Google Tony Pidgley, chairman of one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, and you’ll find a video in which he shows off his latest toy. The plaything in question is a giant council estate that his firm, Berkeley Homes, is smashing up and building over.
A squat, punchy figure, he shows a reporter around the new towers – and the gashed old blocks that, we’re informed, were used in Schindler’s List as a stand-in for the Warsaw Ghetto.
“You can understand why they used it in the film,” begins Pidgley in a reasonable tone. “It looks like a concentration camp.”
Forget for a moment that the Warsaw Ghetto was not a concentration camp, or that practically every large inner-London estate has featured in some film in the role of Ominous Backdrop. Ignore the crassness of a man who, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, is worth £160m casually rubbishing the homes of thousands of families poorer than him. Concentrate instead on the rare sight presented in that clip: a businessman at the height of his powers.
Pidgley is one of the most lavishly paid executives in his industry. The firm he helms is enjoying bumper profits, thanks to a taxpayer-funded housing boom in Berkeley’s key market of London and the south-east. And the building site where he’s playing the tour guide – Woodberry Down in Manor House, north-east London – is one of the largest housing-estate redevelopments in Britain.
By 2031, around 2,000 council or former council homes will have been demolished and replaced with more than 5,500 units on the estate: some social housing; some for “key workers”, the euphemism now used for low-paid public servants, and the majority to be sold on the open market. The flagship private block in Woodberry Down, looking on to a lovely reservoir, has been sold largely to foreign investors, with one flat going for a million pounds (tell a Londoner that flats in Manor House are going for a million quid and see how low their jaw drops).
Pidgley began touting Woodberry Down as a “blueprint for regeneration and all the new development Britain needs to beat the housing crisis” in February. Although it has only just got going on a job that will last 25 years, Berkeley Homes published a scientific-looking survey that neatly showed residents to be delighted with the results so far. At a corporate meeting this February to publicise the poll, coalition planning minister Nick Boles gave a warm keynote speech and the Times led the media applause: “Schindler’s estate is now a blueprint for urban happiness”.
Within the grasp of Pidgley’s team is a tantalisingly large prize. If Berkeley can establish itself as the pre-eminent name in regeneration, it will put itself front of the queue for what is a roaring business. It will also have even greater sway with local authorities, London city hall and Westminster.
Executives at the FTSE-250 company estimate that, of every four houses they build, one is on a former council estate somewhere in the capital. But the potential business is much larger: 1.69 million people in England were waiting for local authority accommodation last year; over 344,000 in London alone. Unprecedented cuts have left town halls up and down the country less cash to maintain their existing housing stock – giving them little choice but to turn to Pidgely and co.
As the financial crisis recedes into the middle distance, London has been colonised by builders’ hoardings and cement mixers. Hospitals are being transformed into luxury flats; school fields littered with concrete boxes, and public housing turned into not-so-public housing. With politicians of all stripes looking for ways to drum up millions of new homes, Berkeley and its rivals will become ever more important to Britain’s future.
By the time Pidgley began his Woodberry Down PR push, we had spent many hours talking to its residents. Our interest was aroused by the claims being made for it: Hackney council officials described it privately as its “greatest success”; the commitment to making 40% of the new development affordable homes.
To critics, regeneration is simply code for gentrification, which is often a fancy term to describe how poor people are cleared from valuable land to make way for the rich. But here was a scheme promising regeneration with a conscience, creating a genuinely mixed community. Council and the builders sang the same song: Woodberry Down represented private-led redevelopment at its best – a model to be followed.
Except the residents on the estate consistently demonstrated that the claims about its transformation were untrue. Berkeley’s survey – the subject of laudatory column inches – turned out to be about as methodologically robust as the science part of a L’Oreal advert: it was massively skewed towards those settling into the new towers, when the vast majority still live in the old blocks, and will do for years. And it omitted entirely the number of residents who were moved off the estate.
Among the more than 50 interviewees we spoke to over six months, there was naturally a range of views about what benefits had been brought by regeneration. But the majority talked of pensioners offered inadequate sums for their leaseholdings, and being forced to move far from their families; of business owners promised a place in the new development only to be turfed out later, losing small fortunes in the process.
Their neighbourhood was an endangered species: a patch of inner London belonging to the elderly, the working poor, the unemployed. Now it was being broken up to suit an international company selling homes to the well-off. The fact their council was leading this dismemberment made some especially angry.
Even tenants in the new social housing reported how they or neighbours had been plunged into debt because of the higher bills incurred through having a private housing association as a landlord. Despite Berkeley’s promise to “bring together all people in Woodberry Down”, social tenants reported that those living in the expensive private blocks “cross the road to avoid us”. They had been made to feel like second-class citizens in their own home.
What follows are stories of the people best placed to tell you about what regeneration does to a community: the ones who come from it. Some have lived on Woodberry Down for more than six decades; others are in their 20s. Their photos don’t feature in the civic-centre case studies or corporate press releases. They haven’t got local elections to win, or a profit target to chase. They’ve just got to live with the results.
