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Bloomsbury students and Carpenters residents urge UCL management to think again

This is a report of a meeting which took place on Thursday April 26th in UCL student union, supported by Bloomsbury Fightback!, Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans (CARP) and UCL Anti-Cuts. Six speakers, comprising residents and a UCL student and staff member, presented their own take on the current situation. This was followed by a screening of a short section of the film ‘On the Edge‘ and an open discussion (during which members of UCL management present in the audience were questioned and responded).

“I won’t mix my words, the council want to make money”

First to speak was Julian from Games Monitor. Julian was a resident at the Clays Lane housing co-op, which was demolished to make way for the Olympic site. He outlined the ways in which Newham council potentially acted illegally in the eviction process. He also explained how the University of East London, which was very involved in the estate, did not act as a benevolent body. In fact, UEL sent threatening letters to students living on the estate, stating that any legal action taken against UEL would result in high court costs for the residents. Julian spoke about attitudes at the council, including Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, who never visits Carpenters Estate and has referred to the residents as ‘peasants’. Finally, Julian outlined some small successes made by the Clays Lane residents: in response to continued accusations that the council was  providing false information, the London Development Agency was forced to launch a program to find evicted residents and rehouse them properly.

Joe from CARP, on Carpenters Estate.
photo: Oscar Webb

Next to speak were three residents from Carpenters Estate: Osita, Joe and Naz. Osita spoke clearly and eloquently about the ways that the council has mislead and failed to communicate with Carpnters residents, just as they did at Clays Lane. In January, residents were invited to a meeting about plans for the area, but some were barred from attending (by bouncers stationed at the door). It was at this meeting that UCL’s interest was made public to the residents.  Since then there has been no further information provided to residents on what UCL’s plans are and how these will impact on their homes and community.

While there is meant to be a 6 month dialogue between UCL and Newham council, Osita feels that this will probably be extended – and in the meantime Carpenters residents will still be left without any knowledge about their future on the estate. This has been the situation for the last 10 years while Newham talks about decanting and demolition. Osita emphasised that residents need to be able to plan their lives, and that the lack of information about the future of the estate prevents this.

Osita went on to point out the hypocritical nature of Newham’s approach. The Mayor claims he wants to create ‘a sustainable community’ there – but there is already one in existence! The Council’s slogan is ‘Newham: a place where people come to live, work and stay’ – but ‘staying’ is exactly what the residents want to do despite the council’s actions. Even Boris Johnson has spoken out against the ‘social cleansing’ happening in Newham.

Naz was next to speak. She has been a resident at Carpenters for 18 years, and is also a student at the University of East London. She told us that the estate increasingly feels abandoned and empty: “we don’t get the good things from it like we used to.” Of the 132 units in the block she lives in, only 4 are used. The blocks are damaged – partly by all the filming that happens on the estate – but when people are moved out of a flat, it is often improved and the asbestos is removed as well. To Naz, it seems like there’s only money to fix anything when the flats are empty. She also spoke about how the emptiness of the estate makes her feel unsafe in the area, and that because she lives with her parents, she doesn’t
count as a landlord or tenant, so doesn’t have any representation. For her, that’s why CARP has become so important.

Despite the problems, she feels that Carpenters is still a great place to live, and that the community is far from ‘dismantled’ as Newham claims. They have picnics, fairs, sports events and an after school club. “UCL should know that there is an existing community there. And we still love living there.”

Joe, Chair of CARP, then tied together some of the problems: “The real problem is that the council want our homes” he said. “I won’t mix my words, the council want to make money, and they want to get rid of the people who aren’t generating money.” Joe explained how a ‘Tenants’ Advisor’ had been appointed by the council to represent the residents’ views – but then when it turned out the advisor was working hard to actually represent residents even when this meant standing in the way of the council’s plans, he was sacked. The new advisor is much more on the side of the council and residents feel they are no longer supported. Joe then explained how UCL had organised a drop-in session on the estate, which was poorly publicised and with only a few days notice, and so suffered from poor attendance.

Shiny new campus? Shiny new housing!

At this point, Joe pointed out Rex Knight and John Johnson in the audience, and asked them questions directly. Following this, the dynamic of the meeting changed, as the presence of Rex and John became a prominent part of the meeting.

Among other questions, Joe repeatedly asked Rex and John for a statement of intent on how UCL plans to go forward with engaging the residents of Carpenters in their plans. Joe’s insistence was that UCL commit to engaging with the community itself, and not just the council. Rex and John responded that they weren’t sure what Joe meant by this, pointing out that there had been drop-in sessions, and that UCL had also come to a CARP meeting, although it was badly attended. Joe reiterated that he would be grateful if Rex and John came to speak to them on the estate. Rex said that he couldn’t see a reason why not.

