Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Aylesbury Estate - utopia when?

I'm a local councillor for Faraday ward, in the London Borough of Southwark. The majority of my constituents live on one estate: the Aylesbury. The estate means many things to many people. To the outside world it’s symbol of decay, and the failure of every government policy you can care to think of – paternalism, social engineering, Thatcherism, New Labour, immigration, housing allocation policy, free markets, right to buy, social housing, brutalism, privatisation…. Everything. In my ward, in my community, the picture is more complex. It’s an estate that for many of the original residents brought hope and change, and a community that has endured – as well as the misery of a heating system that has, quite literally, never worked. There have been problems with drugs, violent crime and gangs, but there is still a profound solidarity – a diverse, tolerant and multicultural place.

And this complex picture has left the Aylesbury in limbo since the 1980s. Several failed regeneration plans have been started and halted. Money came, and money went. Different ideas were proposed, from refurbishment to transfer to complete annihilation, with dither and delay watching the physical fabric deteriorate still further. Even with an emergency injection of £4million over the last eighteen months, the heating still doesn’t work.

But now it’s actually coming down. The entire estate, from LGC blocks built to pre-war design, to the buildings finished in 1977, is coming down. Not in one go – no ghost town like the Heygate – but over a staged and managed 20 year period. A period that gives the majority of residents the right to remain on the footprint of the estate, and within the community to which they are attached, at council rents for tenants, and numerous deals for leaseholders. The best deals actually meaning that new homes bought in part by leaseholders will be ‘re-socialised’ when the home-owner moves on.

The replacement mix will be 50% private and 50% affordable – with over ¾ of the ‘affordable’ being at council rent. This does not represent a vast reduction in the number of homes at council terms available, due to a considerable increase in the number of homes on an inefficiently used and sprawling footprint.

The specifics of the regeneration are out there, and the excitement for and pride in the regeneration is one of the factors that resulted in the overwhelming Labour win here last year. There is much to be commended in it, and much which I and my fellow councillors both locally and in the cabinet have fought for. For one, the right to remain is at the top of the priority list.

But all of the above makes it sound like I think we’re building utopia. I don’t think we are. The entire regeneration is littered with compromises that I know are uncomfortable. I feel no pride that a housing association has to be engaged to execute our social housing responsibility. I feel no pride that the council has no resources – no money from central government – to execute this new vision on its own. I think the deal on the level of social housing is a good one, not because there’s enough, but because that’s the highest level that can be achieved to ensure the project pays its way. All of this is governed by factors beyond my control, and beyond the control of the Council.

So how do I level my support for our policy with my political conscience? How dare I think this and still call myself a socialist? Because I cannot justify the decrepit housing that exists on so many parts of the estate. I cannot look constituents in the eye when their floor has collapsed in their bathroom because of a leak we cannot identify, and say my principles mean that they’re lumped with it. I can’t watch leaks pour from holes in mouldy concrete walls into children’s bedrooms. I can’t argue with officers about asbestos investigations in one flat, knowing that the entire building may well be riddled with the stuff. I cannot and will not look at scores of people in community halls huddled around tiny radiators and say ‘Sod an indefinite period of no heating. Sod your electric bills while you heat your home with an electric heater. Sod you sleeping in halls with your baby because home isn’t warm enough. And elderly leaseholders, sold a dream by Thatcher – here’s another bill for £20,000 to pay a fair share of roofing costs which we know cannot totally fix those leaks. Nope, my left wing principles condemn you to leaky, damp and antiquated housing because it’s run by the council, and that’s always best.’ My principles don’t do that to people.

The estate cannot be refurbished. I'm not an engineer or a builder or an architect – but even I know that heating systems encased in concrete cannot be fixed. I cannot fight for something I know to be impossible.

Yet, over the past few weeks, the estate has been squatted by people who have said all of the above. They have said that the estate can be refurbished. They have said that it will be exclusively luxury flats. They have said that people there should sit tight and wait for a perfect utopian, council-run tomorrow, on a date that they cannot name. Because liberation comes in the struggle and shocking housing – despite millions of pounds and decades of heartache and toil – is part of that struggle.

