Having been evicted, and facing demolition, the London Sweets Way estate campaigners have taken democracy into their own hands.
“Have you got ID? Have you got ID? You can't come in unless you've got ID!” was my greeting as I arrived at the Sweets Way estate in Barnet. Daniel is seven, an ex-resident, and was likely echoing what he'd heard during the evictions over the past few months. He knew who I was though, and gave me a wry smile - his joke was both sweet and sardonic. Daniel is better versed than most adults when speaking about the housing crisis. His parents are part of the Sweets Way Resists campaign. He's been on television (“I nearly fell off my bike, you know! On the telly!”) and has spoken to many a journalist. He seemed weary of chatting about such boring grown-up matters, and rightly so. Instead, we discussed the tent he'd made with his friend out of some crates and sheets. “It's not a tent,” he corrected me solemnly, “it's a home.”
Since Annington Properties Limited gained the council's permission to demolish and redevelop the estate, all but one household have been evicted. Where a close community once existed, rows of empty houses are eerily boarded up to prevent the homeless, or anyone, from entering. The community has been shattered, scattered across London and further afield, usually with little consideration for people's employment, schools or medical needs. Daniel's mother Zlatka, an NHS worker, tells me how Sweets Way was her 'paradise': “Our son could play outside safely, we had a garden and a community.” The family spent weeks waiting to find out their fate; not knowing where they would end up was one of the most stressful times of her life, she said. Her partner Andrew, who also works for the NHS, tells me how he had found their son Daniel crying, scared of being forced to leave his home, friends and school. The family has since been relocated to Hendon, to a smaller house with no garden, and stairs too steep for Zlatka's arthritic knees. To minimise the upheaval, Andrew has decided to reduce his working hours so he can drive his son to school in Barnet.
The family were back at Sweets Way for the opening of the 'People's Regeneration Show Home'. Since the evictions, a few of the houses on the estate have been occupied. One of those is number 153, and - over six days of intensive planning, sourcing of materials and DIY by former residents, volunteers and campaigners - it has been transformed. The house is now a fully-fitted, quite beautifully refurbished home, imbued with the essence of solidarity and community empowerment. Liam, an activist organising with the Sweets Way campaign, describes how the homes' interiors had been smashed up by Annington, to make them uninhabitable. According to Annington, regeneration is essentially synonymous with prioritising profit over people. Or, as Liam has put it: “the forced dispersal of communities based solely on their inability to pay as much for shelter as others. Social cleansing is what happens when the free market is left to dictate housing policy.” The campaigners' 'regeneration' of number 153 is a symbolic act of resistance. Not only does it demonstrate that power is not unilateral, it represents the potential of community organisation in the face of the social housing crisis. The campaigners have not only reclaimed wood, slate and bathroom fittings; they have reclaimed the meaning of 'regeneration'.
The Sweets Way Resists campaign and its symbolic show home are set in a context of many similar stories. As more and more estates are sold off to private developers, and London becomes prohibitively expensive for most, the social housing agenda is rapidly gaining momentum. Evicted resident Andrew tells me, “I never thought I'd be involved in a campaign like this... You always think: 'it's not going to happen to me.'” He doesn't seem to identify with any kind of politics that could be deemed 'radical' (he thinks Owen Jones's and Russell Brand's involvement has been good for media coverage, but thinks little of their ideologies) and clearly relates to the issues on a personal level – as a matter of principle. That it is wrong to destroy an established community in the name of profit. And this is precisely why the Sweets Way campaign shows so much potential. It is about people – more and more of them – actively questioning the logic of the free market's monopoly on a basic need, shelter. What the show home challenges, according to Liam, is the premise that there is no alternative to handing over swathes of affordable homes to the private sector in order to make them liveable. Firstly, the properties at Sweets Way were already in good condition but – more importantly – the grassroots show home demonstrates that regeneration does not have to be 'top-down.' The campaigners hope that their efforts will set a precedent for replication across London.
Strictly speaking, much of the campaigning at Sweets Way has been illegal. After the evictions, an injunction was put in place against any kind of political action in the area. Yet, as Liam says, laws have to change by people pushing them – which can be scary. And what is perhaps most exciting about the organising at Sweets Way is the largely 'hands-off', even admiring, approach of the police. While Annington Homes refuse to communicate – hanging up the phone, refusing letters and rejecting meetings - at every juncture of conflict between activists and private contractors, the police have sided with the former. One such incident involved a contractor throwing petrol and flicking a cigarette at a squatter. Liam is hopeful that this apparent change in allegiances “should scare the shit out of the Tories!” The campaigners at Sweets Way have taken democracy into their own hands (and hammers), and hope to provide a took-kit for others to do the same.