JaneIn all her 65 years on Woodberry Down, Jane Frost has never had to deal with anything like this. Around six or seven on most evenings, a mystery man comes to her flat and pees against the balcony outside. Jane’s the only resident left on the entire floor; and there’s no neighbor, no security guard to pop out and see who the pest is. The 71-year-old cleans up the puddles herself.
All five storeys of Jane’s council block have been emptied. Almost everyone else has been rehoused, either in the new blocks opposite or in a different area. But Jane is disabled and, even after years, the council has yet to find her suitable accommodation. Which leaves her stuck here, with so few neighbours that she finds it “creepy”. Too creepy for her friends, who don’t visit after dark for fear of muggers – or worse.
“When I come up the stairs late at night my heart’s going boom-boom-boom-boom,” she says. “If I’m taken bad I no longer have anyone’s door I can knock on.”
The afternoon light streams into Jane’s lounge, playing on a lifetime’s worth of ornaments and porcelain. But outside her front door, “it’s absolutely horrible. I’m a nervous wreck.” Since the regeneration began she’s been diagnosed with depression.
One night she went out for a loaf, got chatting to a woman selling the Big Issue and let slip where she lived. The homeless woman was so worried for Jane’s safety that she walked her home – and wouldn’t even take anything for the trouble.
Out on the pensioner’s deserted balcony you see the thing she blames most for leaving her “abandoned”. It’s the towers springing up opposite, and the changes they’ve ushered in.
All that activity on the other side of the road – the cranes, the 400-plus builders charging around in white hard hats – could be described as rejuvenation: bringing new life to decades-old dereliction. “A Place in the Making,” Berkeley Homes calls it. They’ve slapped the phrase on hoardings everywhere, and rechristened the area Woodberry Park.
Visitors to the 64-acre estate now have two maps to navigate. On one is the old council layout of Woodberry Down, each block assigned a starchily municipal name: Bayhurst, Delamere, Whittlebury. On the other is a Technicolor guide to Woodberry Park and its landmarks: Residence, Watersreach and, less dreamily, Berkeley Homes Marketing Suite.
Yet marketing won’t totally obliterate history as long as people such as Jane and her childhood friend Sheila Coxon are knocking around. They met on this estate in 1949, the year after it opened. “You’d have parties in the courtyards,” remembers Jane. Sheila chimes in: “You had a community.”
You also had heroic public investment. Woodberry Down was the brainchild of Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, Labour MP Herbert Morrison, who wanted to rehouse working-class Londoners living in inner-city squalor – even if it meant compulsorily buying up the homes of the well-to-do residents of Manor House. “Morrison drives out mansion owners,” thundered the North London Recorder in November 1938 under the headline: “£1,000,000 slum dwellers’ paradise”. It ran a photo of a resident standing pensively by the reservoir and warned, “Hundreds of shouting children will take the place of this solitary silent man.”
But soon “everybody wanted to be here,” says Jane. She tells a family legend about how her mum lobbied the then-MP for Westminster Abbey: “He said: ‘What do you want? A flat in Westminster?’ And she said: ‘No … on the Woodberry Down estate.’ He told her she was asking the world, the absolute world. That’s how good this estate was.”
Council housing is now synonymous with cheap boxes, built grudgingly, and piled up to the sky. But, however rundown, the low-rise redbrick blocks of Woodberry Down still look solid – reminders of their prideful days as an “estate of the future”, toured by policy-makers in order to glean lessons. With a health centre opening in 1952 and Britain’s first purpose-built comprehensive soon afterwards, it was also a showcase for the cradle-to-grave welfare state.
“The estate was the estate and everybody had it the same,” says Sheila. Then she nods towards the building works: “It’s segregation, isn’t it?” She’s referring to the way the different classes of resident live in different blocks: social tenants on subsidised rent in one, part-owners of “affordable” homes in another, and the private residents in their own flagship tower. “The private properties are being built around the reservoir, with just a few token flats for council residents. The private buyers have got the best part of the estate.”
GentrificationThe term “gentrification” was coined just down the road from Woodberry Down, about 15 years after Jane and Sheila moved into their new homes. Living in Islington, north London, sociologist Ruth Glass noticed a rapid change among her neighbours.
“One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower,” she wrote in an article published in 1964. “Shabby, modest mews and cottages … have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts … it goes on rapidly until … the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the social character of the district is changed.”
This is gentrification as we still discuss it: the invisible hand of the market moving inexorably but gently (it waits until the leases expire) to gentrify an area. The squatters beget artists, who beget the public-sector middle-class, who beget banker families, who just stay put in their stucco-fronted Georgian houses, endlessly decorating and redecorating. A doleful bugle sounds for the demise of the family-run cobbler, soon drowned out by buzz over the gelato parlour that’s replaced it.
