Social Cleansing in Tower Hamlets: Interview with Balfron Tower Evictee

by James Butler

The Balfron Tower is famous. Designed by Ernö Goldfinger, it is the older – and less loved – sister of the Trellick tower in North Kensington. Standing 27 stories tall, and adjacent to Carradale House, another Goldfinger block, it has become a Poplar landmark. Built after World War II as a solution to the devastated housing stock in East London, it has seen its popularity wane and grow, becoming an object of architectural appreciation by the end of the last century. Both the Balfron and Carradale House are now Grade-II listed buildings, and are often spoken of as “monuments to idealism in social housing.” But among its residents, it has also become a byword for monumental council neglect and mistreatment.

Though it stands in the shadow of the vast wealth of Canary Wharf, very little of the glittering cash of the financial sector seems to have made its way to Goldfinger’s buildings. Formerly council-owned and managed, the buildings were transferred to Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (HARCA) in 2007, which is undertaking the refurbishment and “regeneration” of the block. At the beginning of this process, social tenants were assured of their right either to return to the block after the refurbishment process, or choose to move to a new-build. More recently, however, Poplar HARCA has made the decision to sell off the refurbished flats, completing the block’s transfer from social to private ownership.

While there has been much celebration in the architectural and art worlds that this Brutalist icon will be receiving much-needed refurbishment, rather less attention has been given to the tenants being displaced (“decanted”, as the jargon goes) by the process. I meet Sara and her 5-month-old daughter at my flat near Elephant & Castle – her flat in Balfron Tower is crowded with the detritus of preparing for eviction – to talk about the way she has been treated by the local authority during the decant. Sara moved in to Balfron in 2010, following a fire in her previous block – she shows me some of the scars on her hands from the fire – and is now in the thick of a battle to demand decent rehousing for her and her daughter. “As soon as I moved into that flat they suddenly ‘lost’ my housing application,” she says, “and told me I wasn’t on the list. So I wouldn’t have moved then if I had known, but I also wasn’t planning to have a baby.”

“But Balfron, as you know is being sold off now, so they’re getting rid of everyone. I was on the list anyway, and now I’ve got a child, and I’m going to be evicted, and I’ve got nowhere to go. Because I grew up in care, I’ve got no family to help me either and basically they just don’t want to know. They’re trying to push me into private rent or move me way out of the borough, like Bradford or Southend or somewhere. I don’t know anyone in those areas.”

Sara had been a low-paid clerical worker in the NHS prior to the fire that led her to living in the Balfron. After that, she lost her job and has been able to survive because of her social rent since. “I could only afford to work if I was on social housing. And… there’s hardly any work in London at the moment, so let alone if I moved – they suggested Dagenham – there’s no work in Dagenham! And even if I did find work in London, I couldn’t afford to commute.” She has been told by officers in the housing department to try to find a private rental, but the costs and insecurity associated with the private sector, and pressure from the local authority to get her off the housing list give her reservations. “The woman from the housing office said to me, well, you know, people are expected to commute for an hour and a half – and well it’s alright if you’re on 150 grand – I’ll have your job!”

As Sara unfolds the story of trying to get the council to fulfill their duty to rehouse her, it seems clearer and clearer to me that Tower Hamlets simply want to find any way to get her off their list. “Yeah, they’re definitely trying to get rid of me, they told me, they really really pressured me with the rent deposit scheme, and I was told by Shelter not to take it.” She explains that the deposit scheme is a way of shunting social tenants into the private sector without any guarantee of security in their housing. “The guy dealing with my case said to me – off the record – don’t go with the rent deposit scheme, they’re just trying to get rid of you. He told me that, and then of course, in front of his manager he’s trying to get me on the RDS and they’re really pressurising me. And as you know, if you go on the rent deposit scheme, then the landlord can then just put the rent up in 6 months time – once you’re in there, they can just do what they like. If I could find a decent flat and rent it long-term, I would do it, I wouldn’t need the council’s help. I would just go and do it! But everyone I know who’s in renting – you know what it’s like, you have to move every six months to a year – and then with a child, with schooling, I don’t want that, plus the rent going up, I can’t – I can’t live like that. Otherwise I would. And they probably don’t understand, because when they’re renting, and they’re in the higher end of the market, it must be completely different then.” She has even been told to try ‘cosmic ordering’: “I really wish I’d recorded all of my interviews in housing. I had to start taking someone along with me, because I couldn’t believe it. That’s just what you want to be told by a housing officer at Tower Hamlets, try cosmic ordering, I mean it worked for Noel Edmonds! I’m sure the few million behind him helped a bit.”

