burn City: London in the twenty first century’, Canary Wharf, the symbol of the new Docklands is “stupendous, a gigantic thriving place made out of almost nothing in twenty- five years.” He admitted that “It is also the object of criticism at its visible divisiveness, at the impossible-to-miss difference between its prosperous order and the degraded environments outside its boundaries.” Quoting Owen Hatherley, author of ‘A new kind of bleak; journeys through Urban Britain’, “Canary Wharf has been for the last twenty years the most spectacular expression of London’s transformation into a city with levels of inequality that previous generations like to think they’d fought a war to eliminate. Very, very few of the new jobs went to those who had lost their jobs when the Port of London followed the containers to Tilbury; those that did were the most menial – cleaners, baristas and prostitutes. The new housing that emerged, first as a low-rise trickle in the 1980s and 90s followed by a high-rise flood in the 2000s, was, without exception, speculatively built. Inflated prices, dictated by the means of a captive market of bankers, soon forced up rents and mortgages in the surrounding areas, a major cause of London’s current acute housing crisis.”
Hatherley takes issue with the ludicrous nonsense of “trickle- down economics” as represented by Canary Wharf, more so than anywhere else in Europe especially when juxtaposed to the poor state of three architecturally notable nearby council estates. He writes “if anyone in any of these estates has seen anything trickle down it would be an unpleasant-smelling liquid running from a great height.”
Hatherley is not the only critic of what has evolved as a result of the regeneration of Canary Wharf and Docklands. Anna Minton is the author of ‘Ground Control’, a book about the privatisation of former public places in the name of regeneration. She writes that the belief in the ‘trickle-down’ effect justified the new private estates – such as Canary Wharf – which are underpinned by the idea of being very profitable ventures in themselves, pulling in high rents and billing high service charges. There are no pound or charity shops in Canary Wharf. Most important of all, Minton adds, “they promised to transform places by increasing not only their own property values but those in the surrounding area, bringing in so much wealth that it somehow flows out of the gates of the gated properties and ‘trickles down’ to the surrounding poor.”
Anna Minton, after visiting the Isle of Dogs, writes that the area seemed to be on a different planet to the hi-tech, protected enclave that literally towers above residents, “where people really were as ignorant of each other’s habits and way of life as if they were dwellers in different zones. It was also clear that none of the wealth from the neighbouring skyscrapers had found its way on to Millwall’s housing estates or into the pockets of their residents.” The often derelict warehouses lining the riverbanks of the loop of the Isle of Dogs proved an attraction for property developers which added to the sense of resentment felt by residents unable to share the wealth in their midst. In such a diverse borough as Tower Hamlets this inevitably manifested itself at the time in racial tensions over the allocation of council housing to ethnic minorities which was exploited by politicians.
Rowan Moore admits the London Docklands Development Corporation created thousands of jobs with the regeneration of Docklands and mentions that the Canary Wharf group has made contributions to financing affordable housing and public transport in Tower Hamlets as well as the mentoring of young people in the borough. Ultimately Canary Wharf is an emblem of the well-known political dilemma of modern market economics; the dependency on financial institutions whose power exceeds that of elected governments, which contributes to the widening gap between rich and everyone else. Moore ends by mentioning that financial institutions, like Canary Wharf, which in 1992 went bust. Therein lays the problem. The problem as he sees it is a London-wide problem that “regeneration equates to rising property prices equates to gentrification equates to exclusion of people on low or middle incomes.”
The significance of what happened in Docklands as regards the proposed regeneration of Chrisp Street market is that the plans by Poplar HARCA are an attempt for the gentrification that occurred in Docklands to cross the East India Road into what remains of the heartland of the East End. The difference is that the redevelopment of Docklands was largely of a derelict site whereas the Chrisp Street market and the surrounding area
is a residential area and the plans by Poplar HARCA would mean massive disruption to people, businesses and one which would inevitably mean that the market would not survive in the new setting. As a recent report by the London Assembly makes clear of the fifty estate regeneration schemes that have taken place they have resulted in the loss of 8,000 social rented homes whilst the number of private homes has increased tenfold.
When I met the chief executive of Poplar HARCA late last year – at his request – I gave him a copy of Anna Minton’s latest book called ‘Big Capital’. (The title works on two levels; Big Capital refers to the growth of London and to the amount of money that is flowing into London)The book arose, Anna Minton explains, from a conference she attended in 2015 in Bristol about the housing crisis. Speaker after speaker talked about the demolition of London’s housing estates and the devastation caused to communities. As a result she began to specifically research this aspect of the housing crisis. Somewhat strangely it was the financial crash of 2008, aided and abetted by quantitative easing, which added another dimension to the housing crisis. It allowed people with access to funds to invest in property whilst the rest of the population struggled to keep a roof over their heads. The imposition of an austerity policy by the government in the name of financial responsibility acerbated an already dire situation.
Anna Minton’s book makes explicit links between the sheer wealth at the top and the housing crisis, which does not just affect those at the bottom but the majority of Londoners who struggle to buy properties and pay extortionate rents. From the removal from their homes of people on low incomes to the use of property purely as profit and no longer as a social good, the active flouting of democracy by business and local councils. This, Minton defines, is the new politics of space which is replacing the politics of class.
Minton makes clear also that what is happening isn’t gentrification as defined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe the changes that were taking place in Islington when middle-class people moved into old working-class homes. Glass wrote about the trend thus, “One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Commenting on what happened Minton writes that at least the 1960s version of ‘gentrification’ had the positive effect of improving an area but what is happening today is totally different.
Anna Minton, now a lecturer at the University of East London in Docklands, writes, “(But) the speed of capital (that) flows into places between the 1960s and the early 2000s bears no comparison to what is happening today. The rate of return on London property, even in a market slowed by economic uncertainly far exceeds growth, let alone wages, which are among the lowest in Europe. It is these rates of return on property that are driving the reconfiguration of London, boosted by policy decisions carried out by local authorities, which are in tune with deliberate changes in housing policy and the property market, designed to take maximum advantage of the attraction of London real estate to global investors.” It is not just global investors but as the organisation Transparency International, which monitors the movement of money into tax havens around the world, commented in its report Paradise Lost in 2016 “The UK is a prime destination for corrupt individuals looking to invest or launder the proceeds of their illicit wealth, enjoy luxury lifestyle and cleanse their reputations.” (The publication of the Panama Papers showed that London is the world capital for corruption and money laundering, the proceeds being channelled directly into luxury property purchases.)
As a result, Minton writes, “London and many other British cities no longer serve people from a wide range of communities and income brackets, excluding them from expensive amenities and reasonably priced housing and forcing them into intolerable conditions or out of the city altogether. London is an acute example of why this is happening. Today, capital flowing (in) to every aspect of land, property and housing means the whole system has opened itself up to financialisation. From the market in student housing to ‘super prime’ properties, the result is a system failing to meet the needs of people.” Therefore Anna Minton asks the simple question, ‘Who is London for?’ When I gave the chief executive of Poplar HARCA a copy of Anna’s book I hoped he would take heed of the contents and that his plans for Chrisp Street market would not feature in any future edition of the book. It would seem it was too much to expect.