This long, slow process of gentrification does not describe what’s happening in Woodberry Down, or on mammoth estates from Greenwich’s Ferrier (which, in Berkeley’s hands, is being remoulded into Kidbrooke Village) to the Heygate in Elephant and Castle. Many of the made-up “villages” and “parks” mushrooming across the capital owe nothing to age-old market forces and everything to councils eager to upgrade their housing stock without eating into already-stretched budgets. They pass control of their inventory to a private housing association (Genesis, in the case of Woodberry Down) and lease the land for a few centuries to big developers. The builders put up new “affordable” homes to be sold or rented at below market rates, and cross-subsidise them by constructing expensive private homes. This planned poshification has been given a name by Paul Watt at London’s Birkbeck: state-led gentrification.
This is the unwinding of the process that created Woodberry Down. Herbert Morrison built municipal housing to shield Londoners from a broken market; his successors in local government are exposing their constituents to market forces in a manner not seen in postwar Britain. In 1981, 57.5% of homes in Hackney were rented from the council; by the last census in 2011, that had more than halved to 23.8%. Over that same period, the proportion of homes in the borough rented privately leapt from 17.8% to 29%. The same trend applies across inner London. By Watt’s rule of thumb, if a London tenant pays weekly rent of £100 to the council, their counterpart in the private sector will typically give £400 to a landlord or landlady. And they will have much less protection.
Maxwell“It makes me want to cry, to be honest,” says Maxwell O’Hajah, thumbing through Berkeley Homes’ sales brochure for Woodberry Park. His cracked white fingertips are a tell-tale sign of 20 years in construction.
“I’m looking through this and all the amenities that we had already, they’re bragging about. The reservoir, the sailing club, the parks, the local markets: they’ve always been there. I don’t know what they’re actually adding.”
Now 46, Maxwell moved to Woodberry Down in his teens. He joined the residents’ regeneration committee after finding out his flat would be one of the first to be demolished. At that point, early last decade, he became an eyewitness to the state-led gentrification of Woodberry Down.
When putting the development out to tender, Hackney council created footage to show developers. “They made it look like a hell hole. They played the theme music from a horror film and made Woodberry Down out to be some kind of project in America.” Experts note that this is a common tactic used by local councils: running down the existing area to whip up support among tenants for a private-led regeneration.
As a tenant rep, Maxwell saw Berkeley Homes present its bid for the project. “There were a few residents, a few people from the council, and 11 of them. They felt really heavy handed. Every single one was in a blue suit. Every single one had a tie on. They were all men.”
Then began negotiations with tenants. “Residents were like: ‘A sports centre – that would be nice … Ooh, and a swimming pool, yeah.’ They were asking for things like kids in a sweet shop. They thought this regeneration was for them. But Berkeley Homes are hard-nosed business people. We were never going to get our way.” The gym on the estate is only for those in the private block; the same will go for the swimming pool featured on builders’ hoardings.
When Maxwell realised how much his living costs would increase in the new flats, with a housing association as landlord rather than the council, he moved off Woodberry Down.
“I’m glad. This is a regeneration if you’re coming from the outside. If you’re already on the inside it’s just destruction. It’s blatantly obvious that they don’t want us to live there any more. It’s just ghettoisation – that’s what this model of regeneration is.”
GinaGina O’Raegan can give you a tour of what’s wrong with where she lives. Tugging along her staffie, Shumba, the itinerary is a litany of horrors: the corner flat with such bad subsidence that it’s now uninhabitable; the courtyard where dealers were hanging out last summer, since they could no longer ply drugs over by the new-builds, and the boarded-up properties whose residents have left.
She lives up the road from Jane, in what locals call the Seven Blocks (although she’d rather you didn’t use that nickname: “It sounds like a prison”). These are the most dilapidated buildings on the estate, so bad that Gina never lets on to workmates or acquaintances her address in case they work out where she lives. Her home makes her ashamed.
Gina and her 20-year-old son James live in “limbo”, in the gulf between regeneration-speak and practice. In 2006, the council laid out key principles for which parts of the estate would be replaced first. Top of the list was: “Replacing the worst first”. Residents were led to understand that this meant those living in the Seven Blocks would be first into the new flats, and their old buildings demolished. Then plans changed. All of a sudden, the most marketable land around the reservoir was first in line for new flats. Other residents say they’ve heard Berkeley executives admit in meetings: “There’s no revenue in knocking them [the Seven Blocks] down.”
Now Gina and James will have to wait until at least 2020, possibly 2021, to move. “We don’t look over the reservoir so we’re being punished. Simple as.”
Inside her flat, long, wide cracks snake across the ceiling. The old metal toilet cistern drips water, but the council won’t replace it – because that counts as a major repair, unnecessary on a estate due for rebuilding. “I’ve got to live with this dripping on me for the next seven years.”
Her bedroom has splotches of brilliant white paint, to cover up the mould. “I’ve had black mould on my bedding.” She keeps clothes in plastic laundry bags for protection. The curtains are rotten with damp from condensation: “They rip like paper.” Council officials say the blocks were not so long ago fitted with double-glazing; residents say that that has made the condensation worse.
On Gina’s bedside table is a damp trap, which after a month has collected over two inches of water. She has had a chest infection for the past couple of years: whatever the doctor tries doesn’t shift it. Among all this wreckage, the usual domestic touches – children’s photos, embroidered cushions reading Stay Calm and Smile – seem forced.
