Balfron Tower lead architect Ab Rogers made bold claims that he was “honouring the ghost of Goldfinger”, but it appears that Goldfingers ghost may be having the last laugh.
Despite two high profile marketing campaigns for the private sale of all 146 flats in the Ernö Goldfinger designed brutalist Balfron Tower, all flats have now been withdrawn from the market.
The sales effort for Balfron Tower was launched in Summer 2019 with a high profile sales campaign, with marketing featured across a broad range of mainstream media, including The Guardian and the Financial Times, yet genuinely interested buyers appeared to be thin on the ground and the project appeared to be going seriously off the rails.
Balfron Tower was then withdrawn from sale in early 2020 and throughout the pandemic scaffolding once again climbed this 27-storey tower, where it remained for well over a year.
There appeared to be some significant structural problems with the tower.
Meanwhile, leaseholders were waiting to return to their homes.
One elderly leaseholder, Hugh Thompson, 86, has been living out of a suitcase in a hotel since he was forcibly decanted from his home in Balfron Tower in 2016 so that regeneration works could commence.
Initially, he was told that the construction works would take two years, although following a one year delay to the commencement of the project, after the tenants had all been decanted, he was then told that he could return to his home in 2019.
After three years in a hotel, the novelty had worn off and he was eager to return home.
On several further occasions Poplar Harca advised Thompson that he could return to his 21st floor home, which he bought in the 1980’s from Tower Hamlets council under Right to Buy legislation.
Yet, on each occasion he was let down at the last moment and told that he could not return home.
Second marketing campaign
In the Summer of 2022, Poplar Harca launched a second high profile marketing campaign, managed by PR firm Good Relations, perhaps best known for their connection to Bell Pottinger and their legacy of stirring up racial tension in South Africa.
Harca scored a second feature article in The Guardian by Oliver Wainwright, as well as features in the Daily Mirror and The Sun and a collaboration with registered charity Open House to market the socially-cleansed flats via Rightmove and their Open House events.
Despite Harca’s claims in The Guardian that “more than 1,200 interested buyers have already signed up”, it appears that there has actually been so little genuine interest in actually buying one of these architecturally mutilated flats that they have all now been withdrawn from the market.
Poplar Harca openly boasted that they have sold Flat 130, the home for two months in 1968 of Balfron Tower’s infamous architect Ernö Goldfinger, yet the Land Registry does not include the details of sales of any property in Balfron Tower since Flat 102 changed hands to Balfron Tower Developments LLP for £1,480,000 in 2017.
This transaction raises serious questions about the legitimacy of some of the transactions, and who they may have benefitted.
Poplar Harca openly boasted in BD Online in 2009 that one of the project team had already bought one of the flats, for cash.
Balfron Social Club reiterates our call for an independent audit of Poplar Harca.
The human cost of regeneration
As for leaseholder Mr Thompson, did he get to return to his flat as was promised in Autumn 2022, six years after he moved out, following the second expensive, high-profile marketing campaign?
In short, no. No, he did not.
Mr Thomson has recently been told it will now be September 2023 before he can return home, over seven years since he was forced out.
Seven years in a hotel, in his 80’s.
Hugh’s story is just one brutal story from a catalogue of abuse residents suffered at the hands of Poplar Harca and its staff who appear to thrive on bullying residents, who are treated more as an inconvenience than a community, especially social tenants who live in blocks earmarked for regeneration.
This arrogant attitude towards local people appears to stem from the very top of Poplar Harca and filters its way down though its directors, who appear to treat Poplar as their own personal fiefdom, and where telling lies to tenants seems to come as second nature.
Meanwhile, Poplar Harca directors were happily associating themselves with some very sleazy individuals, such as developers London Newcastle, highly indicative of the management style emanating from Harca under its CEO, Steve Stride.
References are still often made of the “Balfron Tower casting couch”, the nickname for a nicely decorated flat that was forcibly appropriated by Poplar Harca during Bow Arts so-called Balfron Season in 2015, where agencies such as Arts Council England, English Heritage and British Council turned Balfron Tower into their own personal playground and assisted Bow Arts and Poplar Harca with artwashing the social cleansing of Balfron Tower, all whilst social tenants, yet to be decanted, remained living in the tower.
Poplar Harca also made the flat available to London Newcastle, Telford Homes, Bow Arts and any of their friends to use, as they chose.
Poplar Harca’s arrogant attitude towards the local community has ensured that local people have always been hostile towards the regeneration of Balfron Tower.
All social housing was removed from Balfron Tower in a plan that cast local people aside, often to estates already earmarked for demolition creating chaos into the lives of the local population, in order to provide homes for office workers at the nearby Canary Wharf financial district, and took very little consideration for the needs of the local community.
