Why we must fight to save Ledbury Estate

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Ledbury Estate

The Ledbury Estate consists of four 14-storey towers, and some low-rise housing, on the Old Kent Road in Southwark, south London. The blocks are made of large concrete panels faced with Norfolk flint and were built between 1968 and 1970 in a style known as ‘brutalist’. Most of the flats and houses are council tenancies, with a few leasehold properties. The estate is in the middle of an area designated for regeneration by Southwark Labour council, dependent on the extension of the underground in the next 20 years: Ledbury Estate will be next to a tube station. This will make the estate very attractive to private developers, keen to attract investors and to house middle-class Londoners who can’t quite afford to live in central London. Its present working class residents will have to move out.

Southwark is notorious, along with many other London councils, for its programme of destruction of council estates. Large estates, for example Heygate and Aylesbury estates at Elephant and Castle, have been sold for private development at bargain basement prices. The demolished council homes are replaced by ‘luxury’ accommodation unaffordable to local people. This is the latest form of social cleansing favoured by London Labour councils. The north of the borough, already served by underground stations and closest to central London, has become a developers’ paradise. Local people, shops and traders have been driven out. The Ledbury Estate, now occupying a ‘prime site’, is the latest estate to come under threat and will be a testing ground for Jeremy Corbyn’s radical promises on housing made at the Labour Party Conference.

A resident of Ledbury Estate describes how she and her neighbours have been treated by Southwark and the problems for the campaign to defend the estate.

September 2017: ‘I live in a leasehold flat in one of the blocks on Ledbury Estate. The problems began shortly after the Grenfell fire, when some tenants in one of the other tower blocks engaged their own fire expert/surveyor who pronounced that the buildings were fire traps. It was found that severe cracks in their walls where the concrete panels join together would allow fire and smoke to spread throughout the building. These cracks had been appearing over many years and, although reported, were never taken seriously by the council. Now Southwark informed us, with the Grenfell disaster fresh in their minds, that there might be problems with compartmentation – the containment of fire/smoke to a particular flat, allowing time for the evacuation of the rest of the building.

Following the Lakanal House fire in 2009 which killed six people, Southwark was forced to survey all its buildings for fire risk – at that point none of its high-rise properties had fire certificates. The council carried out extensive work in 2013 which had the approval of London Fire Brigade. Following this we thought we were safe.

But now Southwark, clearly worried about the potential political fallout of another council housing disaster, hired Arup civil engineers to carry out structural surveys of the four tower blocks, meanwhile assuring residents that it was safe to stay in the buildings. They instituted remedial work to all the blocks to deal with any cracks. They also:

  • removed all security locks from the main entrances and internal security doors on landings;
  • began a Stage 4 Fire Risk Assessment (the most rigorous);
  • hired ‘fire wardens’ to patrol and guard alternate floors in all the buildings 24 hours a day; and
  • set themselves up in the tenants hall on the estate, with staff available 24 hours a day, ostensibly to answer residents’ problems.

At the same time, the council started harassing any tenants who had doormats, pushchairs, bikes, pot plants, flags(!) or other belongings in the common areas outside their flats, on the grounds that these were fire risks. The real fire risks, of course, were quite different and the responsibility of the council.

Meanwhile Southwark offered the council tenants the right to move out, with Band 1 priority on ‘homesearch’ and compensation of about £6,000 if they did so. However, there is no guarantee they will get a council property: many of the homes on the list are Housing Association properties at higher rents and with less secure tenures.

Early in August a report appeared in the press quoting ‘independent’ fire expert Arnold Tarling (the source of the original tenants’ views on cracks) as horrified to learn that there was a gas supply in the tower blocks. He argued that in the case of a gas explosion the buildings could collapse and the gas supply should be turned off immediately. Following the Ronan Point gas explosion in 1968, all tower blocks of similar construction, like the Ledbury towers, should have been strengthened. Arup indicated to Southwark that they could not be certain that the Ledbury Estate towers had been strengthened and any records of the handover of these blocks from the GLC to the local borough are lost in the mists of time (less than 30 years ago!). Southwark immediately announced that the gas would be cut off and residents ‘decanted’ into temporary accommodation.

In reality there have been no tower block collapses since Ronan Point. Far more frightening was the prospect of ‘temporary accommodation’ provided by Southwark. Everyone knew how the Grenfell residents and tenants in other ‘clad’ buildings had been treated, and had little faith that Southwark would treat evacuees well. In order to remove the gas supply, the council forced entry into flats while people were asleep or at work. Inevitably, they had to deal with many angry and distressed tenants. We were left without power for hot water, cooking or heating. The council then supplied double electric hotplates for cooking and graciously promised that residents could attend the local leisure centre 15 minutes’ walk away for a shower on proof of address! This clearly was a completely inadequate solution for someone with a disability (like me), families or elderly residents of the flats.

Weeks later, the council installed limited electric immersion heaters, but the flats have been left without heating and the electric cookers have not arrived yet. Work is in progress to install a form of district heating (promised for the end of October), but this means digging up the gardens and making the estate look like Stalag Ledbury. Residents have been given the runaround by council workers and contractors who appear and disappear like thieves in the night, always promising a phone call. Dates for works which affect the lifts and require residents to arrange time off work are changed without notice.

The storm of headlines and bad press that followed the cutting off of the gas and the threat of evacuation gave Southwark pause for thought and they pulled back from compulsory ‘decanting’, promising instead to decide on what works are necessary when they receive Arup’s final report at the end of November. Meanwhile families are forced to live in limbo, in rapidly cooling blocks without heating and with minimal facilities.

The condition of the homes on the Ledbury Estate has been consistently exaggerated, and this has been fostered by the Ledbury Action Group which claims to represent tenants’ interests. As a result most tenants think they have been forced to live in death traps and that the estate should be demolished. The action group has relied on the evidence of three ‘experts’ who all argue for demolition and has promoted their views to the council. Southwark is delighted. But there is nothing to indicate that you are more likely to be killed in one of these flats than in most housing blocks in London. Fantasies about rebuilding the council estate after demolition will not survive. Southwark will do what every other council has done in these circumstances. Unable to finance council housing for itself, it will sell out to property developers who will initially promise a small number of unaffordable ‘affordable’ homes, and then later renege on even that. The real issue is to force Southwark Council to remedy the buildings’ faults and retain the blocks as council properties.

There are many issues that make fighting to save this estate very difficult but essential. The ‘right to buy’ programme divides residents between council tenants and leaseholders who have very different interests. Ironically it is the leaseholders who have most to lose in the short-term. Southwark Council knows from its experience at Heygate and Aylesbury estates, that it can deal with the council tenants who have security of tenure by simply offering them alternative housing. 161 households out of 188 council properties at Ledbury have opted to move and accept compensation. The small number of leaseholders left to try to negotiate a deal with the council will be offered considerably less than they will need to replace their properties. In the long-term, however, the real losers if demolition goes ahead will be the future working class in Southwark, the children and grandchildren of the present tenants, who will find all housing anywhere near central London unaffordable and unavailable.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017