Getting involved in ShoreditchOctober 30, 2010
It has been about six months since I and my family moved onto a council estate in the Shoreditch area. We moved here mainly because the rental property in the area is very scarce at the moment, and the privately rented flat we are in is the only one I could afford as a humble unpaid advisor. But it has reminded me of how tough life can be for those who live in social housing, with many tenants of the council in the same building. Since we have moved in we have experienced the lift breaking down frequently with evidence of it being generally poorly maintained; the police arresting and convicting a neighbour for possession of firearms and dealing in narcotics; and the same flat being burgled and having its copper pipes stolen by thieves, causing a flood that caused damage to multiple flats below – with representatives from the housing Arms Length Management Organisation or ALMO (council owned management company) denying responsibility for the damage even though the flat concerned was not secured after the arrest.
The things that frustrate me as a citizen and my fellow neighbours are the unresponsiveness of the social housing organisation and their private subcontractors, poor planning with a lack of places for tenants and citizens to gather, and increasingly local shops and facilities being sold off to developers to convert into private rental housing with very limited consultation, and the lack of police patrols in an area which has seen lots of trouble with armed gangs.
If you attend a local Tenants and Residents Association (TRA) meeting, the mood may be despondency combined with a mild sense of humorous disbelief. The local repairs contractor has held the £3.5m and 15,000 homes contract from the ALMO for over 12 years. Yet residents complain of ongoing issues that have not been dealt with for years. One young woman struggled to contain her emotion as she described the continuing drain upsurges of sewage coming through her washing machine, which she thought was unlikely to ever be dealt with – and the fact that she was now being threatened with eviction letters due to a £50 rent arrears. The sense of powerlessness is keenly felt; residents can call the estate concierge but most felt they would just be held on the phone for hours, and the meeting chairperson stated with no irony that the concierge required three months’ notice to attend such a meeting! Lifts being out of order for long periods is another common problem across many estates in Hackney, especially for the disabled. One resident said she spent almost the entire day on the phone trying to ensure that a lift which served a disabled deaf and dumb man who lived below her was working.
Broadway market is the archetypal example of how planning has worked in favour of developers but not local residents in the wider Hackney area. In the 1960s it was a bustling East End Friday market. Over time the area fell into decline as the wealthier traders moved out into Essex and beyond, until, by the 1990s, there was very little worth visiting. But thanks to the efforts of local people, stalls were started, small businesses with purpose were founded, and slowly but surely custom grew and affluence (in the form of a more cosmopolitan and artistic community) arrived. By 2005, though, the challenges of responding to local needs were beginning to come to the surface. In an article in for the Guardian, novelist and local resident Hari Kunzru described a fervent local protest which had found its way into the national media. Several long-time shop owners and local merchants were being evicted by the council who were selling off assets to the highest bidder, desperately scrambling to raise finance to patch a gaping £72m hole in the municipal budget. Venders who had for years been confounded by the labyrinthine right to buy scheme were suddenly told that a large developer had simply pulled the rug (or carpet) out from underneath their feet. The film, Battle for Broadway Market, tells the story of a fight in which a trader was evicted after being in the area for thirty years.
As for gangs, anybody who is familiar with the area will notice how surreal it can get with shootings happening in broad daylight, whilst trendy shoppers explore the market oblivious to what is happening. It is literally like having two parallel universes in the same space but which never meet. The blogger Graeme Archer recently described a typical Hackney scene involving these parallel universes in a poignant post entitled As Good As It Gets. What we have noticed however is how the police patrols seemed to have disappeared about two months ago, which has unsettled residents since the gangs are still very much active in the area.
Frustration and a desire to be supported to take more control over one’s life is not just something that should be or will be just the preserve of the affluent and middle class. My neighbours include some truly remarkable people even though they have very limited means who have in the past put huge amounts of time and energy and resources into fighting against vested interests and they are itching to do so again but on a more level playing field. How can we create that level playing field? Take the social housing situation. Soon there will be more granular information on how much is spent by the council, ways to publicly campaign and give feedback on its performance and that of its contractors, to build alliances across the various estates harnessing the community organiser network, and to even bid to run parts of the contract – maybe even employing local residents with the relevant skills – to help directly maintain buildings and improve them.
On the developer front, we cannot wait for open source planning and local budgets. A chance to specify where we would like to have more communal spaces to meet inside in the winter, and not just in the parks in the summer. A chance to give local people the right to buy rather than have properties sold off at a moment’s notice to developers, and to form land trusts and cooperatives that can create affordable housing and harness local endowments to green the area, whilst making sure local people do not lose out as more regeneration takes place, but have a stake in any ensuing growth.
As for policing, beat meetings and commissioners are desperately needed so that local people can voice their concerns. The Met are getting ready, apparently testing participatory community policing partnerships, by showing citizens where the crime is (through crime maps) and asking them to help the police prioritise where their patrolling and other efforts should focus given limited resources. We can also play our part too – after the recent burglaries the neighbours in my block all made a real effort to get to know each others’ names which will make it harder for strangers to slip in.
If we work together, people like me and my neighbours on countless estates around the country, have a chance to have the public, private, and voluntary services we really want, and for which we for too long have been waiting.