They only cared about the value of the homes people occupied and their desperate attempts to gentrify the community by attracting financial workers to the neighbourhood.
The community has not forgotten the brutal treatment by Poplar Harca staff, who bullied and harassed our friends and neighbours from their homes, and intimidated, even stalked, anybody that dared criticise them or obstruct them in any way.
Is anybody really surprised that Poplar Harca’s plans to sell all the flats in Balfron Tower have been a total disaster?
“The private sales operation for Balfron has been put on hold. The developer (Balfron Tower Developments LLP) has now made a decision to convert the newly renovated homes which had been proposed for sale, to professionally managed rented homes (‘Build to Rent’ or BTR). Subsequent to this Savills have since been appointed to market the BTR element to prospective investment partners.”
It now appears that Poplar Harca, a Registered Social Landlord, that was given vast swathes of Poplar free of charge by the former Labour council, have decided to convert the homes in Balfron Tower into “professionally managed rented homes” using the government’s Build to Rent scheme.
It would seem unlikely that the regeneration of Balfron Tower should be eligible for a government scheme designed for large landlords who have specifically built new-build properties solely for the rental market, but if there is one thing that Poplar Harca & Co. are good at, its lying and cheating their way into large amounts of public funds.
If somehow they do manage to achieve their new aim of Build to Rent then this would ensure that, according to the terms of the Build to Rent scheme, at least 20% of the homes being made available for rent must be made available as “affordable rent” properties, for the long-term.
Balfron Social Club believes that the ghost of Goldfinger will never be happy until Balfron Tower is returned to its intended social purpose.
Balfron Social Club started in 2014 with a campaign for 50% social housing to be retained in the regeneration of Balfron Tower.
Poplar Harca, backed by a Labour council led by (now-former) mayor John Biggs, insisted that there would be absolutely no social housing retained in the tower and that all flats would be sold on the private market.
Now the market has concluded that there are to be no sales on the private market, Poplar Harca plans to rent the properties privately instead.
We do not believe that a token 20% “affordable rent” properties in the tower is acceptable, and we demand that all unsold flats are now returned to the socially rented sector, to help relieve some of the pressure upon people in Tower Hamlets, people in desperate need of genuinely affordable social housing.
Sack Steve Stride
Poplar Harca’s risky top-down plans to gentrify Poplar have failed, and its time for Steve Stride to be sacked, and for the Poplar Harca housing stock to be transferred back to the management of Tower Hamlets council, as has recently happened to Tower Hamlets Homes, under the direction of Tower Hamlets new mayor, Lutfur Rahman.
Meanwhile, 146 families on the Tower Hamlets housing waiting list can be housed in this recently refurbished, purpose-built social housing block, with great views across London.
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.
BFI & Arts Council England are funding property developers who are socially cleansing social housing, during a housing crisis.
This talk was commissioned by The Rainbow Collective (1) and was first delivered at Building a Movement at the East End Film Festival (2), London on 14th April 2018.
In this talk I will attempt to draw analogy between a rhizome and the organic interconnectivity of community and how through genetic modification the rhizome can be engineered to work against the community in the service of property developers, focussing on Poplar Harca (3), Up Projects (4) and my own research in Balfron Tower (5).
When I first started living and working in Balfron Tower at the start of 2011, alongside my planned photographic project to turn the tower inside out using large format photography, to reveal a cross section of the tower depicting the interior worlds of its residents, I also proposed alongside to map the rhizome-like structure of the community living in the Tower, and as the project developed, to record the community’s interconnectivity as it prepared to be decanted of its social housing tenants, prior to the regeneration and 100% privatisation of the block by registered social landlord Poplar Harca, in partnership with Telford Homes (6) and luxury property developers and Presidents’ Club (7) table hosts Londonewcastle (8).
There was some understandable outrage amongst tower residents when publicly-funded Bow Arts (9) flounced into Balfron Tower, in 2007, promoting it as Artwash Central, commissioning the likes of John Walter and Simon Terril to become the friendly faces of artwash and of their imminent gentrification, further confirming the profession of artist as mere foot soldiers to property developers intent upon feasting upon the carcass of our social housing.
It wasn’t long before the residents committee banned art projects in the tower, a ban aggressively enforced against any artist daring to be creative outside the confines of their own home (at least not without official approval in advance).
This made it necessary to map interactions with residents in a very different way than had I put up posters on a Poplar Harca controlled community notice board encouraging people to come forward to participate.