Poplar HARCA and its chief executive have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It was barely more than a month after the general election of 1997 that Tower Hamlets council’s Housing Services Committee on 11 June met to consider a report from the Corporate Director of Housing regarding the proposed constitution of Poplar HARCA. Its constitution would take the form of a Memorandum and Articles of Association and proposed to be a charitable company limited by guarantee. In the light of what has happened over the past twenty years and the plans for Chrisp Street market it is hard not to laugh when the Memorandum of Association states the objects of the Memorandum of Association are that “The HARCA will have very wide charitable aims. The primary object will be that of providing housing to people who satisfy the charitable tests of poverty, age or disability.” Charity began at home for some members of staff. As to who was a proper beneficiary of charity it did not address in detail. On 30 July 1997 the Finance Committee considered a report to make a loan by way of grant to Poplar HARCA of £223,100 to cover the salary set up costs for a senior management team from September 1997 to the date of the first housing stock transfers.
In the years that followed there were a number of proposals put to council tenants to transfer from council control to Poplar HARCA. In almost all instances where there was a ballot to transfer there was a battle between rival groups of tenants for and against the decision the process to change landlords. Supporters of Poplar HARCA told tenants they would have their homes brought up to the Decent Homes Standard that the government had introduced and that they would involved in decision affecting the estate on which they lived. They were opposed by people who argued that tenants were being forced to choose between improvements to their homes or being ‘left to rot’ should they vote against transfer to Poplar HARCA.
Both groups believed in the righteousness of their beliefs. People against transfer regarded those in favour of transfer as ‘stooges’ swayed by the prospect of become a board member of the new body.
It was an unfair fight as transferring council estates to outfits like Poplar HARCA had the backing of the very New Labour Tower Hamlets council. Besides the promises made about participation in decisions and putting tenants on estate boards, Poplar HARCA saw fit to engage in activities which became their trademark as shopkeepers in Chrisp Street market became all too familiar recently.
In 1998 following the vote to transfer to Poplar HARCA on six estates, including Aberfeldy, Lansbury West and Teviot, supporters against the move brought their concerns about the tactics used by Poplar HARCA to the attention of Tower Hamlets Council. In a ten-page submission to Tower Hamlets Council they accused officers of being less than truthful about the real implications (privatisation) of transferring and that it was their aim to achieve a ‘yes’ vote to transfer by whatever means available. Under five headings they described their concerns about the consultation process prior to the vote. The most serious of their concerns was the use of bribery to encourage people to attend meetings hosted by Poplar HARCA. (Offering tenants £10 to come to a meeting which they were told not to repeat) First on their list of concerns was coercion by means of undue influence placed on tenants to vote for transfer to telling them they would be given new homes following the transfer. Ballot papers were also delivered and collected by hand.
Stephen Beckett, a Labour councillor for East India Ward at the time, even before the ballot took place wrote an open letter stating that he would be resigning from the board of Poplar HARCA due to concerns about the consultation process. In his letter, 13 April 1998, he wrote, “I do not believe that the consultation exercise has been completely genuine. I can only describe the consultation process as a massive propaganda exercise to obtain a ‘yes’ vote.”
After consolidating their hold on considerable swathes of property and homes in the area Poplar HARCA entered into talks with Tower Hamlets Council about the regeneration of Chrisp Street and the Lansbury area. Its redevelopment seen, in time to come, as a testimony to his time as chief executive of Poplar HARCA in the same way as the area is named after the former leader of the Labour Party, of which he has been a member since adulthood. To that end a report by the Corporate Director of Development and Renewal came before a meeting of the Cabinet on 9 February 2011. This was after talks, which began in October 2009, and in January 2010 considered two proposals for evaluation. One was for refurbishment and the second involved a far higher level of demolition and new building. The report states that the scheme proposes 100,000 square feet of retail space and 50,000 office or community space. It was proposed to increase the number of private homes by 480 (from 83) and affordable homes would rise from 150 to 287. The Chief Financial Officer commented that “The proposal involves the disposal of Council owned land to Poplar HARCA in order that the redevelopment scheme is viable.”
The plans for the redevelopment of Chrisp Street market continued apace to the extent that by June 2014 the chief executive of Poplar HARCA felt sufficiently confident to take the deputy editor of Inside Housing magazine, Nick Duxbury, on a tour of the market. It was the week before the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference which the chief executive of Poplar HARCA had been elected to serve as president for the following year. Not bad, as he relates in the article, for someone who began as a housing trainee at Southwark Council. It is fair to say that he has fought his way to the top and been unafraid to resort to methods of persuasion not part of the curriculum at any charm school. (On the day of the ballot for Lansbury Estate held at Trussler Hall, a community hall subsequently given to Poplar HARCA, he came outside and harangued some Defend Council Housing supporters who had the audacity to hand out leaflets to people going inside to vote).
As is the case of a lot of people who have made their way to the top by their own efforts, they tend to discard some aspects of their earlier persona and have some of their rougher edges smoothed off as befitting their present position. That could said to be true of the chief executive of Poplar HARCA. They are in a position to hire people to perform such tasks that they consider unbecoming of their status. It is also possible that the enormity of a task involving contract negotiations required called for a company that specialised in such matters. Poplar HARCA hired AMM Ltd.
As Shoruf Uddin from Photogenesis, a shopkeeper who has traded in Chrisp Street market for nearly twenty years at the meeting held at St Matthias church hall on 10 February, said that although he became aware of plans to regenerate the market in 2016 it was only recently that the reality of the plans came to light when market traders and shopkeepers organised a joint meeting to discuss the situation that the full implications of the plans dawned on them. (Poplar HARCA’s agent asked market traders to approve the plans without explaining them in detail. The plans were first exhibited at the Idea Store in Chrisp Street on 14 January 2016. They was viewed by less than 30 people).
Approaching stakeholders individually rather than collectively seemed to have been a deliberate ploy by Poplar HARCA’s agents. It seems also a deliberate ploy to put none of the promises in writing including a written agreement or confirmation of continuing to hold a commercial lease and tenancy. This allowed people employed by Poplar HARCA to make different promises to different people, in particular what sites they would be allocated in the new layout. When shopkeepers started talking to each other they discovered that several of them had been promised the same site! Shoruf Uddin, along with many shopkeepers, were worried about the removal of their current parking facilities at the rear of their shops. They have been told that off-site car parking will be provided in Hind Street, which is at least ten minutes from their premises. That is totally unacceptable. (There is no Hind Street listed in the latest London A-Z, there is a Hind Grove) Businesses are just as concerned about the removal of the Coop customer car park. In the plans it is going to be the site of a high rise residential development.
