Meeting the punks, squatters and activists reclaiming regeneration in south east London
A spectacled young man named Alexi puts his flowing vocabulary to use protesting against the gentrification of south London. In February, he spat under the nose of a High Court judge who passed the eviction order for Eileen House, the former university building in Elephant and Castle which he and his friends, the Self Organised London collective, had been occupying to keep it from being redeveloped into a block of luxury flats. “Scumbags, you’re all fucking scumbags,” he sneered at the judge and the property developers’ lawyers, to no avail. They were evicted a fortnight ago, and the bulldozers are now free to move in.
Of the matter at hand, Alexi says: “Gentrification refers to the physical displacement of working class communities within a particular area of the city. Since profit is god and the poor mean fuck all, property developers and big businesses are able to locate – with the aid of local councils – areas of the city they can cash in on. Cheap land is bought up by large property developers and those unlucky enough to be living on that land are told they no longer have a home. The existing buildings are demolished and redeveloped into enormous blocks of high-rise apartments for those who can afford it. They call it regeneration or urban renewal. We like to call it social cleansing.”
The story of the nearby Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is an example of Alexi’s description to the letter. When the dystopian Heygate was sold off to the multinational property developers Lend Lease at a criminally low price, the council pledged 35% of the new pads would be affordable. But Southwark Council documents reveal that a tiny number of the new flats will be council houses, while only 25% will fall under the misleading bracket of ‘affordable’, which means anything up to 80% of market rent – £220 a week for a one-bedroom flat.
The average income in Southwark is £17,000, and there are 20,000 people on its housing waiting list. But to keep the precariously housed amused while they wait, artists’ impressions for the new Heygate – previously a poor, ethnically mixed estate in one of the most diverse areas of London – depict a gated off, collegiate-style campus grazed exclusively by wealthy-looking white people. Some of the prototype jocks are so comfortable in their new south London playground that they are even playing Frisbee on the lawn. To top things off, Labour leader of the council Peter John took two free tickets to the Olympics opening ceremony and a holiday to Cannes courtesy of Lend Lease, while many of the former Southwark council employees who were instrumental in the deal – including the former Labour leader of Southwark council, Nick Stanton – now work for Lend Lease or lobby on their behalf.
The next borough along, Lambeth, is run by a Labour ‘cooperative council’. “That means in future the council will do things with local people instead of doing things to them,” says the first line of the council’s own website. But Lambeth’s ‘co-operative’ council is forcefully evicting tenants from housing co-ops and then stiffing them with up to £50,000 of legal costs if they have the balls to take them to court and lose. Many of them have lived in their houses for thirty years – ironically, the ‘vibrant communities’ being used to sell the area – but they’re being bulldozed to make way for an alien vision of Lambeth as yet another enclave of middle-class aspiration. With such brazen arrogance and corruption, it’s no wonder the process is grating a lot of people’s cheese. So naturally, the debate has spilled out beyond the political system and into the realm of direct action and agitation .
This new loathing is exemplified by Yuppies Out!, the brainchild of two musicians from the band the Fat White Family who were rendered homeless by cuts to Housing Benefit and soaring rents in south London. They were just a couple of hapless class-warriors posting comically extreme rants against gentrification – from cupcake vendors to Guardian food critic and Brixton Village market regeneration champion Jay Rayner to Boris Johnson and Kevin McCloud, the host of Grand Designs – on a Facebook group; until a couple of weeks ago, when one of their followers scrawled “Yuppies Out!” on the window of Foxtons estate agents in Brixton, which caught not only the attention of the national media, but the essence of an increasing sense of despair. It’s telling that the Yuppies Out! guys were also the ones holding “The Bitch is Dead” banner on the day Margaret Thatcher died, photos of which were plastered all over the newspapers.
“The process of gentrification which has engulfed our community has no democratic mandate,” says Saul. “The businesses cashing in aren’t long-standing Brixton traders or even local entrepreneurs. We see them as opportunistic capitalists who work in tandem with rent hikes and the replacement of one class of people for another.”