Instead, I got to know my neighbours and integrated myself into the community and made myself a useful person to know, and it wasn’t long before I was a familiar face around the building, sometimes to a mixed reception, somewhat understandable given the conflicted nature of a community in the process of being removed from their homes, all the whilst being surrounded by a group of mostly middle class artists purposefully and insensitively placed there to raise the profile of the building, and the value of the homes they were being decanted from.
In my attempts to map the interconnectivity within the community, by encouraging neighbours to tell their friends in the building about my work and to encourage their participation, I discovered that there were a lot of people who were very isolated and alone within that tower.
-There were a lot of people who quite simply did not know any of their neighbours at all-
Images from Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out by Rab Harling
In some cases I faced some hostility (more often from the artists than anybody else), but in most cases my neighbours were friendly and welcomed me in to their homes and willingly and enthusiastically took part in my project to document their surroundings, before they were written out of the history of the great Erno Goldfinger’s greatest achievement.
Before my eviction from Balfron Tower by publicly funded “charity” Bow Arts, at the end of 2013, in an attempt to sabotage my work as revenge for questioning significant anomalies in their taxes (10), I had spent three full years working and living in the building, and 120 out of 146 of my neighbours had participated in my work, creating an incredible archive of life in Balfron Tower during its social cleansing.
Whilst a potential attempt to map the rhizome was theoretically there in numbers, it was simply not there in connectivity, with most neighbours being far more isolated than had been anticipated.
The divide and conquer tactics used to clear the community of Balfron Tower had been very effective, decimating a once proud and friendly East end community. A community that had famously been moved street by street, from the old terraced slums into the great futuristic architect designed communities in the sky, had been all but destroyed by systemic practice to dismantle any potential opposition to their social cleansing and the sale of their social housing as luxury properties to Canary Wharf bankers and architecture professionals with no sense of moral outrage.
Making sense of the metaphor
This brings me to my second look into the rhizome and the darker nature of community connectivity, which is to look at the forces that led to the social cleansing of Balfron Tower, that led to the purposeful devastation of an established community over a period of ten years, the length of time it took to clear Balfron Tower.
One of the most common complaints I heard when speaking to people in Poplar is just how little support local people receive from Poplar Harca, which effectively runs Poplar as an unelected local authority, including providing community centres, markets, parks, police and schools, which are all very much under the control of Harca.
A Poplar Harca public consultation on the regeneration of Chrisp Street Market, 2013
Complaints are common that Poplar Harca are running the community for the people they want to live there, rather than the people who do live there; placemaking a future community to create their vision of “a new Shoreditch” whilst carrying out sham consultations, organising fake petitions as well as practically every heinous act a social landlord could carry out against a community it desperately wants to displace.
If my rhizome analogy functions in relation to a successful community, or the failures in the mapping of an unsuccessful one in the process of decant, such as that found in Balfron Tower, how would it work when applied to Poplar Harca, the Registered Social Landlord?
Artwash is not welcome in Poplar
The arrival of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Poplar, with the creation of the Lansbury Micro Museum (11) at Chrisp Street Market, seems to typify the kind of memory harvesting being undertaken by artwashers, supported by the property developers whose interest they serve.
The Lansbury Micro-Museum at Chrisp Street Market, a joint venture between the Victoria & Albert Museum and Poplar Harca
A “micro-museum”, as was the case at Chrisp Street Market, or some other attraction arrives in the neighbourhood. They are friendly and welcoming and host all sorts of events to try and engage the community.
Meanwhile, they seek to harvest your photographs, your memories, which they will use to reminisce your passing, as you are forced out of your community, as your social housing is demolished and replaced by “affordable” housing you cannot afford, with an awful lot of units for sale, via a solicitor in Hong Kong (12).
Memory Harvesting on Brick Lane
And don’t be too surprised, if you take part in one these artwash exercises, to find your grandma staring back at you on a hoarding surrounding a building site that has no social housing, telling you about the wonderful heritage you could be a part of; subject to contract and a significant deposit; for a 25% share in a tiny new-build, so long as you meet the criteria to receive “affordable” housing, and earn approximately £70k per year.
Sonya Boyce on the Up Projects homepage
The addition of new board members in 2017 to Arts Council NPO Up Projects could be a good indication of their genuine mission rather than their stated aims to place contemporary art in public places. Through the prism of Up Projects I will investigate just how well the rhizome can function, should a clear agenda be identified; or a hidden agenda on behalf of a property developer.
Paul Augarde claims to have “spent a decade making feature films.” yet his IMDB.com profile reveals a very different story (13).
In addition to Xanthe Arvanitakis, commercial director of Soane Museuem, Helen Pheby of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Paul Augarde, Director of Placemaking for Poplar Harca, was also appointed to the board of directors of Up Projects in 2017, so it might be interesting just to take a look at the accounts of Up Projects to see where they get their money.