It was only a week prior to Poplar HARCA’s planning application came before the Strategic Development Committee that Poplar HARCA responded in writing to the tenants of the 31 lock-up units which were due to be demolished and
whether there would be a place for them in the plans. Was it just a coincidence that it was the same day as the shopkeepers held a demonstration outside Poplar HARCA’s head offices in East India Road? It begins, “It has been brought to my attention that you have some concerns with regard to the planning application for the regeneration of Chrisp Street” The letter gives three guarantees to reassure them of their future is factored into the plans for the market and its success. The letter itself purports to come from the chief executive of Poplar HARCA but the space where his signature should be is blank. As traders and shopkeepers held their ‘demo’ a couple of Poplar HARCA staff on the periphery of the gathering handed out flyers to passers-by. It was a sign of their desperation and an indication that the meeting the following week wasn’t going to be the walk-over that Poplar HARCA hoped it would be by making, as one person at the meeting at St Matthias put it, “promises, rainbows and the world.” It was a sign that Poplar HARCA was beginning to lose control of their bodily functions before the meeting on 15 February 2018.
A week before the Strategic Development Committee on 15 February the agenda for the meeting was published by Tower Hamlets Council on their website. The planning application for Chrisp Street market was 102 pages in total. In the executive summary it states that Tower Hamlets Council has considered the particular circumstances of the application against its own borough-wide development plan as well as the London Plan and the National Planning Policy, plus other relevant supplementary planning documents. The summary then proceeds to mention the “comprehensive redevelopment of the site including the demolition of existing buildings and the erection of 19 new builds ranging from three to 25 storeys providing 649 residential units.”
The application was considered to be acceptable in terms of its impact on local views and heritage assets, height, scale, landscaping and had been designed in accordance with Secure by Design principles. The planners were satisfied that the proposal would not significantly adversely impact the amenity of residents in surrounding buildings and would therefore afford future residents of the buildings a suitable level of amenity. Therefore, it states, the proposed development can be seen to be in accordance with relevant development policy and thus acceptable in amenity terms. Furthermore, addition sub- headings include how the proposal would not have an adverse impact upon the local highway or public transport network and would provide suitable.
A strategy for minimising carbon dioxide emissions is in compliance with the London Plan thus making the proposal acceptable in energy and sustainability terms. Likewise the proposed refuse strategy for the site has been designed to accord with the council’s waste management policy. Other factors for which the proposal is considered acceptable include air quality, biodiversity, flood risk, television and radio reception and its impact upon trees.
Yet NOWHERE in the summary is the impact the work would have on the businesses during the demolition and construction period. Failure to include any mention of how businesses would manage to cope during the work is an indication of the lack of thought that has been given to their plight and the contribution they make to the market. It was included in the list of reasons why shopkeepers were against the plans as they feared that they would suffer substantial losses during the demolition and reconstruction phase. Just as the application has failed to acknowledge any negative impact when work begins HARCA’s agents also make a claim that is largely unfounded. AMM’s website claims to have the “support of most existing businesses and traders to the planning application.” Thus the summary concludes that, subject to any direction by the Mayor of London, planning permission should be approved.
Whilst a redevelopment is considered first of all by the planning department other factors have to taken into consideration and these come under the heading of both internal and external responses. What is obvious from the responses is that most of them bend over backwards not to say anything negative about the plans because of what they consider to be the overall planning gain. The loss of mature trees is one example where planning gain overrides other factors. This is true as regards the proposal for the Chrisp Street development.
This is not the first time that mature trees have come under attack. Last year the council axed fifty trees on some open space in order to pave the way for a planning application for a housing development. The site, near Regent’s Canal in Limehouse, as with many open space sites in the borough had been neglected by Tower Hamlets thus making its retention as an open space less sustainable. Subsequently a planning application was submitted to the planning department to build a tower block on the site. This example is testimony to the extent that officers will go to seek compliance – a practice known as second guessing – with the election promises of those in power. In this case it was the Mayor of Tower Hamlets election promise to build 1,000 council homes, presumably before this May’s local elections. Three times the proposal came before the Development Committee and three times it was rejected. Planning officers considered that the proposal should be granted planning permission as the minutes of the November meeting state that in planning terms the benefits of social housing would outweigh loss of open space. Tower Hamlets cannot keep losing open space – and trees – just to increase the chances of a politician of getting re-elected.
A couple of weeks after the Strategic Development Committee meeting on 1 March the Mayor was pictured in the East London Advertiser on a building site to announce, as the headline stated, “Construction work on first of 1,000 new social homes for borough”. (The photo opportunity must have been arranged just after the Strategic Development Committee meeting) The article added that the 33 homes being built in Rhodeswell Road at the Locksley Estate will be ready in two years. As a consolation prize it wasn’t much in comparison to the coverage there would have been had the planning application for Chrisp Street market been approved. Who knows a special issue of the Council’s Our East End would have been rushed out with the Mayor on the front page with the chief executive of Poplar HARCA and a double page spread inside before the election embargo, due to the local elections in May, on such patently political publicity material would have been legally verboten. (Stop press: with immaculate timing the latest issue of Our East End was delivered to the door of every resident in the borough just before the election embargo. Pictured on the front cover is the Mayor under a hard hat visiting the Locksley Estate to publicise the good news or was it a pre-election photo opportunity? Every little helps as one supermarket might put it. Dig beneath the soil and you will find that John Biggs is just a tribal politician.)
A break-down of the space allocated in the plans for the market show that there will be a reduction in the amount of retail space and an increase in other more commercial outlets in the hope that the market will attract a more diverse customer. In theory this is a sound way to proceed. The way it is presented in the planning application shows the dichotomy – cultural divide – that exists between planners and people. The justification for the reduction in explained a very ancien regime way; it states “This reduction in retail space is offset by the centre’s proximity to Canary Wharf and Stratford as key retail destinations and the overall increase in commercial space.” It is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s alleged response on the failure of the harvest – “Let them eat cake”. The response that Sister Christine Frost gave to the suggestion that people should travel to Stratford or Canary Wharf to do their shopping epitomises that gap. At the meeting in St Matthias she said, “Iceland in Chrisp Street is where people go to shop, not Waitrose”.
An essential part of any development is the consultation undertaken beforehand to gauge the public response to any proposal. For the private sector it can be a very sophisticated endeavour. Unfortunately, for local authorities, public consultation is still very superficial, perfunctory and even prehistoric. Public notices in some instances are still tied to lampposts with pieces of string. There are no public notice boards in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Whilst not wishing to denigrate the several attempts made By Poplar HARCA to engage the general public the level of response mentioned in the planning application are derisory and pathetic considering the total cost of the redevelopment is around £300 million. Tower Hamlets council notified a total of 1857 properties surrounding the market. In total, 43 representations were returned; 22 in support and 21 against the plans.
It is clear even from the public consultation that took place the plans have almost totally ignored the top two items listed in the application – affordable housing and car parking. Furthermore, to achieve what they consider an “acceptable” level of “affordable” housing the planning officer who wrote the report cheated – yes cheated – by including shared ownership in the “affordable housing” provision section. With the shared ownership proportion removed from the affordable housing section the plans FAIL to meet the borough own requirement as regards affordable housing.
