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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

A West London Housing Estate Is Turning into a Real-Life JG Ballard Novel

Forcing the rich and the poor to co-exist rarely works.

by Gavin Haynes
29 October 2013, 2:45pm

Hayes has never exactly been renowned as "not a shithole". But it's now one of the planned stops on London’s city-spanning Crossrail development, so at long, long last it's in the midst of a house price gold rush. Sniffing a nice little earner, megacorp property developers Ballymore recently decided to build 600 units at the top of the town, right by the station, plus another 260 units of hotel and short-term apartments, all in one conveniently gated super-estate – optimistcally named High Point Village – to make sure not too much Hayes gets in.

Unfortunately, in line with how things work nowadays, in order to get permission to build it – even in Hayes, where anything that isn’t an abattoir or a hospice qualifies as scenic – Ballymore were also required to build some "affordable housing" alongside it. Naturally, no developer is exactly over the moon about having to do this: the human zoo went out with the Victorians, and to keep a rolling stock of povvos on your flashy new estate just so that a few bods on the local council can tick some inclusivity boxes seems, frankly, more ball-ache than it's worth. Traditionally, the game at this point is to put these blocks as far away from the people with actual money as possible, without making it seem like you’re doing exactly that. Fair enough. But if residents are to be believed, it seems that Ballymore may have overstepped the mark on this one.

The problems really began when the water ran out. There was a maintenance fault in one of the two affordable blocks, leaving all its residents without so much as a dribble. Unfortunately, the site's management had also refused permission for these thirsty residents to run a hose from richland through to poorland. Soon enough, the waterless paupers had resorted to filling bottles up in the decorative fountain that stood outside the rich folks' flats.

For the rich, eating Special K Red Berries and listening to Schubert on the sixth floor, it must have been genuinely uncomfortable to peer down upon these poorly-attired souls as they toiled at this new-found wellpoint. Stinking up the place with their George at Asda jumpers, their ratty Reebok Classics, their essential ITV-ness.

God knows, we all give a couple hundred quid to Oxfam at Christmas, but that doesn't mean we want a flyblown Sudanese boy living in our lounge. Leering up at you. With their resentful little piggy eyes. Glaring, as if to say, "I am envious of you because you have water and I don't." No one understands class envy like the rich, and it's well and truly alive in Britain today. You barely have to look out of your window (into your decorative fountain) to see it. Even though it is by no means the fault of the rich that they've actually paid enough money to get into the building that isn't screwed together from cut-n-shuts of demolished brutalist tower blocks, they're still made to feel guilty. But that's just the way we are in this country; fighting over everything like crabs in a bucket.

There they were, gazing up at the bright glare of a luxury glass tower, and the whole situation was fast becoming everyone's worst nightmare: politics had come to town. Why put the social prejudices of the two sides to war like this? Why do modern councils love to squidge the rich and the poor together into these loveless marriages? It's like putting a badger and a baboon in a cage and electrifying the perimeter. A microcosmic model village illustrative of a much broader fuckedness.

No matter, tensions were already raised by this point. At the very start, the affordable residents had noticed that the names of their two blocks were missing from the maps dotted around the estate. They could see the flats they lived in right there, in front of their very eyes, but for some reason when they turned to the maps they'd disappeared; written out of cartological history.

That was warning one. At about the same time, people had started to take issue – as neighbours always do – with the gate. The one that separated richland from poorland. The one that, poorland had gradually come to realise, was actually there to create a gated-community-within-a-gated-community. Daily, these poorlanders would stare at this Berlin Wall and wonder what life was like on the other side. They could probably hear the tinkling laughter of people quipping in Latin from the other side. They were left to imagine warmly what it might be like to be a dental professional on £50k-a-year, with running water and a solid property investment in a sophisticated urban living solution in an up-n-coming part of the London periphery. But dream was all they could do, because an equally sophisticated system of locks and passes was keeping them from seeing into this promised land.

Audrey Verma was one such low-cost resident who spoke out when things came to a head. "The gate has always been a big issue," she cawed. "Because it separates the haves from the have-nots, but in this case we were told it could not even be opened temporarily to run a hose through." No more than the gates of Troy ought to have been "temporarily opened" to accept a massive wooden horse, my friend. No doubt the rich had heard this one many times before in various forms down the ages ("Oh, we just want to repeal the Corn Laws for a *little while*..." "Oh, let's *just* extend the vote to property-owning males over 21...") Next thing you've got the decline of the aristocracy and universal suffrage. They're slippery slopes, gate-openings.

Worse still, for technical reasons, the residents’ association, which seemed to work for everyone else very nicely, wasn’t allowed to represent the poorlanders. Naturally enough. After all, how could it represent them when they seemingly wanted the opposite sorts of things?

Finally, when they tried to complain on an estate residents' Facebook page, their posts mysteriously disappeared. Not content with denying them a right to exist on High Point Village's physical maps, the richlanders had decided to purge these troublesome proles from cyberspace, too.

Now, Ms Verma and others are raising their voices for social change. Like Reagan at the Brandenburger Tor, she is pointing at the gate and daring the authorities to tear it down. Pull it down, her and her rabble seem to suggest, and social norms will simply melt away and everyone who has paid bloody top whack to live there will play volleyball in the communal sports hall with everyone who's effectively been subsidised.

But can it ever be this way? So far, reality is trying to tell her that it will be more like JG Ballard’s High Rise: drowning your neighbour’s Alsatian in the communal swimming pool and then gnawing on its thigh bone for basic sustenance. Right now, this petri dish of class-mixing could end up a brutally short experiment: How long after the first brick is thrown through someone's window will we get the first povvo raiding party scouring the halls looking for brides and shiny treasure? How long after that will it be until we see corpses on primitive rafts floated down what the brochures call the "conveniently situated Grand Union Canal"?

Since before Erno Goldfinger moved into his own low-cost Balfron Tower in 1968, British planners have dreamed of this chummy social blender world of "mixed-use" neighbourhoods, a zoning that's supposed to mean the poor are de-slumified and the governing classes are integrated enough to remember that the poor exist, have needs, etc. Clearly, given the cold hard demographic realities of England's hyper-skewed South East – where each has his ghetto, and each ghetto has its wage band – this just isn’t going to work any more. 

No, if artisanal breads are your thing, how much better to live in a neighbourhood where they’re not crowded-out by Greggs. If bruised bananas at Netto are what’s vibing for you, much better to live exactly where Netto knows where to find you. It's much more useful for everyone’s sanity that no one is trapped into believing in a Potemkin village of cuddly inclusivity. Much better that people realise the cold, unyielding truth: We are not all friends. Yes, you should be scared of the people who are not like you. You should understand that they want what you have/want to keep you from having things. And they’re not in here. They’re out there. They hate you. So look sharp. If Ballymore really wanted to demonstrate that they were really socially responsible, they’d be better off building a moat.

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

Image by Marta Parszeniew: @MartaParszeniew

Previously – A Beginners' Guide to Morrissey, Penguin Classics' Latest Star