Broadwater Farm estate resist social cleansing

Protests against police racism on the Broadwater Farm estate

Haringey Council has announced its intention to demolish two housing blocks on Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, North London in the wake of reports of structural weaknesses. This follows many years of speculation about the future of the estate which was branded ‘notorious’ by the right-wing press following riots in 1985 and as the birthplace of Mark Duggan whose killing by police heralded the 2011 uprisings. In 2016 Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed with a fanfare his intention to demolish 100 ‘sink estates’ across the country whose architecture, it was claimed, was responsible for ‘drug abuse and gang culture’. Broadwater Farm was on the list. Poverty, it was claimed, would be ‘bulldozed’. The latest plans to demolish have been decided by the newly-formed Momentum-led Labour council in advance of any consultation with tenants and with scant regard for their future.

A long history of neglect

In 1967 construction started on the Broadwater Farm estate with the intention of providing 1,063 homes for up to 3,000 residents and utilising the swampy land of the River Moselle. All buildings on the site were to be raised on plinths as the ground level was susceptible to flooding and all the blocks were linked by walkways.

Taylor Woodrow Anglian won the contract from Haringey Council to build two 19-storey towers and eight seven-storey blocks. The year after construction began, part of Ronan Point, a 21-storey tower block in Canning Town in the east London borough of Newham, also built by Taylor Woodrow Anglian, collapsed only two months after it was completed, killing four people and injuring another 17. The direct cause was a small gas explosion, but the structure of the tower was so weak that it could not withstand the shock.

Despite this clear demonstration that large panel construction in high rise buildings was structurally unsound, Taylor Wimpey continued to build these blocks. Promises were made that new and existing buildings would be strengthened, but there is now no record of where this was done. So, from the outset, Broadwater Farm was blighted by cost-cutting prefabricated building materials. A low standard of construction, materials and maintenance affected the whole estate from the start. Walkways were often flooded with stagnant water and the rubbish shutes never worked properly.

In addition to shoddy building and maintenance, the estate had been flung up with little thought of infrastructure, transport links, shops and services. By 1976 Haringey Council found it hard to let the flats and the local media portrayed this housing as a destination only for poor, black and immigrant people. In the face of Haringey’s neglect, every improvement to the estate housing and every provision for the community since the start has been demanded and fought for by the residents.

People versus prejudice

Added to the burden of living in a blighted environment of continual repairs and temporary patch-up, the atmosphere on the estate was poisoned by a particularly hostile local police force in Tottenham. Constant surveillance and monitoring of individuals and the relentless use of Stop and Search (SUS) particularly against young black men raised tension daily. Arrests and strip searches were repeated experiences for many.

The death of Cynthia Jarrett, a local black mother who died after a brutal police incursion into her home, triggered an uprising against police harassment in October 1985.  Protest raged in the community and the uprising led to the killling of PC Blakelock on the estate. The punishment of the entire community was long and savage. Doors were smashed in, property destroyed, over 300 residents, including children, were arrested and three innocent people were falsely convicted of murder in a climate of racist bigotry. These circumstances, especially the treatment of Winston Silcott, were later to be the subject of an Amnesty International Report. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan – who grew up on Broadwater Farm – on 5 August 2011 was similarly followed by protests and rioting that spread to towns and cities all over the country for two days and nights. Potential confrontation between a racist police force and local young people continues to be a threat on the estate and in the area.

And yet Broadwater Farm thrives

Haringey has a poverty rate of 34% and Tottenham has the highest unemployment rate in London. That Broadwater Farm estate itself has the lowest rate of crime of any inner-city area in the UK is a measure of mutual support and respect among residents. It is also a tribute to the Broadwater Farm Youth Association and other estate organisations that have developed since 1985. There is today a wide variety of activities created by and supporting the 40 different minority ethnic groups who live on the estate, including apprenticeship schemes, sporting and cultural clubs and women’s support groups.

No peace

Like 30% of Haringey council tenants the residents of Broadwater Farm have been living with the threat of demolition and decanting for a long time. The proposed development of huge areas of council housing in a £2bn deal between the local council and the property company Lendlease, the so-called Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), has been cancelled by the new Labour council which came to power after the May local elections. However, the cabinet member for housing and estates, Emine Ibrahim, is now leading plans for the demolition of two tower blocks. Tenants have been warned that they must leave their homes with little prospect of ever returning.

After Grenfell 

Most councils around the UK panicked about the consequences for themselves after the ghastly sight of the Grenfell Tower fire. They belatedly rushed to inspect their tower blocks for cladding and fire safety. What should have been obvious before, and what many residents had said for years, is that large-panel system concrete high rise blocks are cracking up, patch-work in-filler will not stop the spread of smoke or a fire.  Further tests revealed that some buildings are ‘structurally unsafe’ including two at Broadwater Farm. Rather than investing in a proper refurbishment, the council has told residents in one of the blocks to expect to be moved out by the end of October. They will get only one offer of alternative accommodation.

But councils are not the only ones to learn from the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. The people also look and learn and they do not trust anyone in the business of housing. The secretary of the Residents Association for Broadwater Farm says that the October deadline is ‘unrealistic’ and would leave people homeless. ‘To assume that hundreds of people can be rehoused by October is simply not possible’, he said. ‘Instead we will end up in hotels and B&Bs and we want assurances that that won’t happen’.

The people of Tottenham, like others all over the country, are well aware that housing has become a big investment target for developers. Once-neglected estates in inner city areas have become desirable targets for redevelopment into luxury flats. Working class people are being priced out and pushed out of their cities. Let us hope that the community of Broadwater Farm Estate stands firm and united against this social cleansing.

Susan Davidson

 Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018

 

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