Ros Wynne Jones writes in the ‘Mirror';
“A few weeks ago I went to a public meeting at the heart of a sprawling 1950s council estate in central London. The community centre was packed and airless. Tempers were flaring.
“You say you’re regenerating the estate, but how come our kids are losing their playground?” one mother shouted. “Why should we believe a word that comes out of your mouths?”
Families in the meeting at Churchill Gardens showed me an architect’s drawing that had an old people’s home on top of a huge section of the local primary school’s playground.
A previous public meeting had been told the playground would move underground. Now, local Labour councillors have launched a petition to save it.
“You’ve never heard anything like it,” Emma Taylor, 43, a mother of five whose daughter attends Churchill Gardens Academy, told me. “An underground playground! Because our kids don’t deserve fresh air, do they? Or apparently daylight, since the three-storey height of the building will take the light from the classrooms.”
Churchill Gardens Academy supports many children with special needs.
“God knows how those children would cope with an underground playground,” Emma says.
The school is one of Lord Nash’s academies, run by his Future schools trust.
The former venture capitalist also happens to be the Academies Minister in the current Tory-led Government.
But when the school was recently acquired by Future, the Conservative council didn’t grant a large section of the playground to the school. It is that part that would be built on.
In fact, there is already provision for elderly people on Churchill Gardens – on church land, adjoining the estate.
But this land is being cleared for luxury apartments overlooking the Thames and the multi-billion-pound Battersea power station development. Flats that no one in the overcrowded Churchill Gardens estate will be able to afford.
Churchill Gardens is one of the finest social housing estates in London. It pioneered “district heating” and still has a heating tower that provides the estate’s heating and hot water.
Built where the Blitz had levelled Victorian housing to rubble, it was made a conservation area in 1990, and some blocks and the water tower are Grade II listed. Some of its flats have river views, and it’s a heartbeat away from the tree-lined Embankment. Its neighbour is the affluent Dolphin Square, where many MPs live.
Residents in Westminster lived through the Dame Shirley Porter scandal in the 1980s, when homeless shelters were sold, nurses and students forced out and social housing engineered to ensure a Conservative council victory.
This week, it was revealed two property developers have been leafleting council properties in Westminster offering families money to sell their homes.
No wonder that when the current Tory administration said they wanted to talk to the people on the estate about “regeneration”, residents immediately suspected a landgrab.
As one resident asked the man from the council: “If you’re going to haul the estate down around our ears, you’d better tell us what do you get out of it?”
Last year, a 16-year-old boy, Hani Abou El Kheir, was killed on the estate in an attack using knives and meat cleavers.
“The council are pretending they are worried about our safety from drugs gangs,” another resident said afterwards. “But none of the attackers were from the estate. We can see right through them.”
Yesterday, Westminster council said that in light of residents’ protests, it is now “pausing” its plans for Churchill Gardens.
“We are taking time to consider their concerns fully before continuing the conversation in the autumn,” says Cllr Daniel Astaire, cabinet member for housing and regeneration.
In 2012, when he was seeking re-election as London Mayor, Boris Johnson spoke out against the “Kosovo-style social cleansing of London”.
But for many communities that is exactly what “regeneration” has meant.
When the vast Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle that once housed generations of ordinary Londoners is rebuilt, only 79 of 2,500 new homes on the site will be available as social housing.
Meanwhile, the “regeneration” of the West Hendon Estate, which overlooks the “Welsh Harp” reservoir, will see it recreated as Hendon Waterside, with only 25% social housing and the nature reserve under threat.
Where developers fail, the benefits cap is also clearing families out of the capital with councils forcing people to take flats as far away as Stoke and Derbyshire.
In the place of Londoners will come thousands of high-rise, high-priced luxury apartments owned by overseas investors from Russia and Dubai, like those currently buying up discarded embassies throughout central London.
They will be lived in for a few weeks a year, or rented at exorbitant prices.
In April, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said he had commissioned Savills, the upmarket estate agent, to look at “regenerating” estates across London using private capital.
Council estates should be looked at as “brownfield sites”, he said, adding there were implications not just for London but “also in other areas with high housing demand like Brighton, Cambridge and Oxford”.
Churchill Gardens residents spoke for millions of Londoners at that public meeting.
“Seventy years I’ve lived on this estate,” one man told the council.
“What you need to understand is that we – people here – are Churchill Gardens. It’s just an estate to you. But it’s our whole lives.”