'I only plan for now': the people whose estates are being torn down around them

Jessica Brown

Across the UK, council housing estates are being demolished and regenerated – in London alone, more than 80 are earmarked for demolition. But long regeneration processes often leave residents in limbo as they wait to find out where they’ll be moved.

Some residents move out before they’re forced to. Others cannot leave their home, or refuse to. Still others resist and campaign.

All share the stress of seeing their living conditions deteriorate, and the uncertainty of not knowing where home will be in the near future.

The ghost estate

Thabo and Demonique Wilson, Holcombe Close, Salford

Since 2010, the Wilsons have been the only family living on an estate in Salford that developers have already started demolishing. Salford council wants to buy their home, but the Wilsons say they haven’t yet been given a reasonable offer.

In 2013 a judge ruled that the council had breached the Wilsons’ human rights by not offering them a new-build home to purchase. The council appealed, and the case is on hold.

“We’ve lived on Holcombe Close since 2001 and bought our house from the council in 2005,” says Thabo Wilson. “We have five kids in school, which is a five-minute walk away.

“Now, the council says it wants to knock down our home. They offered us £95,000, and say they’ll be knocking down our home either way. I said I don’t want a new loan, I want to own a home like mine.

It’s like psychological warfare – who’s going to blink, us or the council?

Thabo Wilson

“The bulldozers are coming this way. There used to be 40 homes on this street, now the other 39 families have moved to new homes in the area.

“We read that the estate will be demolished until January 2020. Then they’ll be able to start building new homes.

“Our children think this must be the normal way to live. I don’t think they know what a normal neighbourhood looks like, where you see the kids next door coming out and playing on their bikes, running into each other’s houses.

“If the council can come in and bulldoze, they can’t have regard for our family. Our children go on their bikes up and down the estate, but [the council] never did a risk assessment. What if they get hurt?

“The police don’t come here any more when we have incidents, and our bins don’t get collected. After a while you become numb.

“It’s like a psychological warfare – who’s going to blink, us or the council? If they blink, fine. If they don’t blink, we don’t blink.”

The doomed tower

Toni Stuart, Druids Heath, Birmingham

Toni Stuart’s tower is scheduled to be the first demolished in a regeneration scheme across the estate. She was given her eviction notice at the start of the year, and has until March 2020 to vacate.

“I’ve lived on this estate since I was 17,” she says. “I’m 27 now. I had a difficult home life, I was homeless and sleeping on sofas, so I had no choice but to move here.

“My block is the first to be demolished, and I’ve got to be out by March. In the timescale I’ve been given, there isn’t a chance of getting a decent property. I don’t have much choice but to move out of the area.

We’re all stressed. We don’t know where we’ll be in the next few months and it’s mentally and physically not good for us

Toni Stuart

“If I do, I’ll lose my job, my two-year-old can’t go to the nursery I spent months investigating and applying for, and I’ll be moved away from my stepdaughter and disabled parents, who need my help.

“Some doors on the block have been boarded up – whether because of the regeneration, or because [the tenants] would’ve been rehomed anyway.

“We’re all stressed. We don’t know where we’ll be in the next few months and it’s mentally and physically not good for us. It feels like the council don’t care, they just want us out.

“My child has been ill for a long time and we don’t know if it’s the mould, the damp, the cold, or the constant leaks and floods. There’s always something wrong.

“Now that everyone knows the tower blocks are coming down, the conditions and antisocial behaviour are getting worse. The way everyone sees it, we’re not going to be here much longer.”

The temporary tenant

Simone, West Hendon, Barnet

Simone. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Barnet council began its 25-year regeneration plans in the early 2000s, and sold adjacent land on the estate to private developers for £3. Now all of the estate’s secure residents have moved off the estate, leaving residents with non-secure tenancies to fill the estate before it is demolished.

“There are so many empty flats here while we wait for the estate to be demolished – I counted 19 earlier,” Simone says. “People are always coming and going on short-term contracts.

My kids are two and four. They sleep in one bed. There’s mould all up the wall next to their heads.

“There was a park here, but they’ve shut it off now, so the kids have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Kids kick their football at windows and doors late in the evening when my kids are in bed, and I don’t want to shut my windows because there’s no air in my flat.

