Five years ago, on October 29, 2018, the brave two-month occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, a community garden in Deptford, came to a violent end when bailiffs hired by Lewisham Council, from the union-busting company County Enforcement, raided the garden at dawn, evicting the handful of campaigners staying there overnight in what they subsequently characterised as a terrifying quasi-military operation.
The bailiffs subsequently began tearing down trees, including the garden’s prized Indian bean trees, and demolishing all of the structures that had contributed to its community focus — the colourful tree house by the bean trees, which had entertained children throughout the garden’s 25-year history, and a number of sheds that had, most recently, been used as exhibition spaces.
Throughout the rest of the day, there was a tense stand-off between campaigners and hundreds of local people who had turned up to offer support, and the bailiffs, protected by a row of police. As campaigners conducted interviews with a number of broadcasters, including the BBC, and campaigners railed against the bailiffs and the police via a loudhailer, occasional skirmishes broke out, in which a number of people were injured, but by the end of the day the garden was ‘secured.’
For my musical and lyrical reflections on the Tidemill campaign, and the garden’s destruction, please listen to ’Tidemill’, which I recorded with my band The Four Fathers and Charlie Hart, and which we released a year ago.
After the garden was ‘secured’, a surreal and disturbing period followed, lasting several months, when the council paid County Enforcement to guard the garden 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a disproportionate reaction to the occupation, which not only haemmorhaged council money; it also alienated those living nearby.
In ‘Whose Garden? Tidemill and the Hierarchy of Violence’, an extraordinary article, published on the ‘Deptford is changing’ website in January 2019, local resident Ruby Radburn, who lived across the road from the garden, described the situation as follows:
Ever since the eviction of Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden on 29th October 2018, I’ve been forced to darkly contemplate this hierarchy of violence. For ten weeks now, private security guards from County Enforcement have been standing directly opposite my flat at all times, and there are dogs inside the garden that bark intermittently throughout the day. The garden is floodlit at night and shines through my bedroom blind, and the generator that powers these lights rumbles away continuously. The guards are the last thing I hear, laughing and talking, before I go to sleep, and the first thing I become aware of when I wake up. Even though their numbers have been reduced in recent weeks, any noise they make, or any time I see them from my windows (which must be hundreds of times a day), or when I leave the house and a guard’s eyes follow me down the street, I am reminded of my place in this hierarchy.
The Council, of course, justifies their presence (and the huge cost of the operation, estimated now to be well over £1million) by saying that they are “securing the site”. So far, so well rationalised. On social media and in the many emails I’ve exchanged with Councillors over this ongoing occupation, I’ve repeatedly heard that their presence is necessary. Sometimes, this necessity is described as unfortunate, and limp apologies are offered for the “disturbance” or “upset” caused to local residents such as myself. Similarly, the eviction itself, in which Lewisham Council sent in 130 bailiffs and security to drag a handful of peaceful protestors from their beds just before dawn, is also presented as an unfortunate necessity. The inherent force and violence in this action is not mentioned by Councillors, but instead they focus on the actions of the protestors. If they had just left when they were asked, none of this would have happened. Which is another way of saying, they made us do it.
Eventually, after campaigners had successfully encouraged a tree-felling company — hired to tear down the last of the garden’s mature and semi-mature trees — to withdraw its services, another more compliant company was located, and on February 27, 2019, the entire garden was cleared, preparing the way for what had been promised by the council and the housing association Peabody for the previous six years: a new housing development not only on the site of the garden (which had been created for and by pupils of the Tidemill primary school), but also in the Victorian buildings of the school itself (which had been vacated in 2012, and moved across the road), on a neighbouring car park, and on the school’s former playground.
Peabody’s painfully slow redevelopment of the Tidemill site
Despite their apparent victory over the campaigners, Peabody’s redevelopment of the site has been excruciatingly slow. The full clearance of the site didn’t begin until October 2020, and, astonishingly, three years later, construction work is still not complete, although, in February this year, Peabody put up hoardings advertising the forthcoming attractions of the development, now renamed ‘Frankham Walk.’
As I explained in an article at the time, ‘Frankham Walk’: Peabody’s Cynical Rebranding of the Destroyed Old Tidemill Garden Site in Deptford, a billboard display on Deptford High Street offered would-be buyers and renters “Your dream home” — but only if, as I explained in may article, “your dream home consists of a 1, 2, 3 or 4-bedroom apartment, a duplex or a townhouse for private sale or shared ownership, with private sales for 1 to 3-bedroom flats ranging in price from £337,500 to £690,000, and with shared ownership deals ranging from £84,375 to £172,500 for a 25% share, plus monthly rent and service charges.”
As I also explained, “There are, or will be 144 properties in total in ’Frankham Walk’ — 51 for private sale, 14 for shared ownership, and 79 that, we are told, will be ‘affordable rent homes for local people on Lewisham Council’s waiting list.’” This is less than the 209 properties perpetually trumpeted by Peabody and the council, but that is because another component of the project — the demolition of 2-30a Reginald Road, an existing block of 16 structurally sound council flats, and its replacement with a further 65 properties; 27 for shared ownership, and 38 “affordable rent homes for local people on Lewisham Council’s waiting list” — has been massively delayed because of the difficulties in removing tenants, and especially leaseholders (those who bought their homes through Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy) from their homes.
The ‘problem’ of 2-30a Reginald Road
These problems are common to all ‘regeneration’ projects that involve the demolition of existing council homes, and the homes of ‘Right to Buy’ leaseholders), and at Reginald Road they have, predictably, played out in the messy and horribly disruptive way that they have in endless other ‘regeneration’ projects across London.