A Hackney surveyor came round last year to look at the mould. On being told that Gina paid her full rent and deserved a proper service, he replied, “Some people may argue that you pay subsidised rent because you live in a council property” (Hackney acknowledges such language is “unacceptable”).
“They think: “You’re poor, be grateful.” Like many others here, Gina chafes against the stereotypes hung round her neck by others. She wants you to know that she works two jobs and “isn’t on Benefits Street”. Jane stresses that before becoming a pensioner, she never took any welfare. One Turkish shopkeeper introduces himself with: “I’m not a refugee – I work and pay tax.”
Gina looks around the flat where she and James have their stress-fuelled arguments; where her 20-year-old hates bringing a girlfriend home. “This regeneration isn’t about decent homes,” she says. “If it was about decent homes then I wouldn’t be living here. Yes or no?”
The town hallYou won’t find in Woodberry Down the usual stories of epic bungling and back-scratching that mark so many land deals between town halls and big developers. There aren’t any tales of a council spending so much on evicting its own residents to make way for developers that they lose millions on the entire deal (as is reportedly the case with Southwark council and the Heygate). Or of officials flogging public land to big companies and not even getting any affordable homes in return (as Haringey council has done with the new £400m Spurs development.
As Hackney officials like to boast, they have armwrestled a good deal out of their builders. Just over 40% of the new estate will be affordable homes. Not only that, tenants will be moved (“decanted” in regeneration-speak) only once, and the flats they move into will be guaranteed a certain size. Put all that together with the state Woodberry Down had reached by the 90s – and if private-led renewal is going to work anywhere, it’s here.
But stripping away the usual gaffes shows up the underlying problems of the model. Take the most basic step, the tendering of a building contract, which Maxwell witnessed. Hackney councillor Karen Alcock acknowledges that there aren’t many developers qualified to take on a project such as Woodberry Down.
And developers demand fat returns for doing such work. The usual profit target is 21%, says Duncan Bowie, a former member of the Mayor of London’s planning team – any slippage leads to the kind of language heard by Gina. Put those two factors together and you have the potential for major compromises: for some blocks being put back in the project, even if that means people live in squalor for years; for the builder to eat up courtyards and recreational areas in order to cram in more flats. And ultimately, building the wrong homes for the residents.
Before Woodberry Down began its metamorphosis into Woodberry Park, it had 1,555 social rented homes: 78.5% of the entire estate. By the time it finishes, it will have only 1,088 socially rented homes. That is a huge drop in a borough that already has more than 15,000 applicants on its housing waiting list – many with a family. True, there will be another 1,177 “affordable” homes – although many leaseholders on the estate told us they couldn’t afford them. Nearly 60% of the overhauled site will be private homes.
The showroomOn a bright Saturday morning, Naoufal Dhimi parks his SUV outside Woodberry Down’s marketing suite. The camel-coated property agent buys and sells London homes, primarily for investors in Asia and the Middle East. Although sceptical about the investment value of paying nearly £400,000 for a two-bed flat in what remains a deprived patch of inner London, he’s scouting out the development for a client in Singapore.
Hearing his explanation, the white-shirted saleswoman points through the windows to the reservoir: “That water outside: very attractive to Asian buyers. We’ve had families from Singapore who take a unit here to rent out, but really keep it to send their children when they’re old enough to go to the LSE [London School of Economics] or wherever.”
When marketing began, Berkeley concentrated its efforts on east Asia and ended up selling around 55% of the first phase of buildings to overseas investors. That’s unusually high for this area. Going through Land Registry records, estate agents Knight Frank calculated that overseas residents bought 49% of all newly built property in the plushest parts of central London in the year to June 2013; that proportion dropped to 20% across inner London and to less than 7% in outer London. This estate sits slap-bang on the divide between inner and outer London, yet its towers have lured a greater proportion of foreign buyers than those in Kensington and Westminster.
How did Berkeley manage that? Expert marketing. The firm has sales offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and, as of last autumn, Beijing. To flog Woodberry Park, it hired out ballrooms and conference suites in hotels thousands of miles away and talked to small Asian families about the profit to be made from letting apartments in London. According to the British Property Federation, 61% of all new homes sold in the capital last year were bought not to live in but solely as an investment. The vast majority of them would have been rented out; 5% were flipped back onto the market.
The saleswoman hands over goodybags with brochures that resemble coffee table books. They paint the area in terms no local would ever recognise. Expertly shot panoramas of the estate and the London skyline make it seem a mere jog from the City. Distances to airports are listed, along with cafes “on your doorstep” that are in nicer areas at least 20 minutes schlep away. This isn’t Manor House at all, but an invented place wrenched away from terra firma and now hovering somewhere between a street of chichi cafes and the financial district.
At Berkeley, Matt Bell defends the marketing: “If you go ‘it’s 20 minutes from Knightsbridge’, people go online and … you look a complete monkey.” He obviously hasn’t read his own brochure, which claims Woodberry Down is just “23 minutes” from Knightsbridge.
