New Podcast – Housing protest

Pleased with the way this one turned out!

 

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A day in Aldershot

The evening before our day trip, I’m having dinner with my friend Dom, who’s just moved to London, and I mention the project. “My Granddad worked in social housing in Aldershot. For the council,” he says. “Before you or me were born. So finding someone who knew him might be a long shot, but you could try if you like.”

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Throughout our day in Aldershot, conversations overlap and connections emerge. Some conversations are planned, others just happen. The beginnings of a sense of place, its people and its past, start to form. At 5 pm, we present the project at the West End Centre to an audience of local housing officers, charity workers and community leaders. After the presentation, Lydia*, who works for Rutherford Council, tells us that the local authority no longer provides any social housing in the area. The housing which formerly belonged to the council has been transferred to housing associations: Dom’s Granddad’s job doesn’t exist any more, but there are others building and managing social housing – Heather, for example, who works for the local housing association First Wessex. She will introduce us to tenants’ and residents’ associations.

When we arrive at the West End Centre in the morning, Barney (our host, and the director of the centre) is busy, so we wait for him in the foyer, at a table and chairs painted by local artist Kazland.

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(There’s also some crazy mural art in the Gents)

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While we’re waiting, a woman in (what we later find out is) Nepalese dress comes up and starts chatting to us… in Nepalese. She apparently only knows five words of English – doctor, Nepal, sister, army, baby – which she uses liberally and, at times, interchangeably. We manage to establish that she is attending a traditional Nepalese dance and music session at the Arts Centre, that her husband is serving in the army, that she has two children back in Nepal, that Sophie and I are not married, that Sophie has no children (our acquaintance seems puzzled by this point and returns to it several times; eventually Sophie expostulates – “I’m only thirty”), that she does not speak English, and that we are all friends. Every thirty seconds or so, she lapses into peals of laughter. Barney arrives; we establish that he is not Sophie’s husband either, that we are all friends, and eventually she heads outside for a cigarette before going to her dance session.

At lunch time, I pop into the Grasshopper Delicatessen on Upper Union Street to buy some lunch.

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It is clean and bright and the goods are attractively presented: Polish, British, French and German brands – rows of colourful tins and jars – neatly stacked with prices custom-printed on rectangular cards beneath them, fresh fruit and veg in baskets, a generously stocked cheese and sausage counter. If you have good sausage, the Polish will come, says Maria*, who is helping her mother who runs the shop. There aren’t many Polish people in Aldershot, “not like Hull”, but there are a few, and they are starting to come. I ask her whether she gets many Nepalese customers. Yes, they come in, they look at the spices, but they usually want to buy them in bulk. The M&S down the street is closing; she doesn’t want to compete with Lidl’s prices. But she is offering something else: the best international brands.

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She reckons that as the town grows, business will pick up. “They’re going to build 20,000 new homes, and if we can get some of the overspill, we’ll do well.” That’s the plan. [I believe that, actually, planning permission has been given for just under 4,000 homes]. She gets me to taste the contents of some of the brightly-coloured jars (stews, conserves, confits). I come away with a jar of Polish veggie lentil thing, an apple, and a tin of smoked sprat, which I eat in the Westy foyer, much to Sophie’s dismay.

[can you change slightly? Sounds like I’m dismayed that you’re eating in a public place rather than eating sprat… which looked gross – Sophie]

Aldershot is a garrison town and a large number of Gurkhas are based there (the local Nepalese population has grown since veteran Gurkha soldiers and their families were allowed to settle in the UK in 2009). “There’s a problem of perception,” says Lydia*, who works for the council: there are lots of people in Aldershot who have been waiting for a home for a long time, and the perception is that “it’s the Nepalese who’ll get them”. “There are tensions,” says Alice*, who works for a mental health charity. Barney and Jennifer (who works at the “Westy”) have provided tea, cake and Celebrations. We talk with our guests from the council, from local charities and youth groups, from the Citizens Advice Bureau (the ones who came to our presentation), and we tell them more about the project, and they tell us more about Aldershot, and then it’s time to go home, and we catch a train back to London.

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Sweets Way Community Day

“They don’t want people like us, they just want us out of here,” said Adam, a former resident.

“Squatters always get bad press,” said David*, a squatter.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you. Things get distorted. I’m not saying that you’d distort them, but things get distorted,” said Lee*, a security guard.

***

The atmosphere in the community house (the house occupied by former residents) isn’t as heavy as a couple of days ago, but it’s more downbeat than when I visited in May. Over the last three weeks, the estate has been “militarized”, says Liam, a housing campaigner who has offered support to the residents of Sweets Way since the evictions began. Annington, the developer, has hired a security company which has fenced off empty houses and sent in a squad of security guards. They patrol the estate with guard dogs on leads. Today, the campaign has organized a “community day”. There is a bouncy castle in the garden, but nobody is bouncing on it. It’s not very a family-friendly environment any more, explains Liam.

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I speak to a couple of the former residents: Zlatka and Andrew.

“So what are you guys still fighting for at this stage in the campaign?” I ask.

Pause.

“Well basically, for Sweets Way,” says Andrew. “We want it to stay. We want it to… stay.” He is hurt. I cringe. The “still” slipped out without me meaning to say it.

“And we’re still fighting because they haven’t started bulldozing the houses, so there’s still a chance to save the estate,” adds Zlatka.