Plus, there is a rider to what is proposed. The applicant’s viability report concluded that any increase in the amount of affordable housing would be unsustainable. It should also be noted that “The current scheme assumes grant funding from the GLA for the reprovision of the social rented units and the intermediate units from the council for the 38 affordable housing units” There is a rider to the rider regarding the amount of social housing. There will be a mechanism which permits an early stage review of the viability report in the event that the construction work hadn’t sufficiently progressed within two years. In plain layman’s terms it is a get-out clause for the developer as regards the promise to provide social housing. Despite this the planning report concludes the section on affordable housing thus, “the proposed development would secure the maximum viable amount of affordable housing. As such, the scheme complies with the relevant policy (of the council) and is acceptable in terms of affordable housing.”
Again the gap between what is the Council’s current preferred mix and reality is startling, alarming and totally inequitable. The table for the breakdown of the proposed housing mix makes the inequitable nature of the breakdown totally clear. After the severe winter weather which has highlighted the plight of the homeless in our midst the reason why so many people are homeless is obvious from the table. Local authorities, particularly Tower Hamlets, are not building the type of housing that would be ideal for them. The total number of homes that were proposed was 649. They range from one-bedroom to four-bedroom. As regards the number of studio flats whether they are social/affordable, intermediate or for sale is zero, zero and zero. Even apart from studio flats being ideal for homeless people, they would be perfect for single people bearing in mind that they constitute two-thirds of all new households in London. Tower Hamlets proposed to salve its conscience by setting aside 66 homes for wheelchair access.
This is not the only instance where Tower Hamlets recently has failed to consider providing any homes suitable for single or homeless people. In the summer of 2107 the Watts Grove development was completed. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was present to mark the occasion by cutting a cake and visiting some of the new tenants in their homes. There are 148 homes on the site of the council’s former refuse depot. As with the planning application for the Chrisp Street market, provision was made for large families with the building of a number of town houses. Also a number of homes have been specially adapted to facilitate wheelchair access. What it has in common with the Chrisp Street market proposals is that no provision was included for studio flats. Considering there is a bedsitter block of flats, in Devons Road, across the road from Watts Grove, which has twice been due for demolition, it would have been no great effort to decant the flats and transfer tenants to Watts Grove. Such a leap of imagination was, it seems, beyond the capacity of Tower Hamlets Council and Tower Hamlets Homes. The low rise decanted block, beside the road, with bus stops on either side, would have been ideal for building more homes than the twenty four that presently exist.
Making people use their cars less is, like the poll tax a good idea in theory, but in practice causes problems that are out of proportion to the benefits especially for people who rely on them for their jobs. In addition to the loss of car parking for shopkeepers adjacent to their premises, for customers the loss of the ‘Co-op’ car park will cause massive inconvenience as it has been sold to Poplar HARCA. They propose to build a high- rise building with homes for private sale. The report justifies the loss of the ‘Co-op’ car park by stating that the site (Chrisp Street market) has a good public transport accessibility location and besides, “there are no policies to protect car parks”. (Poplar HARCA conducted a survey which showed that people who used the car to travel to the market was in single figures. Their figures are disputed by traders and shopkeepers.) Losing the car park will be fatal to the future of the market.
The council should be wary of trying to strictly to implementing ‘car free’ developments after the recent fall- out from the Watts Grove site which combined a lack of communications between departments, stupidity – allocating homes to people knowing they had a car – and adherence to policies that are not fit for purpose in some instances, like Chrisp Street market. (Tenants in the Watts Grove development were enraged to discover that Tower Hamlets Council – three months after they moved into new homes – proposed to paint DOUBLE yellow lines surrounding the site. They expressed their anger to the Mayor and the head of parking at a recent meeting). One of the reasons for the success of Canary Wharf is that it provides car parking for both customers and workers.
Come the night of the Strategic Development Committee meeting the reception area of the town hall in Mulberry Place was packed with supporters from both sides. When they were admitted to the public gallery, the Poplar HARCA ‘posse’, as they arrived first, (some by minibus) occupied all of the front seats. The shopkeepers and market traders filled the rest of the seats. It was only when they were in the public gallery that both sides produced placards from under their coats, strictly against protocol. The meeting began at seven and ended after ten. Apart from the opening ten minutes, during which Sainsbury’s planning application for a new development in Whitechapel, was rejected – for a third time – the meeting discussed the planning application for Chrisp Street market for the rest of the time.
Ammar Hasinie, a shopkeeper in the market since 2004, began by stating his objection to the plans by telling of his trials and tribulations with Poplar HARCA during that period. He mentioned Poplar HARCA’s poor repair record. His shop was inundated with water from the flats above his shop. He answered a number of questions from councillors. Putting the case for the redevelopment was Jean Palmer, who owns a jewellery shop. She said, “The market is trapped in the 1980s – dirty, sad, and run-down with its drug-users, beggars and no security. Don’t let the area become a ghetto.”
Then it was the turn of the planning department to explain their decision to grant planning permission to the proposal. This took around twenty minutes. Kate Harrison, the officer presenting the report, and her colleagues then faced questions from the eight members of the committee. They had visited the market the previous week to familiarise themselves with the situation. As a result they raised some aspects of the proposed redevelopment that had thereto not been generally unknown to many people. The future of the Post Office during the construction work was the most concerning. In reply it was stated by a planning officer that there was a possibility that the Post Office would be closed for two years for the duration of the redevelopment. Cllr. Islam was worried about the increase in drinking establishments would create a problem where none exists. Also the police station was included in the buildings to be demolished. Although a proviso in the report stated that should the police wish to maintain a presence on site, that was a matter dependant upon money becoming available to “reprovide the (current) space” in the market.
Serious doubts were now beginning to be seen in the case for approving the application; they grew when Cllr. David Edgar, chairman of the committee, asked about the viability of the scheme in relation to the grant from the GLA in order to replace the social housing units that would be demolished. He did so following the decision of the Mayor of London to seek ballots of residents on estates that are in receipt of funds allocated by him. (The latest amendments to the Town and Country Planning regulations on local plans state that from 15 January 2018 all local planning authorities have to review local development documents including the statement of community involvement.) Alison Thomas, acting service head, Strategy, Sustainability and Regeneration, replied that if councillors decided to grant planning permission at the meeting she didn’t expect a ballot on this scheme.
Cllr. Peter Golds, leader of the Conservative group, said he had examined the Updated Report to the application and noticed that the number of affordable housing units was reduced by six in an effort to increase the number of four bedroom homes and therefore he told colleagues “We should never consider any reduction in social housing in a borough like Tower Hamlets – this is an appalling insult to the families on our housing waiting list.” He was applauded for his statement. Cllr. Asma Begum gave a couple of reasons why she was minded to defer a decision on the application – the influence the night-time economy would have on the borough’s ability to tackle anti-social behaviour and the uncertainly over the future of the Post Office.