Later, Dhimi recounts how a client bought an apartment here off-plan from one of those hotel suites a world away. When it was finished, he drove her directly from Heathrow to have a look. “As we got closer, the surroundings got rougher and she went quiet. And when we arrived she said: ‘Dhimi, I can’t stay here: put me in a hotel.’ The next morning she wanted to sell up. Immediately.”
As the saleswoman shows us around the two-bed showflat, she admits that, on turning up at the marketing suits in this still-gritty part of North London: “I thought head office were punishing me!” By the architects’ model of the estate, she explains to us, her prospective buyers, how any unit we’d buy would be safely away from the social tenants. This development “is going to end up like an island”, insulated from the surrounding deprivation.
Leafing through the hardback, one other thing jumps out: all the models in it – sleek young couples sipping rose – are white. According to the 2011 census, Hackney’s population is 45% black and minority ethnic; yet Berkeley’s dream community is as multicultural as a Boden catalogue. This is in a brochure whose primary readership is east Asian.
As we drive past the doner places and charity shops that go unmentioned in the marketing, Dhimi is surprisingly agitated. The real-estate dealer says he was raised in a council house and was “shocked” at the language used by the saleswoman. “What kind of city are we becoming: like Paris, where we chuck all the ‘social rubbish’ on the edges out of sight?”
Veronica and NanetteIt takes two buses, one train and two and a half hours for Veronica Mensah to get from her new home to her old one on Woodberry Down; and it costs her £22.95 – almost a third of her weekly state pension. “I’m worried the fares will keep going up, but there are some things you can’t put a price on: my family and friends, they’re all here. So I’ll just have to sacrifice things to be able to afford it. I have built my world here.”
This time she has come down for a prayer meeting of the Franciscan order to which she has belonged for over a decade. After, she catches up with two other members, Elizabeth and Betty, who she met while on the estate. Veronica asks who wants tea. Softly spoken, she wears a long grey skirt and a lavender scarf.
Have they known each other long? “Oh yes!” they chorus, before a flurry of anecdotes begin, overlapping and hard to make out – organising church bazaars, living in the same blocks, having children grow up together. Elizabeth looks up and laughs: “We’ve known each other for ever.”
Veronica moved to Woodberry Down in 1979 with her then-husband to start a family. After their third child, their two-bedroom flat was no longer big enough and they registered to be transferred. They remained on the council’s transfer list for 17 years.
In that time Veronica became a respected figure on the estate and beyond. She worked in health and childcare, volunteered for two charities and got heavily involved in her local church. Her parents – now in their 80s – live 15 minutes up the road from Woodberry Down, and she would often take them to hospital appointments and look after them when they were ill.
As Veronica’s three children turned into teens, they needed more space. “They had nowhere to do their homework.” So in 2000, now-divorced Veronica bought her flat under right-to-buy. The plan was to sell it after the stipulated minimum ownership period of three years and buy a bigger place for her family elsewhere on the estate.
“It wasn’t really something I could afford to do. But I just had to find a way to get more space for my family.” Six months later, Hackney council announced the regeneration and Veronica could no longer sell up. She and her two adult children had lost all the rights they had as longstanding tenants. Those renting from Hackney were guaranteed a home; leaseholders only got a compensatory offer on their homes, and a shot at the new affordable units.
To stay on the estate, Veronica would have to wait over a decade until her flat was due for demolition. The alternative was to sell her home back to the council and leave. “I took the decision not to live somewhere until my 70s and then move. It would be a big upheaval, whereas if I left while still mobile and relatively fit, it wouldn’t be as bad.”
After over two years of back and forth, Hackney offered Veronica £220,000 for her two-bedroom flat. Allowing for mortgage and service charges, and giving her children, who still lived with her, some money to help them move elsewhere, Veronica had a budget nearer £150,000. On state pension and so ineligible for a mortgage, she had to buy outright. She couldn’t find anything nearby: even the one-bedroom ex-council flat next door to the prison was way above her price limit. “I would have had to move so far out of London it would have been the same travel-time back to my family as moving away completely.”
Last summer she bought a house on a similar housing estate – this time in Ipswich, 80 miles away from her the place she still calls "home". “The most stressful part was leaving my parents behind. It took me a while to accept that I was going to have to do that.” She’s not alone in being displaced. Around one in five of Woodberry Down residents are leaseholders, and we met a number who were moving to the outskirts of London and the home counties.
Life in Ipswich is “unsettled”. The new house is bigger than her old flat, but it needs major work so she hasn’t been able to move all her things in. Her busy life in London is now limited to monthly visits, hectic long weekends crammed with friends and family. It’s the opposite in Ipswich.
“My day-to-day now is just going to the shops for a newspaper. I don’t go out as much now, at all – to the extent that I still regularly phone people back on the estate to talk, and it’s costing me quite a lot of money. But I haven’t made any friends there. Things are not the same as in London.
“And leaving two of my children was a wrench. They wanted to be in London for work. My main worry is that they won’t be able to stay because they’re not rich. Our teachers, our nurses, our carers – they’re being priced out like I was. And we need them. Nobody’s dealing with that.”
