As the capital basked in the hottest February on record, Lewisham council passed a motion declaring a "climate emergency". Introducing the motion, Councillor Tauseef Answar said, "We are the first generation to realise [the effects of climate change]… and we are the last to be able to do something about it. It is time to panic." Quite right. So it's a good job that dozens of mature trees were annihilated as part of a regeneration scheme a few hours before panic stations were declared, to avoid any embarrassment.
On the 27th of February, the buzzing of an early London spring carried across the air in Deptford, south London, but this wasn't the gentle thrum of slightly confused wildlife awaking from their winter slumbers. Not far from the idling engines of an endless stream of lorries, buses and vans on the illegally polluted New Cross Road, you could hear the roar of chainsaws laying waste to Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, a much loved nature garden.
"It was the most stunning place. Everyone that went in there went [gasps], 'Oh my god, I didn't realise it was so big and so beautiful," visually impaired resident of 24 years, Heather Gilmore, told me. "It's one of the few places we had left that wasn't monetised." And there it was, being ripped down by a contractor under the watchful eye of a private security firm. The police were standing by, as a few protesters had scaled some trees to get a better look at the destruction.
"Something happened to people when they came in that garden. There were never any rows. Everyone just seemed, as soon as they walked in, to take a really deep breath," said Gilmore, before our conversation was interrupted by the sound of a chainsaw ripping into another tree.
The garden – which was part of a former school, and turned into a public space by the local community – has been described by local writer Andy Worthington as "a wonderful space formed of three concentric circles around a small island surrounded by ponds, with two small amphitheatre areas and a profusion of trees including two magnificent bean trees".
Those magnificent bean trees have now been chopped up into not-so-magnificent pieces, all so London can have another of those magnificent new residential developments we’ve all been enjoying so much. This one is ostensibly better than usual, as it's being created by Peabody, a social landlord – albeit one that has been criticised for behaving like a big business – in conjunction with developer Sherrygreen Homes and the Mulalley construction company.
You might think that in a city where the air we breathe is so polluted that it's: a) at illegal levels, and b)deadly, local government would value its green spaces. In fact, it does – just not enough to actually preserve them. The garden is included in a report for the GLA's Greener Cities Fund, with a foreword by Mayor Sadiq Khan committing to "make more than 50 percent of London green by 2050". Despite this promise, the Mayor failed to stop the development of Tidemill in June of last year.
As more branches fell out of sight, behind the hoardings surrounding the site, Andrea Carey from Deptford Neighbourhood Action said over a megaphone: "This is a declaration of war on this community."
In truth, the war has been raging for some time now. In October, a protest-occupation was violently evicted in an operation that cost a massive £105,000. Following the eviction, a 24-hour security operation was put in place, complete with guard dogs. One resident described an "atmosphere of intimidation".
This security was provided by County Enforcement, before it was pointed out that the company's CEO, Peter Mooney, boasts that he "personally" served the injunctions that ended both the miners' strike and the Wapping printers' dispute – two landmark defeats for the British labour movement. When the Labour-run council was alerted to this, County Enforcement was dropped as they "did not fit with Lewisham’s values", ending a 20-year relationship with the firm.
The council has since hired a new company to secure this exercise in gentrification in a way that better fits with their values. Residents are unsure who they actually work for, though. As the chainsaws buzzed, I approached two security guards to ask who they were employed by. One said, "I don’t know," while the other said "Lewisham council". I asked Lewisham council, but they wouldn’t tell me. What we do know is that the entire security operation cost an eye-watering £1.4 million. This is a council that has recently completed a "democracy review" to make the council "even more democratic, open and transparent".
The council claims that that the development will eventually contain 11 more trees than there currently are on the site, which might be more comforting if climate change wasn’t at the "emergency" stage that Lewisham council now recognises it as. Also, many of those trees will be in residents-only private gardens. To compensate for the loss of the public Tidemill garden, a small scrap of land next to a roundabout will be designated as a "pocket garden" – which is a cutesy way of saying "very small" – as well as another small strip of a public park.
Justifying the scheme, councillor Joe Dromey – one of Labour’s "Red Princes", son of former minister Harriet Harman – calls the scheme "the biggest increase in social housing we’ve seen in a generation". The new site will have 104 more of what the council is calling "social homes". These will in fact be available at "London Affordable Rent". While this is considerably lower than the market rate, a blog from the local Crossfields estate discovered, via a friendly councillor, that the rent could be £3,000 more per year for a two-bed flat than council rent. That’s before you get to the 51 homes to be sold at the astronomical market rate, and 38 homes for the scam that is shared ownership.
All of this is predicated on the demolition of the existing council flats of Reginald House, whose residents do not want to move. Diann Gerson, who lives in the block, says she will have to be dragged "kicking and screaming" out of her house. "We’re like a family – it sounds so crass, but it’s a fact. We look out for each other," says Gerson. "What they’re going to do to this block is literally tearing down a community."
The council insists that it has consulted residents until blue in the face. Gerson says the community has "gone through hell". She remembers that a petition to save the block, which she collected after first hearing of the redevelopment ten years ago, was lost by the council. That was followed by what she sees as the managed decline of the blocks. A list of simple questions she sent in August of 2018 went unanswered. These include a guarantee that the rent in their new homes will not be higher and that residents will receive like-for-like replacements of their homes. A grandmother of five, Gerson remains worried about being moved from her two-bed into a one-bedroom flat. "That would just totally kill my life and my lifestyle… if you come here any Friday or Saturday, there’s kids here staying with nan," she says.
In October, with her arm in a sling because of a fractured shoulder, she was knocked to the floor by a bailiff as she stood by her house during the eviction of the occupation. Complaint emails to councillors went nowhere in particular. In January, the council’s regeneration and project officer sent an email saying that she would be popping round to check Gerson’s ID and residency documents, signing off "Hope your well" [sic].
Lewisham’s swollen housing waiting list certainly needs dealing with, and the community have insisted they are not against all development. Right up until two days before the trees were cut down, Carey was pleading with the council to consider an alternative plan which would have built new housing while saving the garden. The council have poured cold water on it, and instead went the way of anonymous security firms and guard dogs.
Councillor Paul Bell, Lewisham’s cabinet Member for Housing, says, "For every day there is a delay to this scheme, an individual or family has to wait another day for a secure, permanent home of their own. We need to start building these social homes local people so vitally need." It’s implied that objections by the local community to save their area are getting in the way of solving the housing crisis, which is a bit rich considering the numerous gentrification schemes taking place with the council’s support across the borough.
It is hard not to conclude that the council is using the housing crisis to justify gentrification, and planting some trees to justify dispossessing residents of their right to communal space.
As the trees came crashing down, perhaps taking with them some wildlife emerging early from hibernation in the unseasonal heat, I couldn’t help but think that climate change and gentrification are the products of a system comprising millions of relatively small decisions, such as the one to bring the chainsaws to this community.
As such decisions are made, a city – and a planet – slowly become more hostile places to live.