The Aylesbury estate: the latest front in the battle against social cleansing

Morgan Meaker speaks to residents and campaigners fighting the London estate's demolition

February 16, 2015
6 min read

aylesbury-estateThe Aylesbury estate stands resolutely at South London’s frontier. A sprawling mass of monumental concrete blocks, it was home to 7,500 residents – the size of a small town. For years, the estate has been vilified and painted as the black hole of London, sucking in unsavoury types to create a crime-riddled nightmare of poverty.

But the stereotype of the ‘sink estate’ – or ‘hell’s waiting room’ – is fuelled by an outsider perspective. On the eighth floor lives Aysen Dennis, a council tenant. She’s lived here for 22 years. ‘I love it here,’ she says. ‘I feel safe.’ Out of her window, South London stretches for miles. Aysen paints a utopian picture of summers on the estate, with children playing and women sat on the balconies, dying each other’s hair. ‘It’s peaceful.’

But a demolition date is looming – developers are moving in, spurred on by the local council, who are set on ‘regeneration’. Residents are being moved off the estate, block by block, split up and re-homed all over the country. The plan is part of a wider project to ‘transform’ the area surrounding Elephant and Castle – an area in the London borough of Southwark, just minutes from Waterloo.

The meaning of home

Faced with the prospect of losing their homes, residents are reacting in a way that contradicts the estate’s bad press. They want to stay. In 2001, 73 per cent of residents voted in a ballot to remain Southwark council tenants. But in spite of this, the regeneration contract was awarded to Notting Hill Housing association (NHH) who will act as landlord in the new development.

NHH has tried to soothe fears with the assurance that 50 per cent of the new development will be ‘affordable’ housing, but affordable for who? Nick Gallent, head of the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL, believes ‘affordable housing is a regularly abused concept. Housing is often said to be “affordable” when it is in fact only affordable to households with relatively high incomes.’

NHH spokesperson Nathalie Websdale says 37.5 per cent of the replacement development ‘will be at target rent, which is similar to council rents for newly built properties’. But Aysen doesn’t want to be a housing association tenant. Her rent would rise and she says she would feel much less secure: ‘With the council, if your benefit hasn’t come through in time you can always negotiate.’ She says she’s heard of people who have moved to housing associations and have now been evicted. ‘You can’t have pets or put things on the walls. They don’t understand the meaning of home.’

Residents are being moved off the estate, block by block, split up and re-homed all over the country

Campaigning residents recently won the support of housing activists who broke away from the March for Homes on 31 January and began occupying empty flats in the Chartridge block. They’ve been there ever since. Occupiers’ spokesperson Alex Scott said: ‘Our aim is to halt the demolition of the estate, and make sure that the desires of the residents are respected. That is: refurbishment not demolition.’

Notting Hill housing dismisses the occupiers: ‘These squatters do not represent the residents of the Aylesbury estate.’ But Aysen is keen to state that’s not the case: ‘I am very involved in the occupation.’ She says other residents are supportive too.

Scott said: ‘No one is doing this because of a personal need for housing. This is a political action.’ However it’s clear some are interested in the movement because they’re struggling to survive in London’s unforgiving housing market. When I visit one of the occupation’s daily meetings, I sit next to a ruffled blonde child. His mother is very young but looks worried as she tells the room she’s about to be evicted. She’s come to have a look at the Aylesbury occupation – she hopes she can live here with her son.

Destroying flats

What’s happening at the Aylesbury is an echo of what has happened all over London: low income residents are driven out to make way for more expensive flats. The term ‘social cleansing’ ricochets around the meeting room. In response to the occupation, the council have been destroying and boarding up flats on the estate.

It comes at a time when there are 18,000 people on the waiting list for council housing in Southwark. Charity Shelter found that house prices in the borough have risen 59 per cent in the last three years, rents have gone up 14 per cent in the same period and the sharp rise has left 848 families homeless.

But hope for Aylesbury residents stems from recent victories elsewhere. When the New Era Estate in East London was bought by an American property developer, fears of rent increases sparked a high-profile campaign and eventually the estate was sold again, to an affordable housing group.

Southwark council did not respond to request for comment but in the past it has said the estate is ‘beyond repair’ and they could not afford to renovate it. In 2005, they estimated that refurbishment with ‘visible improvements’ would cost £221m. Aysen believes this decision is political. Nearby estate the Heygate was demolished under similar circumstances even though architecture firm Gensler found that renovating the estate would actually cost £17m less than Southwark spent on emptying the flats.

Notting Hill Housing’s vision for the new development is ‘mixed tenure’: home to people with a range of incomes. Think tank Localis published a paper advocating mixed communities, saying they ‘incentivised people into employment instead of leaving them in welfare ghettos’. And Jan Luba QC, who led an investigation into the future of Southwark’s council housing, said many believe this is ‘the only way’ to finance the demand for social housing on redeveloped estates.

But does mixing people up like this work? Many developers don’t seem to think so, and so we’ve seen the phenomenon of ‘poor doors‘ appear in the capital: separate entrances for people with low incomes. Aysen worries this kind of covert discrimination could reappear at the Aylesbury site but she also doesn’t believe mixed tenure can work. ‘Why should I live with people I share nothing with? Here neighbours support each other but we can’t do that with rich yuppies.’

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