Cllr. David Edgar, summing up, said he was “keen” to defer granting planning permission to the application and that in the time afforded by dong so should be used for further discussions and to receive additional reports. Before moving to a vote he sought legal advice from an officer to make sure that the correct process had been followed. Alison Thomas outlined the consequences if the funds from the GLA were lost. It would mean the affordable housing provision in the scheme would “plummet”. Whilst fully within her remit to state the consequences of deferring the decision there is a fine line that officers must not cross – exerting influence upon a political decision. (At this point she turned to a colleague sitting beside her and mouthed something as a sign of her displeasure after failing to convince councillors to grant planning permission for the proposal).
A vote was taken on the decision to defer the application. It was passed by seven votes to one. Cllr. Danny Hassell voted in support of the scheme. (He will be forever known as the ‘councillor who voted for the Chrisp Street market regeneration plans’) He had sat glumly for the latter part of the discussions with his arms folded saying nothing.
Previously he had voted in favour of granting planning permission at a previous meeting last year about building on open green space near the Regents Canal to help house homeless families. Now he had voted in favour of a scheme that failed to provide more affordable housing than already existed. Reasons for the failure to grant planning permission were given as concerns about the viability of the affordable housing in the scheme, the possible closure of the Post Office and finally the disquiet over the loss of car parking for customers and the impact it would have on the future of the market.
Poplar HARCA supporters left the council chamber in sombre mood, abandoning the placards they had brought with them. By contrast none of the home-made posters held aloft by the shopkeepers and market traders lay strewn around the public gallery. They became souvenirs of a famous victory
against the odds. The market traders and shopkeepers were jubilant at the outcome. It was an outcome that was unlikely only a couple of weeks previously.
Poplar HARCA’s management office in the market was closed the day following the vote as if in mourning for their loss. Their loss was everyone else’s gain. Their proposals were divisive, disruptive and dishonest. It was only in the days that followed that even their promises, lies, bullying and harassment paled into insignificance in their efforts to gain support for their proposals when it was learned that some people in favour of the plans had resorted to baser reasoning. In a final effort to win support for the plans, people hired by Poplar HARCA, went knocking on doors asking residents whether they were in favour of the regeneration of Chrisp Street. Shopkeepers in the market also received a visit from representatives of Poplar HARCA and were encouraged to display a poster saying ‘yes’ in the window of their shops to the plans. In both instances if people were unresponsive to the requests it was intimated that the area would become just like Brick Lane, or as it come to be known Bangla (deshi) town. (The electoral ward for the area is called Spitalfields and Banglatown) This is highly offensive to both Bangladeshi shopkeepers and traders who through their efforts have sought to make a living by providing produce, goods and for Bangladeshi people who come to the market. Without them the market would cease to exist. The same is true of Brick Lane.
Poplar HARCA lost the argument in the council chamber for their plans to regenerate Chrisp Street market. It is now evident they have lost any credibility as regards being involved in any future plans. Their plans showed a total disregard for the lives of people who both use the market and depend on the market for a living. Poplar HARCA were of the belief that getting planning permission was just a formality. Understandable considering the way the planners at Tower Hamlets Council bent over backwards to present the plans in a favourable way. Heads should fall.
Chrisp Street market needs to be regenerated. Sadly the scheme put forward by Poplar HARCA was more about changing the social composition of the area as well as profit. Peter Hall, former professor of Planning and Regeneration at University College London, in the book Regenerating London about the efforts at regeneration in Tower Hamlets, comments, “The Bengali community in Tower Hamlets has a very strong, internal sense of community but it’s a very closed-off community, highly segregated from its neighbours and the rest of London. One would want to suggest that as far as possible you ought to create communities of a different kind, which are not so strongly defined in terms of ethnicity or religion or culture or anything else, (but) that are much more mixed.” Doing so, he ends, will require quite a lot of hard thought. Such thinking was never part of Poplar HARCA’s regeneration plans. Deferral made people think again.
Poplar HARCA’s plans for Chrisp Street Market should be compulsory reading for anyone studying urban regeneration.
THE PLANS FOR THE REGENERATION OF CHRISP STREET MARKET FAILED BECAUSE OF POPLAR HARCA’S ARROGANT ATTITUDE TOWARDS SHOPKEEPERS AND MARKET TRADERS
Since the beginning of the year, there have been numerous articles in newspapers and on television about the housing crisis in London. Just before Christmas the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan at Blackwall Reach regeneration project, with Canary Wharf in the background, announced his London Plan, in Tower Hamlets. It is to replace the soon to be demolished homes at Robin Hood Gardens, a relic of brutalism architecture. Later he visited the newly completed development of 148 homes at Watts Grove and cut the cake to celebrate the occasion with residents.
Located between Robin Hood Gardens and Watts Grove is Chrisp Street
market. It was built as part of the reconstruction programme just after the Second World War. A model of Chrisp Street market, and Lansbury Estate, of which it was part, became the centrepiece of the Architectural Exhibition in the Festival of Britain in 1951. The architect Frederick Gibberd wanted the market to be the focus of local life. As John Grindrod in his recent book, Concretopia, about the rebuilding of post war Britain, writes, “Walking around Chrisp Street today, it remains a recognisably festival-style development with its classic post- war clock tower.” Unfortunately the plans for its redevelopment, as yet, have failed to receive the public scrutiny that two other London boroughs planning major regeneration projects over the past year.
Over the past year Haringey in north London and Southwark in south London have brought forward major regeneration plans; neither has met the approval of residents. In February 2017 Haringey council proposed to enter into an agreement with the developer Lendlease, an Australian company. Lendlease was the company that was chosen to regenerate the Heygate estate in Southwark. The proposed agreement was one of the most ambitious ever undertaken by a local authority in the UK. The proposal, over a 20 year period, was to build 6,400 homes. The snag was that it would mean the demolition of Northumberland Park and Broadwater Farm council estates as well as the shops used by residents.
A cross-party group of councillors looking at the plans concluded that there not much evidence that such schemes had gone well for other councils and were unsure whether Haringey had obtained the best possible deal. Whilst the council has promised residents they will be able to return to the area there is widespread scepticism that will be the case. An article in the Financial Times in December 2017 stated that although the council and Lendlease said there would be 40 per cent affordable housing, campaigners against the plans point to the Heygate Estate where of the 2,500 homes provided on the redeveloped estate, just 82 have rents set at low-cost social rent levels.
The next stage of Southwark’s regeneration plans is being decided. It involves the demolition of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre and replaced with a new shopping complex, 979 new homes as well as an Arts University. The plans were turned down in January 2018 amid concerns of insufficient social housing and fears the scheme would displace small businesses. Hours before Southwark’s planning committee was due to meet on 30th January to refuse the plans, the developer decided to increase the number the percentage of housing available on social rents from 10 to 36 per cent.