Run Veronica’s story by those pushing through the regeneration and the responses vary in tone but amount to the same. Hackney council stresses its commitment to keeping the Woodberry Down residents on the estate, but councilor Karen Alcock says the pledge doesn’t apply to leaseholders.
After listening to the story, Piers Clanford, managing director of Berkeley Homes (Capital), says, “Well, I’d like to live in Mayfair.”
But the difference is he doesn’t already live in Mayfair; Veronica has been winched out of her home.
Veronica’s daughter Nanette bought a one-bedroom flat in the new development, through the shared-ownership scheme. Sitting in the Happy Man estate pub – soon to be demolished to build more flats – the charity worker says: “I know the area, I’ve grown up here, I know people; so I wanted to stay here.”
The same goes for her brother (who has asked not to be named), who slept on Nanette’s sofa for six months because he wanted to find another home on the estate rather than move away. He now pays a private landlord £1,400 a month to rent a one-bedroom flat in a new block just across the road from the one in which he was raised.
“When I was growing up here I would see about five or 10 people to talk to a day. And recognise about 10 or 20,” she says. She’s happy to have stayed on the estate, but life in the new flat has brought less tangible encounters: “I know a lot of people in my block by email, now. You don’t really see people.”
She contrasts the young professionals in the new blocks to the large population of families and elderly people on the original estate. “You can definitely tell the difference between the old and the new. There have been a few tensions,” she says, referring in particular to race. “There’s a clear segregation of income.”
So why cling to a home that’s disappearing? “Because I want to claim my land. That sounds funny, doesn’t it? But it’s the estate where my mum lived and I want to show: you can’t get rid of me that easily”.
MehmetMehmet Kerem keeps a photo of himself on his shop wall. It’s just over a year old, yet customers regularly comment on how different he looks now. Next to the picture, the 45-year-old looks greyer, thinner. “I thought it was a photo of his brother,” says one of the regulars.
The family snapshot was taken as Mehmet moved to his new takeaway in Edmonton, on the outskirts of London. The opening cost him about a hundred grand in lease, counters and other fixtures, “everything new” – and he’s struggling to make back his lifesavings and family loans.
For nearly a decade, Mehmet ran a chippie on the little parade of shops at the heart of Woodberry Down. Over there, he’d take about £2,500 a week; here, a 45-minute bus ride away, it’s roughly half that – despite working seven days a week, from eight in the morning till almost midnight.
When the regeneration began, Mehmet and his fellow shopkeepers were promised units in the rebuilt estate. Every retailer we’ve spoken to is clear that the offer was made in meetings with Hackney council (who ran the leases) and Berkeley. They were shown plans and invited to put in for their chosen premises.
Then that promise was broken. Now only some businesses were going to transfer across, and that didn’t include the takeaways (different reasons are given as to why: the most common is simply that flat-buyers would find it harder to get big mortgages for flats above a takeaway). Mehmet offered a compromise: “A nice Turkish restaurant”. But no.
Nor could he agree another suitable site with the council. In 2012, Hackney gave him £9,000 and told him to leave.
Some of the teatime trade have been listening in. At the end, one mutters, “Nine grand and they throw him away like rubbish.”
Mehmet counts how much he spent on the shop at Woodberry Down: £100,000. He borrowed from everyone – friends, brothers and sisters in Cyprus – to set up his new, now-failing business. Those aren’t the only losses. Soon after Mehmet was kicked out of Hackney, his father died – he thinks because of the stress. Money worries led to a breakup with his girlfriend of six years, also the mother of his daughter. Recounting all this, he tugs at his polo shirt and begins shouting, “Everything is lost. Ten years of working for nothing.”
Sitting behind the counter is Mehmet’s mother. “He’s cracking up, he’s nervous all the time, he’s ageing,” she says. “He was never angry before.”
Despite the promises, a mere handful of the old businesses remain on the rebuilt estate. Many of them are badly missed by the residents, especially the semi-legendary Chinese takeaway. A petition was started to save the shops. which got over 600 signatures, but ignored.
Mehmet spots racism in these choices; but former off-licence manager Cigdem Garip puts it more broadly: “We didn’t fit in.” The residents of Woodberry Down are being provincialised: Veronica has literally been carted off to the provinces, but some of those who remain feel their tastes are not rarefied enough for their new home. As Jane’s friend, Sheila says, “We’re not allowed a Chinese, we’re not allowed a fish and chip shop.”
An adviser to the residents carries around a presentation of the shops Berkeley suggested as examples for the new development. One is Labour & Wait in Shoreditch: a homeware store where a “Japanese kettle” costs £86.
But posh boutiques also suit councillors, now running an increasingly-unequal borough. Hackney is at the same time among the most deprived in England and also more prosperous than the national average. To cater for the new wealth, the town hall is creating a £100m “fashion hub” selling top labels. It also wants to dilute the presence of ethnic-minority restaurants in the borough. The Guardian has seen a letter from a senior council officer asking restaurateurs to consider setting up in Dalston. It states: “The offer at the moment is essentially Turkish and African ... We are keen to attract a wider offer and a style of restaurants to the area.”