Up Projects Statement of Financial Activities (14), 2017
Their accounts reveal that over the 2 years, 2016 and 2017, they received donations and grants of over £811,000. Let’s take a closer look at this income, perhaps to see if they are funded to fulfil some sort of agenda.
Up Projects Analysis of Grants Received (15), 2016 & 2017
Arts Council England is their greatest funder, supplying Up Projects with over £271,000 of public money over two years. Significant sums were also received from the British Film Institute, Queen Mary University of London and the Canal and River Trust, spotted recently writing supporting applications to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in support of the regeneration of Chrisp Street Market by Poplar Harca.
The architect of Poplar’s social cleansing, Steve Stride, CEO of Poplar Harca
However, the most revealing grants come from Foundations for Future London (16) who generously provided Up Projects with £95,000 over two years, and on their board? The architect of Poplar’s social cleansing, Mr Steve Stride, Chief Executive of Poplar Harca and Paul Augarde’s boss.
These examples just scratch the surface of the rhizome, which weaves a sinister pattern, repeated again and again across Poplar.
If you want to open a pub appealing to middle class gentrifiers, such as the Galvanisers on the Coventry Cross Estate then you get five years free rent from Harca. If you are a Bengali seamstress wanting to open a small stall at Chrisp Street Market, then you find their terms and conditions so stringent, along with your childcare and other family responsibilities, that the dream dies.
Free rent for some
If you have the right connections and want to open a bicycle shop in the market, then you get £17,000 free rent from Poplar Harca. However, if you are a trader seen to protest the unwanted gentrification of the market, you suddenly find your rent triples to £27,000 and you are forced to voluntarily close up your business, as has been reported to me by market traders this week.
Londonewcastle showing gross insensitivity in their celebration of the social cleansing of Balfron Tower
Anybody who takes a look beyond Poplar Harca’s glossy PR with a critical eye quickly sees their shine tarnish as their shallow motives are revealed; to force the poor from our communities, to dismantle our social housing, in collaboration with HSBC and luxury property developers like Londonewcastle and Telford Homes, and to ensure their legacy as managing agents and co-landlords in the replacements to the social housing they are dismantling.
I appreciate my view that Balfron Tower should retain at least 50% social housing after regeneration is controversial and is clearly an outrageous demand, particularly of a Registered Social Landlord that was given 9000 properties by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets free of charge. I appreciate that not everyone shares my view.
If you would like to hear another point of view on Balfron Tower, from a public school educated architectural historian, who has never lived there, Owen Hopkins of Soane Museum is giving a talk at Sutton House next week, hosted by Pages of Hackney, a Clapton bookseller and The Guardian’s former gentrifier-in-residence Dave Hill (17).
Wayne Hemigway’s ‘pop-up’ plan sounds the death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower, Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, 26 September 2014 (18)
Held in a National Trust property, again revealing NT’s taste for the artwash and social cleansing of Balfron Tower has not diminished since their poorly considered venture there with Poplar Harca and Wayne Hemingway in 2014, which led to Ollie Wainwright in The Guardian describing it as the “death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower”.
Maybe I should just take a moment to remind you that Owen Hopkins works for Soane Museum. The Commercial Director of Soane Museum is Xanthe Avanitakis who is on the board of Up Projects, alongside Paul Augarde, the Director of Placemaking for Poplar Harca.
The rhizome functions perfectly well, albeit in a somewhat genetically modified form skewed towards a property developer agenda, and like a rhizome, the complexity of the interconnectivities working to asset strip our community needs significant further research.
Contingent liabilities for the people of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (19)
This is why I am demanding, before it is too late and there is nothing left worth fighting for, that the Mayor of London (or perhaps one the candidates in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets mayoral elections) should call for and carry out an immediate, independent and full audit of Poplar Harca, including the development contracts for Chrisp Street Market, Balfron Tower as well as every other estate Harca have demolished or any other community that is in the process of being gentrified, or that has already been destroyed by the Poplar Harca social cleansing machine; and there are many.
We need to know whether their operations are in the best interest of the people of Tower Hamlets or whether they are just serving the interests of banks, property developers and politicians, and Harca need to be held to account for the damage they have caused to our communities.
After all, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has guaranteed to cover all liabilities and losses of Poplar Harca, using public funds.
I won’t hold my breath for an audit, but I will keep asking.
14th April 2018
Rab Harling on stage at the East End Film Festival, London. 14th April 2018. Picture courtesy of The Rainbow Collective.
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
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.
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.