It’s not only Sara who has been affected by the push toward Rental Deposit Scheme: “There’s another couple on my block, they’ve got a kid as well, they’ve both got learning difficulties. They agreed with the council to go on a rent deposit scheme, and the council don’t even pay the whole of the deposit, they pay half of it – and they lost their money – this couple with learning difficulties, and they lost their money. And they saved for it for months.”

The pressure from the council to move to another area fails to take any account of the difficulties of raising a child, or the change in culture:  “They suggested Dagenham, which I’ve never even been to, and I don’t know anyone there. And when I googled it, it came up with ‘strong EDL’, and I was like, yeah, great, I really want to move there. Yeah, please. I’m mixed race, I really want to take my mixed race daughter to live somewhere I don’t know which is full of EDL.”

“I’ve got friends in the east end I’ve had since I was 12, and I’m 37 now, I’m not going to suddenly just make those new relationships overnight. It’s OK to relocate and relocate if you’re rich – if you’re rich and you don’t like it, you can come back. But if you go into social housing up north, then that’s it – you’re stuck there then, for the rest of your life. It’s not the same as if you’ve got money, you can just say, oh, I don’t like it after 2 months and come home.”

The way the council has been carrying out the eviction seems to have been particularly sly. The council issued Sara with a Notice Seeking an Order for Possession (NOSP) on the grounds of rent arrears. But, like many social tenants, Sara relies on housing benefit, which is paid in arrears, to cover her rent. The notices were issued in the third week of the month, just prior to payment, claiming three weeks of arrears. A notice on those grounds can impact future chances of housing: post-Right To Buy depletion of council-owned housing stock, most social stock is now owned by housing associations, who have greater license to bar tenants with arrears, or keep them on permanent introductory tenancy, effectively denying them the greater security of a social tenancy. Those presenting with arrears notices can be marked as “intentionally” homeless. Fortunately, because Sara has a daughter, social services will have a duty to house her – but the arrears notice means this would likely be on a permanent introductory tenancy, removing anything in the way of housing security. “They did it to everyone,” she says.

Sara’s experience of the housing office has been like many other people’s: varying between uncaring incompetence and box-ticking malice. From what she tells me, I get an uncanny sense that Tower Hamlets really will apply any pressure possible to get people needing housing off their list. It doubtless looks good for targets, but in reality this means a miserable experience for many, and one founded on misdirection by council workers. When she took in a support worker to witness a meeting, her housing officer went to find a manager: “ I thought, why are you not telling me what you were planning to tell me as soon as I’ve brought someone else in. And even with the woman there, the housing support worker, she told me: it’s a lovely day, if I was you, I’d go out and walk the streets and find a flat. Do you think I want to be sitting in a housing office? Do you not think, if I could sort out housing without the help of these condescending arseholes I would quite happily do without their help? But I need it, unfortunately. And most of the people in there do. All of them do.”

Sara has been told many things by her housing workers: that they have no duty to house her, that the bidding systen won’t work, that unless she takes the deposit scheme she’ll be taken out of London, or they’ll put her in a Premier Inn, or B&B. B&Bs are something Sara has experience with: “ Before I got my Housing Association flat I was housed in a B&B – this was in the early 2000s. I saw a bill, and it cost the council so much money, often £700 a week or something ridiculous, to house me in this crappy B&B in King’s Cross. And it was absolutely huge, it housed about four hundred homeless people. And someone was making a lot of money out of that.”