Of the entire parade, the electrical-goods shop was the oldest. Jonathan Devan inherited it from his father; it finally shut just after the 59th anniversary. A road on the estate has been named in the family’s honour: Devan Grove. As Jonathan wanders around the estate he still calls “home”, old ladies struggling with their grocery shopping stop to say hello. He tells one: “I’m not my own boss any more, I work for someone else – much less of a headache.”
He has gone from proprietor to part-time helping hand in a friend’s shop, but accepts the change as “inevitable”. He gestures at the just-opened juice bar, selling thimble-sized cupcakes for £1.95 a bite: “I was never going to fit in with that, was I?”
MickyYou can spot Micky’s launch party from 100 metres away. The rest of the strip is quiet, with businesses yet to move into the empty units, but the entrance to his barbershop has a bunch of young men in suits tussling with silver balloons.
Inside, past the toddlers in waistcoats and the young women in makeup, is Micky Souleiman himself: 26, suited and booted and apparently relaxed about taking on his first business. That champagne glass must be helping; but up close there are flecks of white emulsion on his fingers, proving he was up till 4am doing the finishing touches.
Micky has known Mehmet for years and feels bad about what’s happened to him. But he’s positioned himself to take advantage of the opportunities offered by his home moving upmarket. Not for him the trad barbers up the road, with their big black-and-white photos of men in buzzcuts; here everything is monochrome and co-ordinated. When the inevitable pictures do go up, they’ll be of Ali and De Niro.
“This is high-end,” he says, gesturing at the decor. “It’s gonna be luxury.” How so? “It will be more English-style than other ones around here.”
Ask Berkeley which local businesses they see prospering and Micky is one they mention. You can see why: he’s young and has an affable smartness that deserves a spot of sunshine. “The regeneration is definitely a good thing,” he says. “Everyone’s getting new flats, the place is being done up.” So what does it need next? A Turkish restaurant, he says, before correcting himself: “Mediterranean. A nice Mediterranean.”
Three flat-capped old geezers turn up. One of them peers around and says in a accent straight out of central-casting East End: “It’s like a fucking club, not a barber’s.”
Ian and YvonneOn the top floor of one of the new blocks for those paying subsidised rents live Ian and Yvonne Kleinberg. If you can peel your eyes away from their view, Ian will show you the photos of his three kids and reel off their careers: America, teaching, osteopathy … “I always say that if you want to, you can make it from Woodberry Down,” he says.
If anyone in this tableau should consider themselves winners, it’s these two. They have moved from crocked council housing into the kind of apartment that would go like a hotcake on the open market; the kids have done well and ahead lie the pleasures of the first phase of retired life. The couple go along with that story, but then point out a few downsides.
Yvonne: “When we walk outside, the tenants from the private block actually cross the road to avoid us.”
Ian: “Say you’re social [tenants in subsidised rental accommodation] around here and you go down like a bacon sandwich at a Jewish wedding.”
The move also means a different rental arrangement: they no longer rent from the state, but from a private-sector housing association, Genesis. They now have fewer rights as tenants but, they say, worse service and higher bills. “There are pensioners in this block getting themselves in debt just to afford the heating,” says Ian.
The couple met on this estate, when as a teenager Yvonne used to hang around watching Ian play football. Public space plays an important part in Woodberry memories: Sheila and Jane used to run about in apple orchards; Veronica would call in Nanette from playing in the courtyard. When the estate was built, 20 of the 64 acres were designated for playgrounds, tennis courts and a community centre. But the public space is being swallowed up by concrete as the developers cram in more flats to maximise profit.
The best way to picture what’s going on is by imagining the patch of grass in the middle of an athletics track, which normally comes to one hectare. Before regeneration, about 83 homes were on each of those grass patches. Berkeley planned to more than double that, to 194 dwellings a hectare. Last summer, it announced that it would build even more homes on the estate. That patch of grass will now have 224 homes on it.
PaulPaul O’Neill sits on a cafe terrace in Stoke Newington, still in Hackney but a quarter of an hour east from Manor House and around £100,000 north in property prices. Tearing into his croissant, he tells us that it’s here he really wanted to live. But he and his girlfriend couldn’t afford the rents nearby, so became some of the first tenants in the flagship tower.
Last September, Paul left a comment on a blog about the regeneration. Far from being defensive, he was clear-eyed: “It was a big risk for us moving here … the area was already known for its anti-social behaviour … but I simply couldn’t afford anywhere else in London.”
That said, Woodberry Park isn’t affordable either: they pay £300 a week for “a kitchen-cum-living room and a tiny bedroom.”
Young skilled professionals, Paul and his heavily-pregnant girlfriend are the pandas of London’s housing market: the ones every politician coos over, while fretting that without a major intervention they may soon die out in the capital. “David Cameron’s dream” is how Paul ironically refers to himself. Matt Bell at Berkeley argues that the real gap in the London market is starter homes for young professionals on £30-40,000 a year. But Woodberry Park isn’t going to fill that hole: a one-bed flat there can go for up to £400,000 – and no lender currently offers mortgages worth 12-times salary.
