Tucked away in the north London borough of Barnet, a community has revolutionised itself. As housing campaigns have sprung up across the capital, the families of the Sweets Way estate have fought back against the so-called ‘regeneration’ of their estate. The residents have taken on the local council and private developers and maintained a long-running housing occupation at the heart of their struggle.
I first heard about Sweets Way in mid-February, when someone tweeted about the mass evictions at the former Ministry of Defence barracks, to make way for the first phase of a private ‘redevelopment.’ Shortly after, I cycled up to Barnet to meet a few housing activists from Barnet Housing Action, and the dozen or so families left on the estate, following the initial purge.
The atmosphere was tense, with some expecting bailiffs that morning. Images of lives thrown into chaos were scattered across the extensive green spaces of Sweets Way. Clothing, broken furniture and children’s toys provided glimpses of the people who’d been evicted. Tears flowed freely, as families met in the common areas that cold February morning, preparing for their community to be wrenched apart by the forces of the free market.
A few of us shared stories from the Focus E15, New Era estate and Our West Hendon housing campaigns with those gathered. An hour later, families were pushing their ways through security into the Barnet Homes offices across the road – including kids home from school for half-term. The residents began blockading the front door. Everyone there managed to secure meetings with senior staff at Barnet Homes that afternoon, and less than three weeks and two cramped living room gatherings later, we were occupying number 60 Sweets Way.
Since then the newly-formed Sweets Way Resists has organised in a variety of ways. Central is ‘radical casework’. Families and supporters actively advocate for each other in meetings and engagements with Barnet Council, inspired by Focus E15 in Newham and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth.
Media campaigning has become crucial. Carrying out stunts and public actions to draw attention to the social cleansing of Sweets Way, Barnet and London as a whole, targeting both Barnet council and the private developers of the estate, Annington Properties. Residents also spend time raising awareness among the local community, running a weekly street stall inspired by the Focus E15 campaign.
Running alongside all of this, we have maintained an occupation of one of the homes. This has allowed residents to keep a community house where families and supporters come and go. It also demonstrates the quality of houses slated for demolition in the development plans, while using the space to organise events and actions.
A lot has been achieved in a very short time – from getting individual families rehoused in better accommodation and garnering extensive media coverage of the issues, to forcing those responsible for the situation into the public spotlight, and inspiring the emergence of other housing campaigns.
The attacks on families have been devastating at times, with council and developer intimidation bringing people close to breaking point. However, we have supported one another practically and emotionally through these traumas, and become collectively and individually stronger.
The response to the recent election is an example of Sweets Way’s collective strength. After waking up on 8 May to a torrent of despair on Facebook and Twitter, I went to the occupied community house for the seventh birthday of Daniel, a child recently evicted from the estate. The absence of any real concern about the election was noticeable. There was a magician, karaoke, discussion of campaign tactics, parents, kids, occupation rotas, and cake, but not a lot of talk about ‘politics’ per se.
A few references were made to ‘Tory bastards’, but the mood was so much cheerier than Facebook. Of course, people know the fight ahead will be monumentally hard, but at Sweets Way we have been creating our own power. It emerged in spite of politicians, and will continue to grow without them.
This is the Sweets Way revolution. It is knowing that democracy is not about which posh white men sit in public office, but about what we do to shape our lives together in the places where we live. You’re always welcome to join.
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The redevelopment of a London council estate has led to the loss of a mature ‘urban forest’ - as well as hundreds of rented homes. Photos and text by Matthew Benjamin Coleman.
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