***

We get to talking about the changes the area has seen in the last few years. The flats in the Balfron Tower, once emptied but prior to their refurbishment, have been used to host “artists’ live/work studios” by Bow Arts, but are also being farmed out to ‘property guardians’, and, lately, being used as temporary accommodation for homeless from outside of Tower Hamlets. “But more than Bow Arts, in my block is guardians. And that’s like basically paying to squat. You get no rights, you get a work contract. And there’s absolutely loads of them. People hate them, but I think that they’re just in the same position as everyone else. Why would you want to live like that? And you can be out in 24 hours. There was a guy in my block who was a guardian, and someone complained he had his music too loud, and he got a 24 hour notice the next day. So living like that, they don’t care about the block, and I don’t blame them either, you’re not going to put down roots in the community.”

Artists are the shock troops of gentrification, of course, in varying degrees of complicity: where artists pop up, rocketing house prices and dispossession soon follow. It seemed strange to me that so many journalists and commentators write about renaissance or regeneration of an area without bothering to talk to people who are being slowly disappeared from it. Sara tells me that the media attention Balfron Tower receives is largely from people who want to write about its architecture, or praise its preservation. They don’t seem to have bothered to talk to anyone actually living in it – or if they do, it’s the more media-palatable artists.

“People write about it, but a lot of the media interest in the block is always from an art point of view. There’s a couple of galleries in the building. Because of BA – and the block’s always had an association with artists – the council are doing that to make out as if they care about arts – they don’t care about arts, not local arts in the area, they do not care. As soon as they get the investors in they won’t care about the artists. So we get tourists coming to look at the block every day. It feels like you’re living in a zoo, peering through your window and then going back to their nice posh house in the suburbs.

“They do a little tour round the area – Robin Hood Gardens, Balfron Tower, go look at the Banksy –  and then I think they get on the DLR and get out of there.”

Such changes are easy to notice for anyone who’s lived in the area for a while. Sara reserves special anger for anyone who wants to pretend that the Olympics did anything useful for the area. “It’s just so gentrified. I went to a jumble sale in Hackney last week, walking around and hearing everyone talking, and thought – this isn’t the Hackney that I remember. It’s really changed. All those houses that were working houses, that had people who worked in shops – now they’re millionaires’ houses.

“These people don’t provide jobs. Like, Canary Wharf, did not provide any jobs for local people apart from cleaning jobs, and some jobs in shops. Just like the Olympics. All the people who work high up, they bring them in from outside. They don’t bring money into the area, they take it out, and they keep it all to themselves. Like the Olympics didn’t provide jobs for local people, apart from say McDonald’s or cleaning, that’s it – minimum wage, zero hours contract, that’s all it is for us. And if you look at Canary Wharf, there’s no space there, they’ve built all that up, so that’s why they’re now going to Poplar. And it’s like they want to build up in between Stratford, Poplar and Canary Wharf – all the area in between. ‘Cause if you look at the other local shithole – it’s been a shithole for years – Canning Town – they’re putting up loads of those luxury flats, they’ve redesigned the station. They want to do it all, but it’s not for the people who live there at the moment.”

The changes that come quick on the heels of artists moving into an area are easily seen: “I’ve heard locals in the social club complaining about them just playing at living on a council estate for a few years, and they’re like, ‘they’re all right’, because when they’re talking about the block being sold in the social club, “they’re all right ‘cause their Mum and Dad will buy them a flat somewhere else.” And it’s probably true. And you could notice the change when you started seeing Waitrose delivering outside Balfron Tower.”

***

It’s hard not to see a policy of deliberate neglect operating in blocks like the Balfron – as is true elsewhere, like the Heygate in Elephant and Castle. “They’ve allowed [Balfron] to get run down, so that people want to get out of there as well. Everyone says, oh, it’s such a crap place, that they hate living there – the flats themselves are really, well, can be really nice, because they’re big.” With the changes to the overcrowding rules, things only get more difficult, but the changes to quality in housing are obvious to anyone who has had to live in them, or move between different types of housing. But selling the flats in the Balfron into private ownership means these types of flats will no longer be accessible to people like Sara.