Paul has a mental map of the London he can afford: it comprises only the edges and even they keep shrinking as prices “gallop away”. At the moment the budget just about stretches to a home in Walthamstow, on the northern periphery of London – but he reckons that once the baby comes and the family’s settled down: “It will probably be too expensive, so we’ll be looking for the next place out of London, which is … I don’t even know.
“My eventual dream is to live in Italy: your lovely little house in Tuscany, doing web design, eating Italian food all day. But if I’m honest, the reality is I’ll end up moving miles out of London, paying exorbitant train fares, desperately scrambling to find a nice school for the kids.”
Paul leases his flat from a Singaporean investor who he’s never met: “All of my neighbours rent from foreign absentee landlords."
This fits the picture drawn in the property pages of the British press, which often depict would-be London housebuyers as battling an army of invisible competitors: Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheikhs and, at the other end of the market, anxious Greek professionals and Asian nuclear families. Yet the forces that have driven Singaporeans over here are rarely spelt out. Let us try.
From the Land Registry records, we see that Paul’s landlord lives near Changi airport in an ochre public housing block, in an area carpeted with other public blocks. No shame there: about 85% of all Singaporeans live in Housing and Development Board quarters, or HDBs for short. In the wealthy entrepot, interest rates are also bumping around record-low levels and property prices have taken off.
The big difference is that since 2009, Singapore’s government has chucked bucket after bucket of cold water onto the overheating housing market. It’s clamped down on loans, jacked up stamp duty, punished people who sell property they’ve bought only recently – and levied punitive taxes on foreigners buying homes. In short, almost every policy urged on David Cameron over the past few years – and left unwrapped – has been deployed by Lee Hsien Loong. The message is simple: Singapore doesn’t welcome property speculation. But the island’s dentists and middle managers and other cautious savers are welcomed by the overseas agents of Berkeley and its competitors, offering rental units in the no-questions-asked capital of the world.
This new market has brought with it a new speculative architecture, says Duncan Bowie, now at the University of Westminster. Developers are responding to the demands of investors wanting one- or two-bed flats to rent out, rather than family homes to live in. That produces an odd Animal Farm-ish logic: “Council high-rises are bad; private high-rises apparently good.”
A few weeks before we went to press, Paul and his girlfriend became parents to Zara: brown hair, blue eyes and 3.3kg at birth. Around the same time, their landlord sold the flat, apparently to a cash buyer from Germany. Paul and family have found another apartment in the same development. All’s fine now, he reports, but it was a lot of stress at the time.
UrchinsEvery building worth a damn sets in concrete (or glass or Jura limestone) the social tensions of its age. As Herbert Morrison was dreaming up Woodberry Down, the fundamental argument was over the rights that should be afforded the only recently enfranchised working class. On hearing the MP’s plans to stick municipal housing on their doorstep, one Stoke Newington resident objected to “all these urchins from the East End coming round my drinking water”. Nimbyism was evidently more plainspoken in 1936.
By the estate’s completion in 1948, the argument had been won. Britain was entering its high-point as an economic democracy, with electricity, rail, even the Bank of England put into public hands. Woodberry Down was part of that: a physical assertion that the capital belonged to its working classes as much as to anyone else.
Contrast that with the era embodied by Woodberry Park. The rebuild comes after 30 years in which our major public assets – water, gas, council housing – have been sold dirt-cheap, to end up in the hands of a small elite.
More and more parts of London, too, are off limits to Londoners.
Think of those unaffordable super-rich islands; the privately-owned finance tracts such as Canary Wharf; the gated communities. Listen to the constant uptick of house prices, that metronome for commuters in the capital. Most blatantly, there is the coalition’s cap on housing benefit, which will expunge the inner city of its privately-renting poor.
Woodberry Park is part of this new culture. Houses as speculative assets, not homes. Houses as speculative assets, not homes. Paul will tell you of the human fallout. Financial viability trumping desperate need? Speak to Gina.
Woodberry Down’s residents were initially told that this rebuilding was for them. A few years on, it isn’t working out like that. Veronica and other leaseholders have been hoisted off; social housing on the site will plunge; remaining tenants will have higher outgoings and less green space.
Park any cynicism you may have about big builders and accept for a moment that this is a textbook example of public-private regeneration. Then look at the stories above and ask if the textbook doesn’t need major revision.
The tourIn the same spot that Naoufal Dhimi pulled up in his SUV weeks earlier, eight people bundle out of a minivan, to be greeted by Emma – a smiling representative from Berkeley Homes. She leads them into a room with a large model of Woodberry Park at the centre. The famous resident survey booklet is handed out.
The visitors are from Brixton, south London, sent here by Lambeth council to draw lessons for their own regeneration.
“Woodberry Down is very much a partnership,” says Emma. “It’s not just: ‘Hi we’re Berkeley, we’re going to knock everything down, build and see you later’.” She lists the community assets, including a primary school, a health centre and a church that have all existed on the estate for decades. But when a guest asks about the project’s financing, they’re stonewalled: “In money terms, I couldn’t answer.”
Now comes the grand tour. Pulling out notebooks, the visitors spill out into the sunshine, ready to be inspired.
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