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London, England

24.08.2018

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

South of the river, near a basement flat in Vauxhall where freshly-painted townhouses and local authority flats face off at the end, Fentiman Road traces a straight line to South Lambeth Road and on to Brixton.

 

At the top, along the iron railings of Vauxhall Park, St George Wharf Tower looms over the scene - Mordor-like, though it is some distance away - containing 214 apartments sold at prices ranging from £580,000 to £51m.  The tower is the tallest residential building in the United Kingdom, and the eighth-tallest of any kind. Most of the apartments inside are foreign-owned and it contains no affordable housing; a scheme approved by the former Labour deputy prime minister, John Prescott.

Opposite the gates of the park, commuters from Hampshire and Surrey pass over railway bridges snaking towards the terminus at Waterloo through residential towers sprouting up around Vauxhall and Nine Elms. The development is intended mainly for investors, as price and rent inflation continue to outstrip the reward from other economic activity.

London sits at the centre of a global financial network nominally housed in the City to the north over Blackfriars bridge, but its role in shaping the lives of ordinary people extends past the borders of the Square Mile. The City’s low taxes and capital flows have turbocharged developer-led construction and estate regeneration schemes, while Right to Buy and a ban on council borrowing create a dearth of council housing. Subsidising private leases contributed to rising rents that have dispersed the poor to towns as far away as Bradford and Hastings.

At the corner, a grand pile houses an importer of granite with sheets of the stuff, stacked neatly in the yard. The entrance looks out at a new Keybridge development which, according to the hoarding, promises to deliver “stylish” apartments to Lambeth. The design of the buildings make a concession to the surrounding architecture; two blocks set at an angle, inlaid with red brick and a pitched roof.

A Holiday Inn faces low-rise local authority buildings with a sombre appearance, arranged contiguously. Shopkeepers trading on the street are mostly Portuguese, trading in spaces supplied by a handsome set of Edwardian buildings not unlike the Iveagh Trust in Dublin, though more ornate in decoration.

Portuguese migration from the 1960s is in evidence, with little rows of restaurants, shops and cafes lining the street from Vauxhall to Stockwell. However, “the future of this community is uncertain. Hoardings that read 'move up in the world' and '#VauxhallVibes' line this stretch of road, promising an aspirational lifestyle inaccessible to most who already live here.” Many of the older migrants voted for Brexit, perhaps to stem the tide of escapees from the Eurozone crisis.

 

The streets off South Lambeth Road show evidence of wartime bombing with squat, plain builds set amidst the three-storey Victorian terraces that complete the jagged rooflines. The Co-operative sits adjacent to The Canton Arms, which frames the entrance to Alderbert Terrace where Sir Roger Moore was born in 1927. It is a handsome street of old houses, traffic-calming islands and a cycle path. A sign reads that it is a “protected community”, like a nod to its surroundings but also like a pearl-clutching wince, next to the varnished tables and unshuttered windows of the nearby pub.

 

Further down the road, ex-local authority housing takes on the appearance of square heads sticking up through scarf-like balustrades; wrapped around them at angles. Across the street are subdivided terraces which are not loved, like Alderbert, but faded and for rent. A huge Baptist church looms up to the right, temple-like; fronted by Corinthian columns wearing a banner that promises the grace of God, but only at 10.30am on Sundays.

View of South Lambeth Road to the north

Photo credit: David Murphy

Not far from Stockwell Bus Garage a small parade of Georgian houses are set back from the road. Their boundary is marked by low, plain cast-iron fencing with two of the houses overgrown with creeper. All still have lawns, rather than a space for parking. Londoners have been admonished by city authorities for paving over gardens at breakneck speed, a practice that will lead to more flooding in the city as it grows to accommodate 11 million by 2050, from the current all-time high of 8.8 million.

 

At the Stockwell War Memorial, poppy wreaths sit in the doorway and are arranged with plastic petals bleached pale by the London summer. The note attached reads that they were assembled in Edinburgh by disabled ex-service personnel. Built over the last sliver of the old common at the junction between Clapham High Street and the Stockwell Road, the memorial stands alongside a deep-level shelter built for the Second World War painted with murals dedicated to local historical figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in the area for six months.

The sound from the tannoy at Stockwell Underground can be heard across the road at The Swan - an ancient, once infamous coach-house - playing an announcement about safety and vigilance. Outside, the wall bears an image of Jean Charles de Menezes who was shot dead by London Metropolitan Police in 2005, two weeks after the London bombings of July 7.  He had been wrongly deemed to be a fugitive in further bombing attempts, made the day before.

 

The entrance to Stockwell Road is marked by Stockwell Gardens Estate and the brick walls of Cassell and Acland House are dotted with defunct satellite dishes. The residents are elderly and appear to be West Indian immigrants of the Windrush era, arriving from the Caribbean after 1948 in response to post-War labour shortages. About 500,000 came from the Commonwealth before the Immigration Act of 1971 cut ties to those countries in anticipation of membership to the European Economic Community.  Children who arrived on their parents’ passports often never left the country in the intervening years, and would fall foul of the “hostile environment” policy championed by then Home Secretary Theresa May and her successors. The policy sought to exclude those without documentation from work, medical treatment or even the right to stay.

 

The Plough nearby stands empty, though it had been a famous live jazz venue. The building on the site was designed in 1930s by Arthur Sewell for Truman’s Brewery who also designed the Duke of Edinburgh in Brixton.  Nearby a modern, gated apartment complex sits across from an old, small terrace along the curve of the road where I once attended a party. The host was a civil servant at the Department of Work and Pensions and expressed discomfort at the defensive architecture in his new home. 