“The last one I was in was a new build – built in the 90s – and it was horrible. The ones built twenty years later are absolutely horrible. Low ceilings, dingy walls, no storage –  I found it difficult living there just on my own, and it was only twenty years old. It’s like they’ve looked at buildings like Balfron, and thought, well, why should poor people have them? They did consider them crap once, and as soon as they consider them not crap, they say, well, we don’t want the poor to have them.”

Poplar HARCA have just completed a £140m bond issue to finance their regeneration work – the credit report from Moody’s makes for some interesting reading – but the question of where the money’s going, and who benefits is a more pressing one. Though there has been some resistance to the idea of being moved, it’s been gradually worn down.

“There are people who’ve been living there for quite a long time, there’s a woman who was living underneath me, and she’d been living there since it opened, and when I first moved in there, they didn’t want to go – they were all saying, oh, I’m not going, the council can kiss my arse, I ain’t going nowhere – and now they’re all saying, oh, I can’t bear it, I’m sick of it. They’ve been starting doing a lot of work around the block, so the noise is unbearable, and it starts at 8 in the morning. The council aren’t doing any repairs at all to the block – anything that needs doing – they put in new gardens and things like that, which are obviously for the *next* lot of people. But anything, like the tiles coming up in the corridor, anything like that, they’ll just wait, so it’s getting even worse there.

“Apparently they gave people that had assured tenancies, that had been there over 20 years, ten grand. And they’re all really excited – oh, I’ve got ten grand – well, yeah, I would be as well. When you’ve got no money, ten grand’s a lot of money. But then if they’re selling off a 1 bed flat for £330,000, ten grand’s taking the piss, isn’t it? Especially if people are giving up three bed maisonettes for ten grand.”

Sara worries about additional rates of council tax and increases if Tower Hamlets were to succeed in moving her to another area, and the way this will affect people being moved out. “A lot of people out of the borough, they won’t realise that. That they’re going to have to start paying more money that they haven’t got. If you’re working, it’s not going to affect you, but if you’re moving people out that are disabled,  that are single mothers with kids – even if they are working, or are in the position where they’ve got a kid and put the kid in childcare, started work, and are maybe £10 a week better off. Because the rents are so high. I don’t want to spend my life on benefits, I only stopped working in 2010, after my accident, I don’t want to spend my life on benefits but I feel like they’re forcing me. If they move me too far away, or into private housing, they’ll be forcing me to spend the rest of my life like that.”

“I know to people outside of London it doesn’t sound like… it sounds like a lot of money to a Daily Mail reader, but when you’re living in an area where the rent on a 1 bedroom flat is £350 per week, and you’ve got a bigger family, and that flat was once a council flat that was £100 per week, but now it’s much higher because it’s private. All this moving people around… it’ll end up costing the government more in the long run. Putting me in social housing, and me being able to work, that’s going to cost less money than moving me to the private sector and never being able to afford to work. But they don’t think about the long run, they think about the now, and getting the money in now.”

***

I ask Sara if she were presented with the people in charge of Tower Hamlets housing policy, what she’d say to them. Her answer, to my mind, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the way housing works in places like Tower Hamlets:

“If I could say anything I wanted to them, I’d ask them where they all live, and how they paid for it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they said something like “my parents gave me the deposit for a flat.” I think they assume everyone else has got these options. They think everyone’s coming to them, taking the piss, wanting a free flat, thinking everyone else can just go and get a deposit off their parents, or that their parents have got a big house that they can go and live in. I’d like to know where they all lived, and how they paid for it, and how much money they earned to do their job. I’d like to ask them whether they think Tower Hamlets should stay working class – not middle class-working class, even them they don’t want – but proper working class. I don’t think they do want it to. They think the land’s too good, it’s too prime for normal people.

