Fenced off towers. Residents locked out of their own homes. Homeowners paying £15,000 on council-ordered repairs, only to be told their home is going to be flattened. Living in the areas of London earmarked for "regeneration" can sometimes feel more like a warzone than life in Zone 2.
South London's Aylesbury Estate – a concrete complex of 2,704 homes located between Elephant & Castle and Camberwell – is the next neighbourhood to be destroyed by the ongoing gentrification of the capital. Residents here say they feel like they're living in a disputed territory in the Gaza Strip; in reality, they simply have the misfortune of living on some of the most valuable land in Europe. In some parts of the estate, whole blocks are boarded up. Elsewhere, residents remain in clean, safe spaces that they own. But this is only temporary: the entire estate is set to face the bulldozers.
Last month, 60-year-old David Bailey paid off the final mortgage payment on his two bed-flat, having lived there for 45 years. It should have been a moment to savour; instead, it was overshadowed by the arrival of redevelopment letters from the local Labour council.
David's son, 30-year-old David junior, says, "I call it legal theft. We watched it with the [nearby] Heygate [estate] and we can see it coming down the street. Every day I walk past the rubble of where my best friend used to live, and it's like looking at a headstone. My parents are both pensioners and they have spent their whole life paying for the mortgage for this house. Now the council come along and want to take it."
Aylesbury residents have been offered compensation payments for moving out, but they're way below the asking prices of nearby properties. Mr Bailey has been offered £230,000 for his Zone 2, two-bed flat with garden and garage. A five minute walk away, in Camberwell, there are multiple flats with the same specs listed on RightMove; the cheapest is £320,000, the most expensive £805,000. Homeowners on the Aylesbury Estate were offered their own independent valuation, with the council giving them a suggested list of valuers to choose from. However, a FOIA request by one resident showed the suggested valuers were actually employed by the council.
The word "regeneration" has been given new meaning since the Grenfell Tower fire of last week. There, "regeneration" didn't mean addressing the safety concerns residents had lodged repeatedly about fire risks; it meant fitting cladding to the outside of the building – cladding which has been widely blamed for the rapid spreading of the fire – to "improve the aesthetics" of the block.
The regeneration of the Heygate Estate, just down the road from the Aylesbury, was supposed to serve the local community, with developers promising social housing and a "community feel". Instead, many tenants were forcibly evicted from their homes, compensated at less than 40 percent of their flats' market value, and the first batch of new flats built there have been sold to offshore investors.
Aylesbury Estate residents have seen what's happened to their neighbours and know what's coming next.
At the sharp end of the development, residents of the Bradenham, Chartridge, Chiltern and Arklow blocks now live behind security gates. They aren't allowed a key to get into their own building, instead relying on a security guard to let them in. One resident described an occasion when the guard fell asleep, leaving them stranded outside and vulnerable at 3AM.
As the block has been emptied of social tenants, homeowners claim they have often been left without electricity, functioning lifts and even a working postal address, as Royal Mail temporarily couldn't get access. This meant banks froze some of their debit cards. Rough sleepers began forcing their way into abandoned units until guard dogs were used to keep order.
Chartridge leaseholder Judi Bos has a theory about the gradual deterioration of the estate that preceded its planned regeneration. "The council have 100 percent let it run into disrepair to suit their own ends," she claimed. "When I first moved in, in 2000, it was a beautiful place to live. My balcony overlooks Burgess Park, my kids played on safe walkways outside with the neighbours. Now, it's a mugger's paradise."
Southwark Council has consistently ignored its own reports. In 2003, Aylesbury residents were asked if they would prefer regeneration or refurbishment – from a high turnout, over 70 percent said they preferred refurbishment. Southwark promised them that "the funding required to bring maximum benefit to the whole estate can be realistically achieved".
Two years later, an independent tender through architects Levitt Bernstein produced glossy plans for refurbishment for Phase 1 of the development, priced at £33 million. Southwark Council instead stated that refurbishment – suddenly at £315 million-plus for the whole development – was too costly, and instead pursued a rebuild proposal with Notting Hill Housing with a net loss of at least 1,000 social housing homes. Southwark Council's own report in 2015, carried out by by the council's Principal Design and Technical officer Catherine Bates, said, "The condition of the buildings on the estate does not, itself, present a case for demolition and redevelopment."
In echoes of the disastrous Grenfell refurbishment, the estate's principle crime – aside from being old – was a grey exterior "at odds with the surrounding environment".