The irony is that I want to talk to them. I want to explain the above. I know that most of them aren't local, and I know that many have not followed the ins and outs of every council policy that’s ever affected that estate. When residents have told me that they’re scum, playing loud music and keeping children awake, disturbing shift workers and intimidating residents – I've said that they have their heart in the right place. When I'm told how taxi-loads of ravers, plums spilling out of their mouths treat this proud community like an oversized nightclub, I point out that they’re the hangers-on, the opportunists and not the organisers. When residents tell me to make sure their banners and graffiti go immediately so they ‘don’t think they've won’ I ask them to reflect on the message. I know that many of those squatters believe that they are fighting for the interests of people not just on the Aylesbury, but across London and the UK.

And I want to talk to the squatters too; to tell them about my experiences of living here and representing this community. Why we've come to a good deal on social housing. That we know we’re not building utopia, but that we’re not pulling utopia down, either. That continuing as we are for an indefinite period is not just or reasonable – that promising utopia on a date we cannot identify isn't right or fair.

And I've tried to. Firstly in person, and each time they agreed to organise a meeting, but they never did. Was this because the initial activists I met were actually living in multi-million pound Georgian properties? Perhaps. Perhaps they were just part of the solidarity action. Fine. And the protesters who arrived at my colleague’s surgery to scream at a lone woman, who has lived in this community for her entire life? I said I would meet, they agreed in a comradely fashion. Then they walked out and screamed at me. Then there were people on Thurlow St, handing out fliers, who politely said it sounded great and then never followed it up. The two lone protesters at Council Assembly? Same.

When they didn't come to me, I went to them. I tweeted the protesters and offered to meet and exchange views. And what did I get? Demands, yes/no questions for which there aren't yes/no answers, and accusations that I was personally responsible for everything from dog patrols to pushing charges to the result of a ballot that happened when I was twelve. The Councillor who wants to hear their views (as I have heard the views of actual residents) is told in no uncertain terms where to shove it.

Even when it comes to the handling of the Council response to the protest, where I have said that I am happy to hold the Council to account over issues that they have, I've just received aggression. I can’t support statements made in 140 characters, life is more complicated than that. But I come from a tradition and a community that does not place uncompromising support in the police and those who use physical force. That’s why I want to meet, hear details of charges pressed and actions taken, and demand answers from council officers in response to informed concerns. But they won’t do that. ‘Call off the dogs’ is their cry. But I only know the reports that I get from officers as to the purpose and nature of the patrols. Of course, it sounds reasonable – and without any more details in a proper exchange, it’s going to continue to be so. And as long as they’re hurling abuse at and about council employees, and not just those engaged in directly resisting the occupation, I'm losing any political capital to show solidarity with them.

Worst of all, there is social cleansing going on in this city, this borough, and this ward. We need a strong coalition of all voices from the left to challenge it. I've always known that I’ll likely never say anything to change the minds of Aylesbury squatters about regeneration, but I can give plenty of examples of private landlords where we can all agree that action needs to be taken, and communities that really need them to stand with them. Will that be convenient for me personally to be allied with this peculiar band? No. But it’s the thing my conscience tells me to do, because I think that their principled voice has a place for residents.

But none of this is sexy enough, and none of it fits the narrative that there’s a nasty neo-liberal council out there, which speaks with one voice and is just doing the same thing as every other failed public body. It’s boringly managerial to try to influence real change, even though I don't see the conflict with doing that today as well as radical statements about tomorrow. As comments from those supportive of the occupation have shown (and, as I want to be kind, lots of the confused propaganda) many people showing solidarity haven’t a clue about what the policy on the Aylesbury actually is.

No matter how inconvenient it is for me personally, publicly or politically I try to follow my conscience. That’s why I’ll try to understand both sides of the occupation. That’s why I’ll hold the Council to account when I have the information. That’s why I don’t want unreasonable force being used on my doorstep against whoever, by whoever. That’s why the offer stands to talk about the regeneration. That’s why I’ll listen to residents first.

That’s why I support the Aylesbury regeneration.

But I'm not replying to any more tweets. My conscience doesn't allow me to let protesters, who are comrades of mine, look any more unreasonable.