When the Tidemill ‘regeneration’ plans were first approved by Lewisham Council, in September 2017, there were 13 long-term tenants and three leaseholders in 2-30a Reginald Road. Typically, promises were made that existing tenants would be rehoused in the new development, and 13 as yet unbuilt homes were supposedly reserved for these tenants as a result. However, as is also typical, what the council did instead was to persuade as many of the tenants as possible to be relocated elsewhere, which many did, forsaking their community and being moved to places like Sydenham, with which they had no connection.
Unfortunately for the council, a few long-term tenants refused either to be moved out in a largely indiscriminate manner, or to accept a new home in the new development, and their intransigence not only delayed the demolition the block; it also eventually paid off, with the council backing down and engaging with their demands for suitable replacement properties nearby.
Further complicating matters, however, were the three leaseholders. Typically, in ‘regeneration’ projects, the developers start off by offering owner-occupiers a derisory amount of money for their homes, insufficient for them to continue living in the area, and consigning them, like the pliable long-term tenants, to exile from their established community. If the leaseholders dig in their heels, however, the council has no other option but to raise their offer until the leaseholder is satisfied, and in Reginald Road, although two leaseholders accepted the council’s offers, one did exactly that, delaying the process — and, in fact, derailing it until the council made him, or makes him an offer he finds acceptable.
In addition, the council further complicated matters by moving temporary tenants into the block’s empty flats — typically, single mothers with young children, who are part of a vast and generally unseen population of Londoners, all on councils’ enormous waiting lists, who are shunted from one temporary residency to another, often involving the painful and related upheaval of not only having to move home, but also having to move their children form one school to another, which can be severely detrimental to their development and their mental health. This process can last for years — or, indeed, forever, given the chronic shortage of genuinely affordable housing (i.e. council housing) in the capital.
Fortunately, when some of the residents fought back, so too did some of the temporary residents, as I explained in a detailed analysis of their plight, Save Reginald House: Demolition Plans For Flats Next to Former Tidemill Garden Reveal the Broken State of Social Housing Provision in London, published in July 2022. As a result, I’m delighted to say, the council — seeing no other way out of a rebellion of temporary tenants that threatened Peabody’s ‘regeneration’ plans — located permanent housing for some of the families, and may also have offered some of them permanent homes in ‘Frankham Walk’ — entirely appropriately, it must be said, given that the council had been publicising the ‘affordable’ flats in the development as being, specifically, “for local people on Lewisham Council’s waiting list.”
As a final demonstration of how the 16 flats of 2-30a Reginald Road encapsulate the broken nature of affordable housing provision in the capital, many of the block’s flats are now occupied by property guardians, who, helpfully for the developers, don’t have any rights, but who, for the privilege, are paying on average £850 a month to the dubious racketeers of the property guardian industry, none of which, from what I can ascertain, actually ends up in the council’s coffers at all.
Frankham Walk isn’t the solution to Lewisham’s housing crisis
Five years on from the eviction of the Tidemill occupation — bringing to an end campaigners’ long efforts to save a precious green community space that helped mitigate the worst effects of air pollution from nearby Deptford Church Street, and that also involved championing the refurbishment, rather than the demolition of structurally sound council housing — it remains to be seen if the tired, greedy and unjust model of ‘regeneration’ on the site will provide much benefit for those in genuine housing need.
Hopefully, the 79 homes allocated “for local people on Lewisham Council’s waiting list” will actually end up reducing Lewisham’s waiting list of 9,921 households by 79, but as I explained in my article in March, “the council’s obsession, over the years, with trumpeting [Frankham Walk] as the biggest delivery of social homes in the borough in a generation only shows how broken the provision of genuinely affordable rented housing has become. Over the last decade, thousands of new homes have been built in Lewisham, and yet most of these have been for private sale or for market rent, and have done nothing to shift the alarmingly huge numbers of people on the council’s waiting list, which will barely be dented at all by Frankham Walk.”
And as for the homes for private sale, who knows whether 52 households or investors can be found to buy them? Is Deptford, with its high street just minutes away — still multi-racial, still largely working class, still resisting large-scale gentrification and still slightly edgy — a compelling location when London is littered with half-empty new developments in search of the ever-shrinking number of people able to afford a mortgage?
Five years on, I believe that the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign was absolutely correct to call for the garden and 2-30a Reginald Road to be saved from destruction and ‘regeneration’, and I also believe that all the housing built here — and at ‘The Muse’, Peabody’s twinned development in New Cross — should have been for social rent, and not as the ‘regeneration’ industry’s hybrid mess of private sale, shared ownership and allegedly affordable rented properties that has done almost nothing to dent the problem of chronic unaffordability afflicting the majority of Londoners.
Ironically, Peabody and other housing associations-turned-developers seem finally to be waking up to this reality, but not, unfortunately, by properly taking lessons about unaffordability on board. In January this year, Ian McDermott, its chief executive since October 2021, told the New Statesman that “[t]he inflation crisis is stopping us from building new homes”, neatly sidestepping the more glaring truth that it is greed and overreach that is causing its problems — not least in Thamesmead, where Peabody is in charge of the crawling and botched multi-billion pound ‘regeneration’ of the iconic, Brutalist 1970s estate that, for decades, has been unfairly maligned as a “sink estate.”
To put it bluntly, in an economy that will very clearly never see better days again — if not because of Tory incompetence and corruption, and the poison of Brexit, then because of the ever-growing destructive power of climate collapse — everything is too expensive, and I’m pretty sure that, on a much smaller scale, Peabody is currently learning that this is as true in the heart of Deptford as it is at Thamesmead.