Jane Rendell, Professor of Architecture at UCL, insists the council overshot their refurbishment quote by almost £150 million. She added, "While much legal aid has been withdrawn, Southwark Council have access to a team of trained lawyers. Is it in the public interest to use public funding to pay for a legal team whose work is focused on dispossessing people of their homes who bought them in good faith?"
Southwark Council has stated the Aylesbury Estate is in "very poor condition" and that the shared heating system is "fundamentally flawed". Councillor Mark Williams told VICE his council spent £4.5 million on repairs two years ago. He added, "The estate is designed around cars rather than people, which makes it an impersonal place and a real 'blocker' on the area. [The redevelopment is] about replacing poor, substandard housing with modern, high quality homes, but also mixed neighbourhoods and mixed communities living side by side."
Inside the "substandard" estate, in the Wolverton block, David Bailey, 60, sits in his spacious two-bedroom flat in quiet bliss. A private balcony overlooks a manicured lawn, where he feeds his fish in the pond that he and his son built together. In his retirement, David and wife Shirley, 60, watch green parakeets land on the washing line and the occasional kestrel fly overhead. The block's grey exterior itself looks weathered, but inside it's an idyll of community living. In a riposte to the "mixed communities" line, on Mr Bailey's block are Irish, Polish and Ghanian neighbours, all of whom are in paid work.
David senior says, "I love living here, I'm proud to live here. But my wife has been using a wheelchair since Christmas because of the stress. I don't sleep. You can't imagine what it's like to have your future taken away at my age."
Also in the Wolverton block, Stephen Ogbatse, 61, works nights as a driver to support his wife and five children. He says, "How dare they say my house is unfit? I have raised five children here – the eldest four of them are at university. We eat, sleep and live here happily. This council wants to make their millions off it and run off. I have to chase them all the time to get any information or a meeting. All they want to do is get permission to knock us down. Not a single council officer has been to see us."
Southwark Council's own literature states that all its leaseholders must be offered the market rate for their property. Yet they offered the Baileys only £170,000 two years ago for their flat, an offer later increased to £230,000. A two-bed flat, without a garden, in a nearby development would fetch north of £450,000. The council is offering all Aylesbury Estate residents shared ownership schemes, but David junior says, "Shared ownership means my parents, who are retired, will have to go back out to work again if they ever want to own the house."
Securing meetings with Southwark Council to discuss moves has proven hard for numerous residents. One homeowner with a young daughter found an alternative property he could move to, but he alleges it took so long – five months – to get a meeting with the council that he hired a solicitor to intervene. The move subsequently fell through. Southwark disputes this timeline, but they do admit they subsequently paid him the failed fees of his move.
Joy Nyack-Binns, 54 – who will leave her smart Wendover block flat with views across London – says the block has been condemned, yet her own independent survey showed there was no evidence of subsidence. She says, "The council don't take into account how difficult it is to get a mortgage at my age – where do I go next?"
Victoria Griben, 50, has owned a spacious, immaculate flat in nearby Taplow block for 15 years. She was billed over £15,000 for utility repairs to her building, which finished in 2014. Despite this personal investment the council wrote to her to say they wished to purchase her property for redevelopment.
A council spokesperson told us, "Generally – whilst Aylesbury regeneration is happening – some of the [buildings] will be standing for a few years yet and will be homes to people in the meantime. We have to maintain the buildings regardless of whether we are pulling the buildings down or not. Leaseholders have a lease which sets out that any costs associated with the works will be recharged to them."
In the meantime, Southwark has pushed on with demolition, seeking to secure compulsory purchase orders for many of the properties left in the way. By April of 2015, the council had spent £46.8 million demolishing just 112 homes – an estimated cost of £417,857 per dwelling, almost twice what they offered David Bailey for his flat. The council has spent £1.5 million alone trying to force through compulsory purchase orders for eight properties, a process temporarily halted after Secretary of State Sajid Javid ruled it affected tenants' human rights. This is now being appealed.
Still, councillors are very keen on the Aylesbury redevelopment – documents seen by VICE show that former Walworth councillor, Dan Garfield, bought a two-bed unit off plan from the first new site being built there. He later resigned from the council after being found guilty of assaulting his wife.
Victoria Griben recently went to view the site on which Garfield bought his flat. "I went to an open day for new flats at the development, and I was told unless I earned over £90,000 a year I would not be allowed to view [them]," she says. "I can't even view the new flats they want to build here."
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