In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics Newham council gradually emptied the nearby Carpenters Estate of tenants. In March 2010 a small anarchist newsheet, the East End Howler, interviewed one of the remaining tenants. In light of the recent occupation of the estate by Focus E15 Mothers we're republishing the interview here to provide a bit of background.
D’you know anything about the history of the Carpenters Estate, when it was built?
The flats went up in the mid ‘60s. One of the things people are upset about in having to move out of the estate, and it worries me as well, is that it is very quiet and it’s statistically one of the least crime ridden estates in the whole of London. There is a bit of a community there and it just seems like the council is wilfully destroying what everyone who lives there thinks is a bit of a haven in order to send us to places that we might not feel as safe in or as settled in. A lot of the older people who live there have been there since the blocks went up. Historically what happened was a lot of people who had 2 or 3 bedroom council houses were re-housed in tower blocks in the 1960s. Their children would have moved out and they would have been given the choice whether they wanted to move into a tower block and a lot of them did at the time. So these were the people who went in there at about 1966 and there’s still a fair few of them.
So if you could just run through, starting from the beginning, what’s been going on with the decant at the Carpenter’s Estate?
The main issue at the moment is the Tower Blocks on the estate, of which there are three. One of them , the one nearest to the main road, James Riley Point, is virtually empty. A few years ago that was overrun by ants, and they couldn’t get these ants out the block, and so they decided to demolish the block. And it should have been demolished years ago, but a couple of lease holders are still in there who didn’t get the deal they were looking for and are refusing to go. And so there’s about two or three households still in that tower block.
So I guess the best place to start with what’s been happening on the estate for our tower blocks, the other two, Lund Point and Dennison Point, are that a few years ago, or maybe a decade ago, they decided that they wanted to refurbish the tower blocks. We were told that this was going to happen, we were told that it was because there were various structural issues, some people had cracks in the ceiling, there was some water coming down into peoples’ flats. Also there were some issues of asbestos in the flats. They assured us this [the asbestos] wasn’t endangering anyone, but they needed to be taken out. They did take some of the asbestos out, but to get a lot of it out they basically had to move people out. So they came up with this thing called a ‘Master Plan’ which they paid millions, literally millions, to an architecture firm to come up with [the Master Plan]. They planned that we would all be moved out, it would be refurbished, and then those of us that wanted to move back in could move back in. It was to be kept in council ownership and managed by the tenant’s management association. There was earmarked 15 million to do this. They basically did a sort of thing, they had stalls in the foyers, and they were showing people the architectural plans, they were asking for feedback, they had a big consultancy session... It must have cost millions, this consultancy. And then we didn’t hear anything for a few years. And then they came up with another Master Plan, I think this was after they found out that they were getting the Olympics, and they decided that they wanted to do the estate up a little more plushly than they did in the previous one. So they showed us these models and plans which involved building some restaurants and cafes around the square, they were gonna build some green areas. They were gonna build a launderette downstairs in the flats, all this sort of thing, again they were gonna refurbish the flats... and then we heard nothing else after it. For this we were quite enthusiastic, most of the tenants were pretty enthusiastic about that because it was going to look really nice. And then... I think we were then surveyed about the the refurbishment and I think we were given two choices- either we could be completely re-housed or we could be moved out while the refurbishment was happening and then moved back in. But the trick of that was that they said that they couldn’t guarantee that we would be moved back in in less than six years. By that time you’ve got a new home really, so I don’t think many people were really very keen on that. That completely changed. In fact, I thought, and I think other people thought, that basically they wanted people out but wanted to still be seen to be giving people the option of moving back in. Then I suppose about a year ago there was a meeting with the Mayor, Robin Wales, and he basically more or less unilaterally decided that the flats were going to come down. We weren’t consulted about that, they just said they’re gonna be knocked down. The reason that was given was that the council could no longer afford to refurbish them. The cost of refurbishment had gone up in the decade since they first started talking about it and the 15 million that was earmarked had been spent elsewhere, so it was no longer available. [Robin Wales] came and spoke to people on the estate, and he did say to a couple of people that the entire estate was to be flattened, he’d taken that decision.
So the low level houses as well?
As well, yeah. Which has obviously had a lot of the lease holders in those sort of houses really panicking. Then there were various people who started campaigning a little bit about this. Because a lot of those homes anyway are still not up to the decent homes standard, most of the tower flats aren’t up to that. So there’d already been campaigns about that in the past, there’d been banners unfurled over the flats. So they started up a new campaign, the banners were gonna come out again. The council and the mayor were very careful t say that this was nothing to do with the Olympics but of course we all know that that land is worth millions, probably the most valuable piece of real estate in the east end.
