There could be no better day to mark the start of the regeneration of the Heygate Estate than April Fool’s day.  On this day 11 years ago of the day Heygate residents received a MORI poll questionnaire, asking for their opinions on the future of the estate.

571 householders out of a 1194 total returned the questionnaires and the responses make instructive reading, both for what people thought about the estate, what was hoped for, and for what has actually happened.

55% were satisfied with living on the estate, 58% with living in the area.  Opinion on the four options for redevelopment was evenly divided between 3 variations of demolition or repair, all including a rebuild on the Heygate footprint – the fourth option, demolition and no new homes had little support, 5% as a first preference.

Other responses of note were the desire to remain a tenant on the Heygate Estate (70%) and the desire to remain on the estate, no matter what improvements might be made there – 52%.

All-in-all the picture you might expect of any ordinary South London estate, where people have made lives for themselves, some more happily than others but most just getting on with it.  Why then is the Heygate now the ‘infamous’ Heygate estate (The Independent, 29 March 2010), a place where no sensible person would want to live?  How has it acquired its notorious reputation?

One of the consequences to the MORI poll was that Southwark felt able to claim  that  ‘70% of Heygate tenants expressed a wish to move to a new home’, an interpretation of the figures that opens up new vistas for mathematics.   It also started to describe the homes as ‘unpopular’ and ‘poor quality’, but without claiming that they had to be demolished because of dilapidation – they would simply be replaced by something better.

From January 2001 Southwark also stopped giving new tenants secure tenancies – new tenants would get temporary, insecure, tenancies (or licences), which did not have the same rights and crucially would not place any obligation on Southwark to rehouse them in new homes.  (These insecure tenancies numbered 299 by Nov 2007, when decanting began).  The estate was being turned into a transitory place of abode, rather than a place people could settle down and live.  The lucky ones would move on to a better place, the not-so-lucky (who included 106 leaseholders now in a negative equity trap) would have to take what they could get.

While all this was going on the estate begun playing host to an increasing number of film and television crews – ‘The Bill’, ‘Ghost Squad’, something with Joanna Lumley in it, something with Timothy Spall in it, an advert for Levis, pop videos for Madonna and David Guetta.  The Heygate (and the Aylesbury) was the place to come if you wanted a gritty estate and a local authority that would look after you.

In 2002/3 the whole regeneration plan collapsed.  Southwark fell out with the developers, Southwark Land Regeneration, at about the same time as the council itself changed political hands – a new Liberal administration took over from Labour.  This made the critical decision to yoke the regeneration of the estate to the wider regeneration of the Elephant, including the shopping centre.  Now, according to Southwark, retaining the estate would make the wider aims of the regeneration unachievable (Executive Report, 17 June 2003).  The Council would draft its own development plan and find a private partner later. The Heygate residents would be rehoused elsewhere – the Early Housing sites, scattered around the borough, although usually described as being ‘at or about the Elephant’.  They would be built before anything else in the regeneration and completed by 2010 (New Homes for Heygate, residents rehousing pack, Spring 2003).

There was no meaningful resistance to this change of course; the Tenants and Residents Association had been effectively co-opted by Southwark from the start and continued to support its plans.  On the estate there were big problems with the heating system and Southwark was eventually forced to undertake a major repair to keep it going, but life continued pretty much in its usual anonymous round.

In 2006 Southwark got a Lib Dem/Tory administration, a new housing supremo, Tory councillor Kim Humphreys and, not long after, a new chief executive, Annie Shepherd.  In 2007 nearly 2 years of ominous silence on the 16 Early Housing sites ended and a new plan emerged, the Heygate Action Plan (Executive Report, 19 June 2007).  This gave up on building the early housing sites before demolishing the estate; instead tenants were to move into current housing stock according to a plan drawn up with the assistance of PricewaterhouseCooper.  Tenants would find and bid for their own replacement homes using the weekly ‘Homesearch Magazine’, each would be assigned a case officer to help them and a time-limit was set to encourage the reluctant, about 6 months – after this notices to seek possession and to quit would be issued.  Those tenants who wanted it would be given a so-called ‘right-to-return’ to the early housing sites (about 250 have taken up the offer).  The TRA rebelled, but it was too late.  The target date for delivering vacant possession to the new development partners, Lendlease, would be Sept 2009.

Over 900 households, at least a couple of thousand of people, have now been removed from the Heygate Estate.  No Early Housing Sites have been completed and only 286 of the promised 1200 replacement units have planning permission.

In the meantime the Heygate’s reputation as the film set of choice for urban dramas has burgeoned.  Sir Michael Caine (‘Harry Brown’) has exacted revenge and disorientated youths have searched for manhood in its mean streets (or walkways); even Clint Eastwood has chanced his arm.  The undeserved popular image of the Heygate as a crime ridden hellhole fostered by these films leads naturally to the conclusion that social problems are the reason the estate is being demolished.  The real reasons, the whole thread of decisions taken by Southwark Council, each one a betrayal and a step away from the initial promise, ‘New Homes for Heygate’, is forgotten.

The Heygate’s journey from being a humdrum council estate that no-one had ever heard of to becoming a byword for urban depravity suits Southwark very well.   Its critical role in reducing a community of some thousands to a blank spot on the map is buried under the image of a well-meaning council, wrestling with intractable problems in the face of the great global credit crunch.  It also suits developers Lendlease, who don’t want a council estate sitting on their profit opportunity, and will be in no hurry to build anything that smacks of council housing, such as ‘affordable’, or, heaven forbid, ‘social rented’.

A Contribution to Southwark Notes blog by
Jerry Flynn
1st April 2010