“I was going to say, who do they think is going to look after their children, or work in shops, or will they just bring in more people from abroad and treat them even worse? ‘Cause the racism in Tower Hamlets has got worse as well, really, I think I’ve noticed it a lot more over the last few years. Obviously there’s always racism, especially against Muslims in the area, but I never overheard it so much as I do now. Now, barely a day goes by when I’m getting on the bus or going round the supermarket that I don’t hear it. And I never used to notice it so much, but I think it’s because everyone is so much under pressure. Somehow, this government, especially on housing, they’ve got everyone thinking that all these other groups are getting things that they’re not getting. A lot of people on the estate, a lot of older people in my block, have said to me “I don’t like this area any more, it’s full of Bengalis and Polish.” So they’re getting the blame for what the Tories are doing, they’re getting the blame for the lack of housing. And it’s all just simmering under. It must be to do with housing, and everyone feeling like they’re getting pushed out – but I’m sure the Muslim families feel like they’re getting pushed out as well.

“People think someone else has got it – they don’t, it’s not there, but they think someone else has got it.

“People have lost faith in Tories and Labour – even if you had faith in either of them to start with – and that’s why the EDL are doing so well, people are just desperate. And it does kick off racism, when there’s no housing and no money. Even with immigrants from different countries turning against each other as well. People hate to be on the bottom rung, so as soon as they see someone else coming in, they think, great, gang up against them. It’s a horrible situation. It’s got worse, with benefits cap, and not being allowed to live on your own in a flat if you’re under 35… I think there will be more riots. I just want it to change. I thought Labour were bad – because they’re all out for themselves – but nothing compared to this lot.”

***

“I don’t think [somewhere like Balfron Tower] crosses their mind. I don’t think they’re thinking of the future at all, or money saved – like with Universal Credit, apparently that will take twenty years to make back what it cost to implement. By then they’ll have something else. They just want to win Daily Mail votes, by making people think they’re doing something about “spongers”… This attitude that people have about “why don’t you just get a job and get a flat” –– that’s what people want to do, they want to work, there’s not the jobs out there, and when there are, the wages are so low, you can’t pay private rent, and you can never buy a flat. You work your arse off for nothing, and get treated like crap – the way they’ve got around employment law, giving people breaks, zero hour contracts… and how the hell are you supposed to arrange childcare when you don’t know whether or not you’re working until a few hours before? You’re not going to do it. Or buying weekly travelcards, then not using it and not earning money. It’s all adding up to make it impossible for people. They just want to get people out of London is the overall feeling I’ve got – they’re not even saying to move to another borough.”

“I don’t know anyone that’s not struggling with housing. Even people who are a class above me. They’re struggling with it, even if they’re in regular work.”

Something that occurs to me while Sara is speaking is to wonder about what local authorities think their job is. They’ve never been perfect, of course, but now they treat Sara – and many others in the same position – as problems they desperately want to be rid of. To stand up to the council, as Sara has done, and demand they fulfil their obligations, is a tricky business: it can mark you out as troublesome, and bring reams of bureaucratic bullying and harassment down on your head. When people I’ve met who work in offices dealing with housing defend their work, they’ve often talked about mitigating the effects of government policy on those who are vulnerable – but such an ethic is notably absent from the way Tower Hamlets have behaved here. It’s not like when the council does something the middle class doesn’t like and it makes the front page of the newspapers: people are being ‘decanted’ out of London without even a whisper of attention.

“They think I’m dumb because I haven’t got a posh accent. And they probably look at me and see I’m mixed race and have tattoos and think I’m rough as fuck, but I’m not.

“I think they think I’m really stupid. I think they think everyone’s stupid. I think they know we’re desperate, and they think we’re stupid as well. But they know I’m desperate. They know I’ve got no choice. Because if you weren’t desperate, you wouldn’t put up with it.”

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Published 20th August 2013

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