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Housing activists urge London mayor to save Clockwork Orange estate



Residents of a brutalist 1960s estate in south-east London featured by Stanley Kubrick in his dystopian film A Clockwork Orange are resisting plans to demolish their homes, warning it will result in homelessness, debt and carbon pollution.

Peabody, one of Britain’s biggest providers of social housing, is asking the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for permission to raze the Lesnes estate in Thamesmead. The development was called “a town of tomorrow” by its Greater London Council architects before disrepair and unemployment blighted the area. Land values in the area have since increased with the arrival of the Elizabeth line railway in 2022, which has connected the area to the West End of London in 23 minutes.

The residents have enlisted housing activists to occupy vacant flats in protest and are urging Khan to refuse permission, claiming the replacement scheme would be largely unaffordable and that the existing homes are solid and could be refitted. Walls have been daubed with slogans such as: “Housing for need not greed” and “Take profit out of housing”.

The clash is unlikely to be the last of its kind. Nearly a million social homes were built from 1945 to 1980 – by far the biggest wave of housing construction for low rent in the last century. Housing experts warn that many of these properties are now coming to the end of their useful lives, forcing more landlords to consider demolition. In the last decade, 50,000 social homes were demolished in England, 121,000 were sold and 330,000 new properties were completed – a net gain of 159,000 homes. But that is insufficient to meet need, with 1.3m households on social housing waiting lists last year.

Marina Ivanova, 71, is one of the freehold owners who will be affected by the plan. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

With funding scarce, social landlords are financing schemes by building more homes for sale. The Lesnes estate project will turn a 600-home community with two-thirds social and affordable rented homes into a 1,950-unit scheme with “a significant loss of affordable housing when assessed on a per unit and per habitable room basis”, according to the mayor’s planning report. The detailed design has yet to be completed, so these ratios could change.

Johnell Olabhie, 57, an IT consultant who owns a freehold property on the estate, said any cut in social housing was “madness” and would cause “homelessness, destitution and indebtedness”.

“Bexley council already has an endless waiting list,” he said. “Where are the cleaners going to go? Where will the nurses and carers who live here go? They are already working two jobs.”

Patrick Barry, 77, a retired security officer, has lived in his rented house since at least the 1980s and stands to lose a family home and garden stocked with mature roses and yuccas. He was furious with the landlord, claiming “they couldn’t give a fucking toss” about his situation. He was among several residents who insisted the homes were in a good state of repair.

Patrick Barry said he would lose not just his family home but his garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Rose Asenguah, 67, who owns her home, said she was being offered a leasehold home instead of her current freehold. She thumped on her concrete walls to demonstrate how solid the home was, saying it was warm and dry with no leaks.

She said the area “had its social problems and is run down” but by planning wholesale demolition, Peabody was diverting from its original purpose, which she said was providing “homes at affordable prices for hard-working Londoners”.

Asenguah said Peabody and the London borough of Bexley were being “greedy and money-loving”, and that she and her neighbours should be allowed to benefit from the improvements the Elizabeth line had brought.

Rose Asenguah, a freeholder, said her home was warm, dry and solid, and she was being offered only a leasehold in exchange. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Peabody, which took over much of Thamesmead in 2014, has already carried out several demolitions and reconstruction projects that are changing the character of the area. The Lesnes estate is the next step.

Responding to residents’ comments, the housing provider said it understood this was a challenging time, and there was no net loss in social housing, at least based on floorspace. A spokesperson said: “We do care, and Peabody colleagues are available for residents to talk to … we are a not-for-profit organisation, and our core purpose is to provide social housing.”

Peabody said that the majority of residents voted for regeneration, and it would “continue to review plans as the project progresses to make sure we build as many new social and affordable homes as possible”.

“Every resident has been offered the opportunity to move into a new home on the estate,” a spokesperson said. “Those in social rented homes will continue to pay social rent, and resident homeowners are being offered a new home without the need to take on an additional mortgage.”

The wider township of Thamesmead is typical of utopian 1960s estate planning across the UK. It was designed by architects at the GLC as a home for 60,000 people with “the highest possible standards of 20th-century urban design”. The plans were for homes, canals, parklands, schools and even a yacht harbour “giving the central area an international flavour”.

The Thamesmead estate was called ‘a town of tomorrow’ by Greater London Council architects. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

But soon after the first residents moved in, a newsletter from 1970 lamented “a sad mood in Thamesmead” with news of rain pouring into homes, broken toilets going unfixed, “scruffy walkways and waterlogged landscaping”, and strained communication with the landlord.

“What we’re seeing now is a significant proportion of homes where huge sums of money are needed to either knock them down and rebuild, or refurbish, and neither are straightforward given the lack of funding,” said Alistair Smyth, the director of policy and research at the National Housing Federation. “There has been an almost complete withdrawal from funding regeneration schemes in the last 15 years. It is a huge challenge. We need the next government to think about the kinds of funding and fiscal incentives to help us deal with homes built 60 years ago that are no longer fit for purpose.”

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