It’s virtually on the Olympic site.
Yeah. And the BBC have hired the top floors of those tower blocks
Yeah, to build a studio. And we weren’t consulted over this, the people who live on the estate aren’t getting any profit out of it, this is a deal that’s been done between the council and the BBC and we only got to hear about it through the grapevine really. So we’ve now been told that we have to move out within four years, the tenants have now been told that they can either be re-housed by the council in that they’ll been given two choices and if they don’t like those two choice they’ll have been thought to have made themselves intentionally homeless. But if they don’t like that then they can go on that bidding scheme. But at least with that you get more than two choices on that and we’ll be prioritised, obviously. The reason I chose to go on the bidding thing rather than them re-housing me is because I did ask for re-housing about a decade or so ago, I was having problems with my living conditions. They offered me a place which was, for one, is was a housing association place, so I’d have lost my secure tenancy [as a council tenant], and secondly it was a box flat, and I needed more space. So I said no. So if I was to say now “re-house me”, what’s to stop them doing that again? And if they do it twice, I’ve said no twice and then [I will have been thought to have made myself intentionally homeless]. So there was a campaign going on and it was meeting fairly regularly and probably still is but I’ve sort of lost touch with it because I have a lot of work on. The thing is there was not that much interest from people there, after the initial couple of meetings, there was not a lot of interest in keeping the campaign going. Most of the people who were going were older women really, basically people who had the time to go. Most people on the estate work, they haven’t got the time to go to a meeting. A lot of the meetings were on in the day time or at about half past six, and if I was working that day I wouldn’t get home until about seven. And there wasn’t a great deal of communication that went on outside of the meetings. So I don’t know, maybe that’s still going on. The council were supposed to give us a charter, a rights charter. They said it was virtually the same as they had given the people at James Riley [the tower block that has been mostly emptied] but with a few differences. But we’ve never actually seen this charter yet. We have seen a couple of clauses, which are very vague, but there’s nothing legally binding about the charter anyway. I think most people there feel that they have to move and that they’ll deal with the council as individuals. Someone from the council has been round to see me and she’s been round to most of the other places to talk about circumstance and that sort of thing. And she has now said that, I think, from February, that she’ll start trying to help people get new properties. So that’s the situation.
So going back to the initial plan for the refurbishment, was there a plan for temporary displacement?
And what was the plan for what would happen to people?
I think it was four to six months. They were gonna be taken somewhere, housed, then moved back in. And then when they changed the Master Plan, all of a sudden it was moving people out for six years and then moving them back in. Which completely changed it. In fact, I thought, and I think other people thought, that basically they wanted people out but wanted to still be seen to be giving people the option of moving back in.
So what was the aim of the campaign? To get secure alternative housing or was for the demolition not to happen or just to get the very best- basically go back to the refurbishment project.
The aims of the campaign were always a little bit, erm, confused, because so many different people want different things. Some of the people, mostly old people, don’t wanna move. They’ve made communities there, they’ve made friendships, networks, and they don’t wanna suddenly be moved somewhere else away from their friends. So they don’t want the places demolished and they want to stay there and maybe they want to be moved out, for the flats to be completely refurbished, and moved back in. But the council said that’s not gonna happen and I don’t think there’s a lot of hope of that happening. A lot of people just wanna be moved out and moved somewhere decent. There’s a lot of overcrowded families in there. I mean the woman who lives upstairs from me, she has two kids, maybe three, of different sexes plus her partner and they’re all living in a one bedroom place. And I think the oldest boy is about 8 or 9 now. And there’s a lot of people like that living in there and obviously they want to move out. And I think the council have said that the people who need more space will be given it so that’s a temptation that they’ve given to people. These people have been tryig to get moved for years anyway so they will have no objection.
So the basics of the campaign I suppose were really about making sure that there was a proper charter in place that protected everyone’s rights so that everyone gets what they want- both the people who want to be moved off the estate and the people who want to stay on the estate could maybe come into whatever is built after the flats have been demolished.
So that’s fairly practical. It sounds like if it was an effective campaign and everyone was able to get to the meetings that it wouldn’t be particularly hard to lose. What sounds difficult to defeat is the Council’s decision to demolish the flats and build something else but if you can secure a good deal so that a few people can come back to some of the new houses in that new development then that’s not asking too much. I mean they definitely do have money because of the Olympics. So what do you think could really help the campaign?