The plans by Poplar HARCA and the developer Telford Homes for Chrisp Street market have been in the pipeline for past four years yet it is only recently that they have entered the consciousness of people who will be affected by what was proposed. This is partly because of the work undertaken by Poplar HARCA on other projects such the completion of the work on the Aberfeldy estate, marketed as the Aberfeldy Village – with a studio flat costing from £314,950 – and the blocks of homes that it is building in conjunction with the developer Telford Homes near Langton Park DLR station. (The same developer for Chrisp Street market) Most people in the borough will be unaware of the plans were to be discussed at the Strategic Development Committee on 15th February. It was thought by some people to be just a formality. But such was the growing anger against the plans that a group of concerned residents, shopkeepers and market traders came together to oppose the plans and lodge objections at the meeting.
Chrisp Street market traders believe that they have been given misleading information about regarding the new development. This may be merely a misunderstanding as the market comes under the authority of Tower Hamlets Council and not Poplar HARCA. At the end of day’s trading many of the stallholders have to transport their goods across the road from the market where they are held in storage. Whether that facility will still be available in the plans for the new Chrisp Street market – if there is one – is uncertain.
Car parking is also a worry for shopkeepers who park their goods vehicles in the car park behind their premises. The plan is that the garages and the car parking facility will be used to build homes leaving the shopkeepers unable to unload supplies at the back of their shops. They have been told that a space will be provided somewhere off-site. The present arrangement is ideal and any move will have an adverse affect upon their businesses.
The whole approach to car parking in Tower Hamlets is one that is increasing becoming a vexed issue not only for market traders and businesses but also for residents. As has been mentioned, the Watts Grove development provides homes for 148 families. A large percentage of the homes were built to accommodate large families. That was the attraction when they submitted their bid. Watts Grove is a car-free site. Many of them are now wandering where, like the shopkeepers, they will be able to park as Tower Hamlets council proposes to introduce double yellow lines in the streets around the site. They have the nerve to call the proposals an “upgrade” – it is a prohibition order. Strangely the same car-free proviso doesn’t seem to apply to similar private developments.
The Chrisp Street market development includes plans to build 649 homes yet the disparity of the number of numbers that will be built for the private and the public sector is startling. The number of homes for sale is around 400 whilst the number of social rented homes is increased by only SEVEN. Also there were no studio homes in the Watts Grove development and it is the same for the Chrisp Street market development. Considering that one estimate found that new households of single people increased of 66 per cent in London many people will be asking why isn’t Tower Hamlets building homes for them.
Shopkeepers and market traders were unhappy about the arrogant attitude that Poplar HARCA and its agents tried to force them to agree to the new contracts on their premises. They were worried about the rent, service charges and the amended leases on their premises. One shopkeeper recently underwent a quadruple bypass heart operation. In addition several of the larger shopkeepers are perplexed about the purpose of telling them that they will occupy the same space in the plans. Is it just Poplar HARCA up to their old tricks of promised everything to anyone to get them to sign up to new contracts?
As part of the plans a number of homes will be demolished. Leaseholders, from previous regeneration schemes, where homes have been demolished have been unable to stay where they lived as the compensation was insufficient. Tenants of Poplar HARCA will see their homes demolished and they also face the prospect of moving away from Chrisp Street. The remnants of the working-class community that grew up around Chrisp Street market after the war will be dispersed. The hopes for Chrisp Street market in 1951 at its inception will be also demolished.
In the first week of February the leader of Haringey council resigned. Ultimately her decision to do so came from an arrogant refusal to admit that the plans she was proposing were unacceptable and failed to achieve the public support for their implementation. It was same arrogance by Poplar HARCA that was the reason why councillors on the Strategic Development Committee turned down the plans for Chrisp Street market on the 15th February by seven votes to one.
The final irony is that Poplar HARCA was established twenty years ago with a £223,000 loan from Tower Hamlets council to provide an alternative to the top- down bureaucratic way housing was provided by local authorities. It was one of the new local housing companies set up by the Labour government. It sought to involve tenants in its decisions. The plans for Chrisp Street market are a betrayal of those founding ideals. It is of the ultimate importance that a Liaison Framework Group, involving residents, shopkeepers and market traders is established to ensure that the regeneration will not, as many people fear it will, turn into a means whereby existing residents and businesses are removed and Chrisp Street market becomes just another part of the encroaching gentrification of Tower Hamlets.
Shopkeepers and market traders were unhappy about the arrogant attitude that Poplar HARCA and its agents tried to force them to agree to the new contracts on their premises. They were worried about the rent, service charges and the amended leases on their premises. One shopkeeper recently underwent a quadruple bypass heart operation. In addition several of the larger shopkeepers are perplexed about the purpose of telling them that they will occupy the same space in the plans. Is it just Poplar HARCA up to their old tricks of promised everything to anyone to get them to sign up to new contracts?
Hamlets council to provide an alternative to the top- down bureaucratic way housing was provided by local authorities. It was one of the new local housing companies set up by the Labour government. It sought to involve tenants in its decisions. The plans for Chrisp Street market are a betrayal of those founding ideals. It is of the ultimate importance that a Liaison Framework Group, involving residents, shopkeepers and market traders is established to ensure that the regeneration will not, as many people fear it will, turn into a means whereby existing residents and businesses are removed and Chrisp Street market becomes just another part of the encroaching gentrification of Tower Hamlets.
By coincidence Guardian columnist George Monbiot in February 8th 2017 wrote about how people can take back control of the process which affects their lives. He wrote, “Politics is experienced by many people as an external force; dull and irrelevant at best, oppressive and frightening at worst. It is handed down from above rather than developed from below. Participatory culture creates social solidarity while proposing and implementing a vision of a better world. It generates hope where hope seems absent. It allows people to take back control. Most importantly, it can appeal to anyone, whatever their prior affiliations might have been.” Now that the plans for Chrisp Street have failed there is now an opportunity to take back control of the process regarding the plans for the regeneration of Chrisp Street market.
AFTER THE VOTE – THE FALLOUT
Poplar HARCA’S plans for the regeneration of Chrisp Street market were the worst proposals that have come before Tower Hamlets Council over the past thirty years. They were patronising, condescending and in essence would have destroyed the market as well as gentrifying the surrounding area
Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. Previously he had been the Washington correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and had reported on politics at Westminster for the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. In 2017 he wrote a rather large book about the European Referendum called All Out War. It is more than 600 pages in length. It won several awards for its inside story of the referendum battle in which both sides made preposterous claims and in some cases told lies about the benefits of leaving or staying in the European Union. The cover flap of the book describes the tome as “a story of calculation, attempted, individuals torn between principles and loyalty. It is a book about leaders and their closest aides, the decisions they make and how and why they make them, as well as how they feel when they turn out to be wrong. Most of all it is about asking the question: how far you are prepared to go to win?” That is a question that Chrisp Street market traders, shopkeepers and residents are asking about Poplar HARCA’s campaign to persuade people to support their plans: – did they give misleading responses to shopkeepers and tell lies in trying to win the battle to regenerate Chrisp Street market and ultimately did they cross the line as to what is morally acceptable in such matters? From past experience of the modus operanti of Poplar HARCA the answer has to be in the affirmative.