She is right. I am glad that she has put me right.

They are fighting for their right to return. These are good houses. These are good homes. This was a good community. This is a good community. Why should they back down?

Andrew’s dog, Blinky, jumps up onto the sofa next to him. Zlatka has a big smile. I relax. We chat.

After a slice of cake, I leave the house and go for a walk through the estate. None of the security guards will speak to me. They have their orders.

I enter through the barricade

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Into Sweetstopia – formerly a row of terraced houses on the Sweets Way estate, now a squatters’ commune

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At the end of the alley, a young woman in jogging bottoms and a grey t-shirt is sitting on a chair in the sun.

She has big, rough hands. I glance at my hands. They are smaller than hers. Her hands have planted trees, patched bicycle tires along the roadsides of central and northern Europe, set up camp, made makeshift homes in abandoned buildings, rifled through skips behind supermarkets, prepared dinner in outdoor kitchens for refugees. She is taller than me and kind of has the features of a giant. She soaks in the sun. Her eyes are swollen, like she was up late last night. I tell her I am a documentarian.  I am documenting the housing crisis, I want to document how it came about, to document how it is affecting people, to document what it is. Can I speak to her?

“So tell me then, what is the housing crisis?” She asks, testing me.

“I think it has… different facets… depending on who you ask. I think it means different things to different people.”

She’s not convinced: “What does it mean to you?”

So I tell her about social cleansing, councils selling out to commercial developers, people being ripped away from their friends and neighbours and families, extortionate rents for mould-infested flats, 1.8 million households (5 million people) on the council housing waiting list, right to buy, precarity, immiseration, the national obsession with the idea that a house is something to make money out of, the pollution of our vocabulary, of our imaginations…

A young man comes out of the house next door with a plate of potato wedges.

“Bist du hungrig?” he asks (they are from Austria).

She beckons for him to bring the plate over. We share the potato wedges.

She is interested in my stories and offers me a chair. She is curious about how middle class English people live. When the sun dips behind the row of houses, we relocate to a patch of grass at the other end of the alley to catch the last of the light. She will be heading south for the winter, to Italy.

Ella* is the last person I speak to: another activist. At first, our conversation is polite, light, lively, conversational. “I’m recording interviews with people who have been displaced by re-generation projects”. Gentrification is a race issue, she says. Gradually, her speech patterns shift and she gathers pace: her words tumble out and she does not leave space for me to respond. I feel like it’s a reaction conditioned by the times she’s been interrupted when she speaks about this (I’m guessing). If you bring up the issue of race, you’re telling people they’re a racist, she holds my gaze, and that’s like telling someone they’ve raped you. Black people, black families (in the inclusive sense of “non-white”) feel like they’re not included in left-wing campaigns. Racism is a big issue in the Left.  I feel like she is re-living it the experience of not being allowed to speak, re-living the frustration – her voice catches slightly at the tightness in her throat. At the time, all I can do is nod and listen.

Six months after the estate was decanted, there are many different people on Sweets Way. Working out how to live together sometimes feels like a “work in progress”, as Liam (the diplomat) puts it. It has been a struggle, but former residents, with the help of campaigners, have forced the council to start paying attention to them: investing in finding suitable accommodation to re-house residents at the start of the process would surely have been less costly than a protracted battle. The occupation has a cost for former residents too, though. It is emotionally draining, time-consuming and many feel intimidated by the new security detail.

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Ultimately, it feels like everyone is trapped inside the same machine: the council is drained of resources and is “just following orders”, the security guys are on shitty low-paid contracts and are “just following orders”, the developer has a responsibility to its shareholders and is “just following orders”. But the residents of Sweets Way have stopped taking orders. Maybe it’ll catch on.

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity

Sweetstopia

At Sweets Way, metal fences enclose rows of empty terraced houses. Heavies in hi-vis jackets patrol the roads and walkways with alsatians on leashes. The threat of violence crackles in the air.

Six months ago, a house on the edge of the estate was occupied by former residents to protest the council’s aggressive tactics and inability to re-house them in appropriate accommodation. As more residents moved out, campaigners moved in to occupy the empty houses. At least a dozen houses have been squatted in this way. This has become Sweetstopia.

Entrance

Through the barricaded entrance to Sweetstopia, a once unexceptional row of low-rise suburban houses has found a new lease of life as a squatters’ commune. Walls have become huge canvasses for mural art, sofas and armchairs are gathered round an outdoor fireplace, and a lush urban vegetable garden runs down the centre of the alley and sprawls along the sides of the houses. The courgettes are in flower and the tomatoes are almost ripe.

Blue mural mural

One of the houses is the “model home”. With a budget of only £400, and using recycled materials, and the help of a few volunteers, the Sweets Way campaign refurbished one of the vacant homes to show the council how easily it could be done.

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The photos I’ve taken may not look like much, but walking around the house, I am touched by the care, attention to detail and playfulness of these new interiors. Anna, my guide, is especially proud of the bathroom. In the living room, I meet a young woman who shows me bruises on her arms and back from an altercation with the security guards the night before. She was sitting on the grass beyond one of the fences, and they grabbed her, pinned her to the ground, and dragged her across the road. I suddenly understand why the atmosphere in the place is so uneasy.

I plan to return over the weekend.