I think they wanted some more publicity really. One of the guys who was a leaseholder living in a house near the square, he went in that “Your Shout” thing on the TV and did something about it. And apparently the council then got in touch with him. So I think the council don’t want publicity over it, I think they want to do this as quickly and as quietly as possible. But I think that for a campaign to work there’s got to be some pressure on the council. Now there is a problem; when the woman [from the council] who’s in charge of the re-housing came to see me she told me that they’d been in regular contact with the Tenant’s Management Organisation. that they were working on the charter with them, and that the Tenant’s Management Organisation were delaying on the finalisation of the charter, even though the council wanted to accede to their wishes. All of which the Tenant’s Management Association deny and they basically said that the council hasn’t spoken to them. So it’s hard for us to know who to believe, really. Because the thing about the TMO is that if the estate is demolished or significantly reduced those people’ll be out of jobs. Or... they’ll either be made redundant or get jobs somewhere else in Newham I suppose (if there are jobs).
It’s the Tenant’s management organisation that runs the Carpenter’s Estate, and they’ve been running it for about, I don’t know, 15-20 years?
I think we recently had a vote to see if we wanted to remain with them and I think, I haven’t heard, but I think, that the outcome of the vote is that that will be carrying on.
Yeah. So I guess it’s a little bit more complicated.
I think the real scandal of it is that the council have spent millions on these master plans and consultancies and all this sort of thing- all of which is down the drain. And it’s the mayor’s unilateral decision just to turn around and say ‘no. It’s all gonna go.’. So that’s the real scandal of it and that’s what people should know about. All this money has been spent and nothing has come of it, it’s all just been wasted. And it hasn’t been transparent either y’know, there’s been no transparency to it so people haven’t been kept up to date with what’s happening. And we haven’t been given, apart from ‘oh we can’t afford it now’, that’s the only reason we’ve been given from them for not refurbishing. But they will not say anything about what is going to happen to that space once we’re gone; whether they’re gonna sell the flats off privately, whether they’re gonna demolish them and build new council stuff on there, whether they’re going to demolish them, sell the land, and private flats will be built on there (which will probably be what happens). So they just will not be transparent about what they’re actually up to.
Okay, so the main things are the council’s lack of transparency, and the fact that there’s a lack of publicity for what’s going on round people’s corners and that needs to be publicised. Do you think there’s currently a mechanism for local people who don’t live in the estate but might be able to put pressure on the council?
There’s not currently but there might be. I mean, something like that yougov’s petitions thing... that might help. But I think the local paper’s aren’t particularly interested, apparently they’re very well in with [Robin Wales]. I mean I don’t really know what quite to say about the campaign because I was slightly disillusioned by it and slightly thought that it was a bit pointless really, because if the council anyway are negotiating with us to give us what we want then there’s no, there’s nothing we can do about being moved out, y’know, once they’ve made the decision to demolish. But I think certainly it’s a story that more people should know about. Y’know, the truth about how the Olympics has impacted on people, although they say it’s nothing to do with the Olympics but y’know...
There’s a correlation anyway, of events.
And if it’s nothing to do with the Olympics then they need to say what they’re going to do with that land there. I mean they’re only giving us the usual, they’re giving us five thousand pounds resettlement money plus arranging for our moves and for our telephones to be reconnected and all that sort of thing. Which is a lot of money but it’s no more than councils usually pay out in those sort of circumstances and if we’re going through the pain of having to uproot and move and they’re making some kind of massive profit on the Olympics when we’re the people who have had to put up with all the noise and dust for the last four years since they’ve started building it. And we’re gonna get nothing out of it.
And dispersing you as well?
Well a lot of the older people who live there have been there since the blocks went up. Historically what happened was a lot of people who had 2 or 3 bedroom council houses were re-housed in tower blocks in the 1960s. Their children would have moved out and they would have been given the choice whether they wanted to move into a tower block and a lot of them did at the time. So these were the people who went in there at about 1966 and there’s still a fair few of them.
They’ve got a massive housing crisis in Newham, they’ve got something like 20, 000 people on their waiting list and then they’re getting rid of a few hundred flats. And there’s no indication that they’re buying any more stock to replace that, they’re just moving the people there into stock that’s becoming empty so though we’ll probably get preferential treatment, all that means is that people already on the waiting list aren’t gonna get flats for even longer. So they’re exacerbating the housing crisis in Newham by doing this.
Photo of Carpenters estate by flickr user Martin Deutsch. Licenced under Creative Commons.