Mosaic at Stockwell station

Photo credit: David Murphy

Sitting back off the road, Birrell House is an 18-storey block of flats managed by Hyde Housing, who want to build on the site. The issue was highlighted by Kate Hoey, Member of Parliament for Vauxhall, who described it as the “wrong place,” with “residents who have lived there for many years [losing] all sorts of facilities.” Hyde had taken over management of the estate on behalf of Lambeth Council during a competitive tendering process but, according to Hoey, its board had become “incredibly corporate” and is “using the community centres as assets” while they “no longer [seem] to be interested in the residents and tenants, particularly the longer-term ones.”

 

Beside the Waltham Estate lies the first green space in perhaps more than a mile, though there are no plants or shrubs. Most of the people here are old, with the younger women dressed hijab and the men in spotless white robes, guiding children along the narrow paths through a maze of bins, pillars, bikes and street furniture. Families walk in columns without concession to passers-by.

The pollution is now visible and I sneeze several times while passing The Queen’s Head. A woman dressed hijab lowers her head and raises her hand to her face, as I turn around to get my bearings. I realised I may have looked as if I were walking towards her, and it is not hard to imagine why she has reason to respond so fearfully, given the record number of anti-Muslim attacks reported in the United Kingdom last year.

 

Network Homes are developing the site on the corner of Rumsey Road and, this time, the hoardings outside promise the flats for sale will be “contemporary”.  The affordability of homes is never mentioned on the hoarding of new developments along South Lambeth and Stockwell Road, apparently not being as significant a virtue for buyers as being contemporary, or stylish.

 

The road splits at the top with Stockwell Avenue where cyclists are given priority; they speed up as they exit the turn into the quiet road towards Brixton. On the other side the Goodwood Mansions offer a row of shopfronts containing cheap cafes, hair salons and other businesses, advertised with brightly-coloured, plastic signage. The properties above all have new, double-glazed windows with one of the two-bedroom maisonettes for sale for offers over £400,000. At the end of the row, Brixton Academy is hosting Kasabian at the weekend; only one reason that Londoners descend on Brixton, its pubs, clubs, shows and other late-night entertainments.

Further up, between Brixton Underground and Coldharbour Lane, lies a section of pathway where people amble anarchically with shopping trolleys, suitcases, children, pushing wheelchairs, leaning on walking sticks, queuing for buses, old and young; half in a hurry for a train or a bus, the other half in a trance. Traders carry goods past people begging for food, as several children throw tantrums simultaneously at being denied the cost of a snack, to the soundtrack of steel drums played from outside the station entrance.

Housing in Tulse Hill

Photo credit: David Murphy

4-mile marker at Windrush Square

Photo credit: David Murphy

The cinema faces out onto a redesigned plaza and sits next to a library named for Sir Henry Tate, whose bust adorns a plinth outside. Acre Lane, Brixton Hill and Effra Road all border the junction at Windrush Square, where you can find the Black Cultural Archives. Behind the library lies Rushcroft Road and its mansion flats where up to 75 people – many of them elderly - were forcibly evicted in July 2013 from six blocks along the road. The eviction represented the end of a two-year effort by Lambeth Council to clear the way for the redevelopment of the site.

 

In the busy shopping streets around the covered markets bought recently by Hondo Enterprises, I meet Betiel Mehari who is a campaigner for genuinely affordable housing and a Southwark Council Green Party candidate.  She is a single mother of two children and lives on Kennington Park Road - at the other side of Fentiman - but was the last holdout of the now-demolished  Loughborough Park Estate.  Site owners The Guinness Partnership wanted residents to make way for a redevelopment offering nearly 180 fewer socially rented flats - according to Brixton Buzz - with most rented for at least at 80% of the market price; an arrangement more commonly known as affordable rent.

 

“Our demands were to be rehoused by Guinness," she says, "and to be rehoused locally but they had no obligation to do it; it was an assured shorthold tenancy." Letters came saying she wouldn’t be rehoused, then court cases and bailiffs followed. “There was no impact assessment made,” she said. “Some of the people were there for fourteen years; I was there eleven years. There was a game played by Lambeth and Guinness." 

 

"Lambeth [Council] said if you leave, you’re intentionally homeless before they demolished the building, but they knew it was insecure so we were basically living in limbo for many years until either decided who had the obligation to rehouse.”

Betiel was only one of two be rehoused locally, saying that "most people are not aware that the local act of 2014 doesn't apply anymore, and that they have absolutely no obligation to rehouse you locally. One of the families went to Manchester with their four children."

 

“The people that were displaced," she says, "they got 'affordable rent', which is eighty percent on a market rate. So even if you’re not physically removing people, when people realise they can’t afford to stay in the local area they will have to make a move, so it’s a tool of social cleansing.”

In the last decade the number of middle-aged renters nationwide has doubled, along with total rents paid by tenants in Britain, with a quarter of UK households predicted to rent privately by 2021. This has led to efforts to address rent inflation and housing insecurity such as compulsory three-year leases and help with deposits though it will not be available until 2019.  None of these measures however begin to address the key problem facing you if you are not in possession of a freehold.

It is our relationship to the land that is the salient issue, more so than the visible intersections of race and inequality. The value of land as a commodity – rather than the buildings – is the determinant of cost, but it is also fictitious. As land costs nothing to produce, its enclosure - when not determined by the needs of the community - is an accounting scam. Made to compete for resources with people in possession of a wealth transfer - or investors speculating on assets - communities are not in a competition that is fair, nor are they meant to be.

 

Brixton is one of the best documented sites of protest and reaction but the same problem exists in rural and urban settings, suburban estates and great metropolises. As the cultural capital of black Britain, the loss of Brixton to avarice would be felt more widely than that of a less-storied place which suffers a similar fate; either should be no less significant to anyone who rents in Britain today.

Entrance to Brockwell Park, London

Photo credit: David Murphy

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