Back in September 1989, Millwall Football Club unexpectedly announced that they were to follow Tottenham Hotspur and float themselves on the London Stock Exchange. In the Sun newspaper at the time, the former club chairman Reg Burr stated that he was not trying to turn the club into a ‘yuppie’ club.
At the same time, the Club were sponsored by the LDDC – the London Docklands Development Corporation.
The LDDC was a quango agency set up by the Thatcher Government in 1981 to ‘regenerate’ the Docklands areas of east and south east London. During its 18 year existence it was responsible for regenerating parts of the London Boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. It helped create Canary Wharf, Surrey Quays shopping centre, London City Airport, ExCeL Exhibition Centre and the Docklands Light Railway, bringing more than 120,000 new jobs to the Docklands and making the area highly sought after for housing.
Having lived in council housing all my life – as all my family and friends did at the time – the LDDC became known to me through their regeneration of the council estates that we lived on. Elim Estate where we lived was untouched due to the fact that it didn’t have a ‘river view’. But family who lived on Surrey Docks (now Surrey Quays/ Canada Water) and the Amos Estate were less fortunate. The LDDC bought the estate, moved everybody out of the area, giving them no say in whether they stayed or went and leaving Southwark Council with the task of rehousing them in less ‘desirable’ locations.
On hearing the announcement that Millwall was being floated on the Stock Exchange I was incensed enough to write a letter – well diatribe – to the South London Press to say that the imminent flotation was indicative of what was being played out all around us: the local people, like the local Club itself, were being exploited. The ‘haves’ were having more at the same time that the ‘have nots’ were having less.
At the time, nobody took me seriously. But visit the area now and you will see that under the guise of regeneration, the area is split more than ever along the lines of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Those who can afford quarter of a million pounds apartments living in comfort and luxury to those living in rundown and neglected council housing below the poverty line.
Some 15 years before this, one of the places you might move to once you had a family of your own if you had been brought up on Elim or Amos estate was the Pepys Estate in Deptford. A large, sprawling estate punctuated by tower blocks, the estate overlooked the Thames. My second cousin, whose husband was later imprisoned for ‘knee-capping’ a Securicor van driver outside the C&A in Peckham, lived on the estate. At the time, we all felt that she was posh because of this.
Today, the Pepys Estate has gone down the route of many other council estates along the Thames and in the Docklands areas. Three years ago, Lewisham Council decided to sell the tower block closest to the Thames to private developers, Berkeley Homes. Since then, again under the guise of regeneration, the block has been emptied of the 144 people living in it so that it can be developed into a highly desirable residence with, as one resident put it, “a million dollar view”. Before the private developers moved in, whilst the view was the same, the price would have been significantly lower. The building is now called the ‘Z Building’.
From the other tower blocks of the Pepys Estate, the view is similar but tends to be from behind single glazed windows that are obscured by condensation and the mould that accompanies it. Despite offering a similar view, the apartments – known far less desirably as flats – are now far less sought after and instead of housing the wealthy, upwardly mobile elite, house the social outcasts and misfits that have ended up here as a result of their being less fortunate or even lucky.
‘The Tower: a tale of two cities’ is an eight part documentary series shown on BBC1 on Monday evenings. Filmed over three years, the series is full of real people that live on the estate: both those that live in the council owned blocks and those new residents seeking to make Deptford their new home. As one new resident put it, “The developers will make Deptford a much better place within five years. Just look at what they did with other areas – Hoxton was awful only a few years ago”. Poignantly, the images that accompanied her words were of a handful of young black men being arrested by police at the foot of the recently developed building.
The series is a beautifully directed and constructed piece of documentary journalism. There are no whiffs of ‘fly on the wall’ overacting, no sense of anyone wanting to become ‘celebrities’, no need to ‘doctor’ the editing to make things more gritty. Instead, the series delves into the characters that comprise the Pepys Estate: sometimes disparate, sometimes desperate. The direction dips into and then out of different lives, leaving questions unanswered and on the whole, without the need for a silver lining. In many of these, I see the faces and characters of people that I know could be them. And because of this, I find the programme extremely watchable but at the same time, extremely sad which in turns makes me extremely angry. It shows real life – and death – for real people and that is not always comfortable viewing.
A recurrent image that crops up in different episodes is the graffiti of the title of this blog entry: ‘Regeneration is a form of ethnic cleansing’. Seeing how people have been unwillingly and forcibly removed from their ‘home’ – no matter how dire or tragic that might be to the onlooker – the ‘regeneration’ of these and other areas has been and indeed continues to be little more than a form of ethnic cleansing. Maybe ‘ethnic here is the wrong term. Instead, maybe ‘class cleansing’ is more appropriate.
Since the early 1980s, this form of cleansing has been systematic across much of inner London. Unconsciously we accept this and have done for more than two decades. But where do people like those from the Z Building go when they are forcibly removed from their homes? How many fall below the radar? How many disappear and end up, as the most recent episode captured so well, trapped with little else but to turn to such horrors as heroin, crack and so on?
Twenty years ago, maybe I foresaw the consequences of those such as the LDDC. For those who didn’t believe me then, or don’t believe me now, there’s two more episodes of ‘The Tower: a tale of two cities’ before the end of the series. Don’t miss the chance to see what other people’s ‘real life’ looks like and decide whether ‘regeneration’ was a good or bad thing.