‘Occupy’ protesters team up with East London residents to save Leyton marsh

Returning to the panel, Molly, who works at UCL, spoke next. She spoke as an East London resident about how the Olympics are changing the area, particularly at Leyton Marshes. Molly explained that Newham is a poor borough, and that when she worked there she really liked it and wanted to move there – but already the rents were soaring; she was forced to move to Walthamstow, which is much further out. This housing crisis is something which she thinks UCL should be considering, and urged UCL to sign the statement produced by Defend Council Housing. Molly pointed out that the Olympics will leave several redundant car parks and other land for development in its wake, and that it would be better if this were used for UCL’s planned campus. However, she argued that it Carpenters was to be the site, then UCL should commit to also building social housing. Finally, Molly called for UCL and UEL not to behave like businesses in the area, maligning and ‘shutting communities out’. Instead, it would be positive if UCL, with all its research on global health and planning, worked with CARP to improve facilities for the people of East London.

The last speaker was Ben from UCL student union (UCLU). He said that it was indicative of the problematic nature of these plans that the students didn’t hear about them from UCL management, but through the newspapers. As students, teachers and researchers, UCLU members don’t want their work to be built on other people’s suffering, and as such it’s incumbent on students to scrutinise UCL every step of the way. This is why UCLU now has policy explicitly supporting CARP. Ben impressed on the audience that he feels we know how consultations and drop-in sessions will work, as a way of UCL presenting shiny plans and models, rather than actually making decisions alongside Carpenters residents. Echoing Molly, he argued that if there’s to be a shiny new campus in Stratford, then there should be shiny new housing too. Finally, Ben pointed out that UCL claims the development will create new jobs, but that UCL has well documented short-comings as an employer, including still failing to pay the London Living Wage to its staff.

Following Ben’s talk, there was a ten minute break, and then a showing of a segment of ‘On The Edge’ a film about Carpenters Estate made by students from Goldsmiths University.

On The Edge from Paul Stewart on Vimeo.

Following the film, a lengthy discussion about UCL’s plans for the estate ensued. Rex and John from UCL management contributed frequently, and the facilitator of the discussion has a difficult task in keeping heckles from an increasingly frustrated audience of residents and their supporters in check.

“This is an opportunity for UCL to do it right

The discussion began with Ben from UCLU pointing out that despite a request at the beginning of the meeting that UCL management not note down names of people speaking, UCL management had done so anyway. Rex Knight responded by recognising his mistake, and very visibly ripping up his notes.

The first point from the floor was from a graduate of the Development Planning Unit at UCL, who said that her lecturers had encouraged her to be an ‘insurgent planner’, campaigning against explicitly against the kind of tactics and processes UCL management are now employing in Stratford. She implored UCL management to realise this as an opportunity to provide a model of good practice instead. Jon, a school teacher, said that he finds it hard to believe that any school children or residents will find a UCL campus in Stratford beneficial, given that UCL still fail to pay the London Living Wage, and subcontracts recruitment to companies like G4S.

UCL workers and students protesting aginst low wages and bad conditions

Another teacher joined in that given that Hackney College is already scrapping so many courses, it will be difficult for UCL to engage with education opportunities in the area. Joe was asked about his dismissal from the Tenant Management Organisation by the council, which led onto questions about transparency and accountability on the part of both UCL and Newham council. Several people pressed the point that UCL ought to be open about their plans, and that this needs to be demanded of universities in general, rather than continuing to allow education institutions to hide behind corporate secrecy.

When several students and graduates asked management directly what the plans for the estate are, John Johnson said that there were no plans, although he admitted that architects had already been hired. Rex Knight, however, went on to say that even if there were plans, it would possibly be bad for residents to know them, as UCL would probably change them frequently. At this point Joe from CARP asked again for a statement of intent, including plans for an open process.  A student also asked whether UCL could give assurance that they would defend the residents who were left on the estate. Rex stated that UCL wasn’t in the driving seat over the development, to which Joe responded “I’m not asking you to drive the car, I’m asking you to give directions about where it should go.”

This became a crux of UCL management’s strategy for evading responsibility – they stated that they were engaging with the community already, but when accused of any secrecy, reverted to claims that they weren’t in control, and that we should be talking to Newham council. CARP members pointed out again and again that UCL, by being in negotiations, have far more credence and power with Newham and should be using this time and leverage as an opportunity to make them engage properly with residents.

Towards the end of the meeting, Professor Michael Edwards spoke from the floor. He talked about how he was taught by Ruth Glass, the influential UCL academic who coined the term ‘gentrification’. He declared that the urbanists, sociologists and planners in the academic community at UCL are all extremely keen to be involved with the Stratford project, to ensure that this is an opportunity for UCL to ‘get it right’.

To keep up to date with the campaign, find watch this space! And remember you can follow Bloomsbury Fightback! on facebook and twitter too http://bloomsburyfightback.wordpress.com/contact-us/

About bloomsburyfightback

Bloomsbury Fightback

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