In 2017 Tim Shipman wrote another book. It was equally as long as his previous book. It was, as he writes in the introduction, a book he never intended to write, but that was before the Prime Minister decided over the Easter holidays last year to call a General Election. It is a book about her disastrous election campaign and as a result the Conservative Party’s failure to win an overall majority in Parliament. The book is simply called Fallout. The fallout for Theresa May was that she had to secure a humiliating deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in order to guarantee her hold on power. She lost two of her most trusted advisors, including the person who wrote the election manifesto, as well as seventeen Conservative MPs.
The fallout from the vote, not by millions of people, but the eight members of the Strategic Development Committee, sitting on 15th February in Tower Hamlets town hall, has been equally disastrous for Poplar HARCA. Their plans for what they saw as their crowning glory to their efforts over several years came to nought in the three hours that the committee discussed the plans. They have nobody to blame but themselves. Everyone agrees that Chrisp Street market needs to be brought into the twenty first century if it is to survive. Sadly Poplar HARCA adopted tactics more akin to the last century and the creation of Canary Wharf and as a result paid for their failure to adapt.
Poplar HARCA has been very quiet since February and only issued a statement a month after the vote. The one page leaflet states that despite the planning application being recommended for approval by the Council’s planning officer the Committee decided to defer the application so that they could get further information on some of the specifics. (The eight members of the committee voted by 7-1 to reject the plans) Poplar HARCA and Telford Homes, it states, will work with the planning officer to provide this information. It is not the specifics on which further information is required. Such an attitude – as with their approach – which believes that merely tweaking the plans will be sufficient for them to obtain approved by the Strategic Development Committee by July, is wishful thinking. Poplar HARCA and Telford Homes are deluding themselves if they think that is going to happen.
The plans in their entirety are the worst proposals that have ever come before Tower Hamlets Council over the past thirty years. There
have other proposals submitted by developers that have sought to maximise the most income from a scheme and in doing so have ignored life beyond the four walls of the buildings they want to erect. Deyan Sudjic, the architectural writer, in his book The Edifice Complex, writes “Building is the means by which the egoism of the individual is expressed in its most naked form: the Edifice Complex.” There have been a lot of big egos around Tower Hamlets over the past thirty years in the regeneration of the borough. Exhibit one is the Isle of Dogs.
What marks out Poplar HARCA’s proposals for the regeneration of Chrisp Street Market is their sheer unadulterated disregard of the people those lives that would have been affected had their plans been passed. There are several examples to chose from in the hundred page planning application. The plans included a proposal to build a high rise tower block for private sale on the site where shoppers park their vehicles. Tower Hamlets Council is trying to force people to walk rather than drive and thus sees no problem with its change of use. The plans also want to remove car parking for market traders. The plans state “Vehicle parking to be provided for market traders on Hind Street.” Hind Street does not exist. (There is a place called Hind Grove, a ten minute walk from the market) Also the plans proposed that there would be less retail space. Not to worry, according to the plans, the reduction is “offset by the centre’s proximity to Canary Wharf and Stratford.” Such reasoning epitomises, in less than one sentence tells anyone all they need to know about the thinking of Poplar HARCA’s for the regeneration of Chrisp Street market. Although unstated the removal of the car park would have had a devastating effect upon the viability of the market. What does Poplar HARCA care; the market is owned by Tower Hamlets. It would be their loss. It is the most condescending, patronising utterance about the less fortunate in life since Marie Antoinette’s alleged comment about letting the poor eat cake when the harvest failed.
Poplar HARCA’s plans also would have seen the demolition of 169 homes, including 124 social rented homes. Where people will live when their homes were demolished is not mentioned in the plans. As regards their replacement the plans state, “The current scheme assumes grant funding from the Greater London Authority for the reprovision of the social rented units”. That is typical of Poplar HARCA. It tells you all you need to know about the transformation of Poplar HARCA from a new type of social housing provider to a mainly commercial housing corporation.
The full fallout for Poplar HARCA from the failure of their plans to be approved will become clear in due course. The omens are not good. In Greek mythology Icarus ignored his father’s warning and flew too near the sun. He fell to earth when his wings melted. It is an example where nemesis followed hubris.
Deyan Sudjic at the end of his latest book The Language of Cities, writes, “The city is humankind’s most complex and extraordinary creation. It can be understood as a living organism. By their nature, living organisms can die when mistreated, or starved of resources, including people. At the same time, a city that is full of life is capable of endlessly adapting, flourishing in different circumstances, and with different inhabitants. Planned in the right way, it can support growing numbers of people. A successful city is an entity that is continually reconfiguring itself, changing its social structure and meaning, even if its contours don’t look very different and when it does it takes on dramatic new forms, the measure of success is the degree to which it maintains its essence.” That is what was achieved in 1951 and what Poplar HARCA failed to do in 2018.
Balfron Social Club
30th April 2018
This has been republished by kind permission of Terry McGrenera, as faithfully to the original publication as the limits of this platform will allow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is now three years to the day since publicly funded
“charity” Bow Arts evicted me from my home and studio in Balfron
Tower, sabotaged my residency at UCL and subsequently went on to try and evict
me from my new studio at Acava, sent press releases defaming my character with the
intent to stop me from working or talking about my art practice to anyone who
would employ me, including major Universities, and encouraged other artists,
who will remain nameless for the time being, to help to sabotage my career in
exchange for favours from bow arts (all fully documented).
Why did they do
this? Because I found evidence against them that they had been illegally making
themselves charitable “donations” from artists rents, and then funnelling
it through illegal tax evasion schemes, and I questioned them about it. Instead of helping artists, in the ways they write about in their glossy PR when claiming the £400k given to them by Arts
Council England in 2013, bow arts were acting like ruthless slumlords and were failing to provide even basic support for artists. I am simply not prepared to “give” these
crooks a £2k “donation” per year, when they had actively worked
against me and done nothing at all for me other than simply being my landlord,
and a shit one at that. Using artists to socially cleanse Balfron Tower to
dismantle its working class community so that the flats could be sold off to
rich investors is not something I am prepared to remain silent about, nor shall
I. My work with so many of the towers residents allowed me to witness first
hand a ruthless process of artwash and social cleansing that nobody with a
conscience could remain silent about, yet where those that do speak out are
bullied, marginalised, criminalised and attacked.