“My kids are two and four. They sleep in one bed and I’ve had to move my bed into the front room. There’s mould all up the wall next to their heads. It’s not living, it’s just surviving.

“The uncertainty means you don’t know where you’re going and what you’re doing. I’ve picked a school down the road for my kids because it suits us for now – I can only plan for now.

“I don’t mind living in this area, my whole family are here and I’ve grown up here. But there’s no type of community on the estate. I didn’t know nobody until another resident knocked on my door this summer.

“No one says hello. People don’t know how long they’re staying for, so you just keep yourself to yourself.”

The advocate

Andy Plant, Cressingham Gardens, London

Redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens was first proposed in 2012, but the residents won a judicial review against Lambeth louncil, arguing the plans went against their wishes. In July this year, residents had their application approved for the right to transfer ownership of the estate from the council to a community-owned company. The estate’s future is still uncertain.

“The council is telling people it’s going to start demolishing our estate next year, due to structural problems,” Andy Plant says.

“I don’t think it’ll start for two or three years, and the council is saying this to scare people into moving. Either way, there’s a constant apprehension at the back of my mind.

We get kids hanging around, having noticed the places aren’t occupied, kicking doors down. It’s really changed the feel of the place

Andy Plant

“People have moved off the estate because they can’t take the pressure any more, and a lot of people need to make sure school isn’t interrupted. I totally understand, but I refuse to move off the estate, even if they’re going to demolish it.

“The council says we’re not guaranteed a place when the estate is rebuilt unless we hand over our secure tenancy and become unsecure residents.

“There are 306 homes on the estate – 50 have been turned over to temporary accommodation and 30 are empty at the moment. People are put on temporary, one-week licences. There’s pretty much an empty flat on every block or two.

“We get kids hanging around, having noticed the places aren’t occupied, kicking doors down. It’s really changed the feel of the place.

“I’ve been here 23 years, with my wife, who died three years ago. I’ve become a very fierce advocate for Cressingham Gardens. She asked me to carry on her work, but I would have done anyway. I don’t intend to leave until I get dragged away by police.”

The victory

Libby O’Neill, St Mary’s Path estate, London

The St Mary’s Path estate until recently faced demolition. According to Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association (ISHA), it had overcrowding issues.

“I moved out of London to the countryside to bring my kids up, then came back with my daughters, Abigail, 23, and Madeline, 20, five years ago,” says Libby O’Neill. “They love it here.

“Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association did a survey of the estate two years ago, but its initial regeneration plans were rejected by Islington council, who wouldn’t tolerate any net loss of social housing.

“In the last two years they’ve been back and forth with the council, and in the meantime me and other tenants formed a committee.”

There were two plans initially: to partly render the estate and damp-proof the flats, or knock O’Neill’s block down and rebuild it with two extra flats.

I think the board realised how upset they had made the older residents

Libby O'Neill

“But we haven’t seen any evidence of the damp,” she says, “and we got an independent survey that said there’s none. This isn’t what people want. Some people on the estate are very upset about it, especially older people.”

More than three-quarters of the estate signed up to the residents’ anti-demolition petition, O’Neill says, with hundreds more signatures online.

On 17 September, ISHA heard the residents’ stories and the committee’s concerns about the environmental impact of demolition, including suggestions about improvements that did not involve demolition.

The residents were also asked by the chair how they felt about the proposals and the effect demolition would have on their lives.

“One neighbour told them that she’d lived on the estate for 70 years; another, in her 80s, had lived on the estate for over 30 years,” O’Neill says. “They told the board how frightening it all was being asked to move out.”

Related: Under the wrecking ball: hundreds of homeless families placed in housing slated for demolition

“I think the board realised how upset they had made these older residents. They sent a letter out the next day to tell all the residents they were no longer going to demolish the flats.”

The board told residents to decide what improvements they want, and residents have formed a steering group to do this – although with no firm timeline, concerns remain about how long it might take. “It could be a while now, years even, for any definite work to be carried out,” O’Neill says.

But it’s a rare victory for residents.

“We’re all very proud. A three-year battle – and we’ve won.”

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