overwhelming dossier of evidence I gathered against bow arts, described by one
Crown Court judge as “high-end litigation”, bow arts continue to
operate in the same nasty manner, and attempts to have them held accountable
for their criminal actions and revenge evictions, have so far resulted in
nothing but cover-ups. This included cover-ups after I followed all the
official complaints procedures, in addition to the charities commission, HMRC
& the police. An estimated £2 million was illegally stolen from artists by
bow arts between 2011 & 2014. The money they stole from me and subsequent
revenge eviction, including the retention of my £720 tenancy deposit, saw me
remain homeless for over two years after my eviction, including living in my
car and then a squat with no power or water, where I was subsequently
hospitalised. Welcome to the friendly face of charity in the UK, in bed with
property developers and social cleansers, raising money from working class
communities through lottery sales, only to use the proceeds to fund the
dismantlement of the very same communities. Apparently they call it
I, along with a
number of others from Balfron Tower have been working with a journalist to
expose the widespread corruption at Bow Arts since May 2016 and they are now under formal
investigation by the government’s fundraising regulator for charity tax fraud
and tax evasion, an investigation that has been ongoing since June 2016. Once
the government regulator rules, all artists that have made bow arts any
“charitable donation”, should be able to claim this money back, regardless
of whether they signed the waiver that bow arts forced many artists to sign in
2015, to try to cover up the fraud and (illegally) waive them of their criminal
I maintain the same
demands I had when bow arts evicted me in 2014 and attempted to destroy my
career that they did absolutely nothing to assist with: that the directors of bow
arts, Marcel Baettig and Michael Cubey, be held personally accountable for the
fraud that they oversaw, sanctioned, and tried to conceal; be sacked and face
prosecution for tax fraud and tax evasion, and face subsequent bans from
holding directorships of any charities. I also demand that bow arts be
restructured to include a minimum of 50% artists on the board of trustees,
instead of 0%, as they seem to prefer.
I now understand
that my current studio landlord, Acava, are proposing to join forces with bow
arts to host open studios in June this year. I am 100% opposed to any
collaboration with bow arts, under any circumstances. It is not acceptable to
force those of us who choose to have a social conscience to work with such a questionable organisation which can
only bring their bad reputation down upon all of us. I will be
extremely vocal about any forced co-operation with bow arts through my studio
providers potential imposition that we work with these thieves and
It’s time that
those in the art world stop using artists as pawns for property developers. We
will no longer stand by silently as corrupt organisations like bow arts co-opt
artists to artwash the dismantlement of entire working class communities so
their homes can be redeveloped for the rich.
All images are from Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out by Rab Harling
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?
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.
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
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!
A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
This guest blog post, by artist Rab Harling, is a transcript from his presentation to the “Social Injustice & Inequalities: ‘Race, Gender & Class’” conference at The Centre for Social Justice and Inequalities, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick on 10th July 2015.
Between February 2011 & February 2014, I was a resident of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist icon Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets. Throughout this period, predominantly making connections through word-of-mouth, I set about capturing, on large format transparency film, from a singular viewpoint, a perspective from within each of my neighbour’s homes. By taking an identically situated photograph in as many of my neighbour’s homes as possible, I intended to deconstruct the form of the architecture of Balfron Tower, with my ultimate intention being to create an, as yet unrealised, photographic sculpture of the building in its geometrically deconstructed form: effectively turning Balfron Tower Inside out.
During this process I encountered a glimpse into the function of Balfron Tower and the realities of some of the lives occupying this Grade II listed, purpose-built social housing block; a block under attack from regeneration by those who claim to have the best interests of the community at heart. Balfron Tower is being regenerated. I believe that the proposed wholesale removal of social housing and its subsequent sale on the private market is not regeneration but social cleansing.
I will now play you a slideshow I made using approximately 40% of the material I captured, with a narration from Keith, who lived in Balfron Tower for 15 years between 1998-2013, before being relocated out of the borough, with no option to return to his home in the gentrified tower.
Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out
Another five years of Conservative cultural policy finds us experiencing a culture-industry being shaped by powerful forces. In austere times public money for luxuries such as art must engage “the community”. The recent RSA and Warwick Commission report “Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth” highlights “participation” as its key recurring feature.
But what happens when publicly funded arts organisational agenda conspire against grass-roots community creativity? Social restructuring is devastating London’s working-class communities, and artists are being co-opted and curated to participate in the PR.
Balfron Tower’s social housing tenants have now mostly been “decanted”. Commencing back in 2007 the buildings housing association owner started to split the community up, using a variety of nefarious and ethically redundant tactics. The community was then partly replaced mostly by young, short-term occupants and property guardians with insecure tenancies. A large number of the 146 flats were being rented to artists by a local “arts” organisation to serve as live / work spaces for artists.
This process is now commonly referred to as “artwash” and was being tactically and ruthlessly employed at Balfron Tower; a usually highly effective PR tool to be used as luxury flats replaced social housing; with artists paying £800 a month for the privilege of living and working in the tower.
Artists were, mostly unwittingly though some with enthusiastic complicity, being used to paper over cracks in the proposed privatisation of the tower. However, things did not exactly run to plan. Residents, already incensed by the loss of their homes and the appalling way they were being treated by the housing association, took exception to artists using their homes as the backdrop for their dystopian visions; constantly delayed by film crews occupying lifts and obstructing access and also very much aware that the ‘artwash’ was part of the gentrification process that was costing them their homes. This was not helped by the aggressive attitude towards them by the housing association and the arts organisation; an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation, an organisation that paradoxically sells itself as both a resource for emerging artists as well as an agency that uses artists to ‘regenerate’ neighbourhoods and force working class communities from their homes.
Welcome to Balfron Tower pic: @rabharling
By late-2010 when I proposed my project to the “arts” organisation, a ban on art projects taking place in or around the building was already being aggressively enforced by the residents committee. There was no mention of this as I laid down a significant security deposit (which was never returned) on top of the £800 for a months rent. I was later told that they believed that I would give up and move on, something I witnessed so many other artists do after trying half-heartedly to get disinterested and often hostile people to participate in their projects.
Throughout the three years I was in Balfron Tower, I encountered parameters of aggressive cultural curation that were waging a neoliberal war on the working classes. Revenge evictions and intimidation were commonplace against artists that didn’t fit with the corporate brand, or expressed even the slightest critique, either through their work or in the media, both mainstream and social. Top-down art-led social restructuring was being ruthlessly foisted upon neighbourhoods and being generously funded by Arts Council England.
Meanwhile, behind the spectacle, social housing was being asset-stripped.
I believe that the use of artists as a smokescreen for the social cleansing of social housing is turning communities against artists and damaging a profession that like so many others in recent years, has been subjected to a bland, mono-cultural middle-class curation that is strangling creativity. Art has been reduced to a carefully curated spectacle and those that want to play must conform.
How can communities respond to art, and artists, as they are so often encouraged to do so, when artists have come to symbolize the devastation of their communities? How can the recent plethora of publicly funded reports such as the RSA and Warwick Commission report be taken as anything more than well meaning committee minded groupthink, somewhat detached from the implications the realities these policies are creating on the ground.
The result has been that artists are sadly increasingly seen as harbingers of the wrecking ball, or in the case of Balfron Tower, thanks to its protected heritage status, harbingers of impending Canary Wharf bankers, with little or no interest in the social heritage of their luxury, highly fashionable apartments.