What Next for the New Era Estate?

In the last week, the press coverage of goings on at the New Era Estate in Hoxton have taken on a seasonal flavour.  Westbrook, having purchased the 93 flats, are now the Ebenezer Scrooge of our story, having now laid plans to accelerate their rent review of 2016, which will bring the tenants in this housing estate into paying market rents for their EC1 flats.  That means flats now providing homes for key workers in EC1 will rise from an average of £800 per month for a two bedroom flat to £2,000 per month.  The tenants, headed (and headlined in the press) by Russell Brand’s support, are our Bob Cratchits, hoping for Christmas philanthropy and charity before Westbrook commit public suicide.  The fact that the philanthropic owners of The New Era Estate for nearly a century sold to Westbrook at all remains a puzzler.

Westbrook is a Texan capital investment company, headed in the UK by a chap called Mark Donner.  Having a name that reminds most of us of a kebab has done little to hold Mr Donner back in life, because according to The Guardian, Donner owns a £4squillion Herefordshire country estate with room for a butler’s dry ice ski slope etc etc and makes Steph and Dom from Gogglebox look like they live in…well…a flat on the New Era Estate.  The New Era’s residents are, understandably, angry, fearful and beginning to become ill.  On Monday at 12.30pm there will be a protest at Westbrook’s Mayfair headquarters in Berkeley Square by tenants and activists alike to try to get Westbrook to behave a little less badly.  Westbrook have informed tenants they won’t be homeless by Christmas (Great!) but they don’t seem to get it.  They don’t seem to recognize toxic press coverage when they are on the receiving end of it, they don’t seem to understand (or care) about Londoner’s anxiety regarding the disappearance of affordable, social housing and they don’t seem reconciled to the concept of behaving less like a bunch of shits.  How naive.

Of course, Westbrook are under no legal obligation to give in either to the demands of Boris Johnson, who as mayor has expressed that Westbrook must do everything to keep the tenants of the New Era protected from harsh rent reviews and secure in their accommodation, nor are Westbrook bothered what the Mayor of Hackney had to say about it either.  Ownership is ownership.  The New Era is their capital investment and property and they can easily secure it to market rate rents should they wish to.  The problem with the New Era is that it is not owned by the Council.  If the Council had owned it they would have been obliged to rehouse those tenants, some of whom have lived on the New Era for 60 years, within the borough.  Social housing that is owned and facilitated by the state presents the tenants with a clear set of rights.  But the vulnerability of the New Era has always been there : it is a private estate, luckily run for many years by a philanthropic housing estate management company who were prepared to align themselves with the ethical principles of the estate.  For years, the protection of the New Era Estate residents rents has been hanging on an informal, lucky thread of charity.  Once the thread breaks, there is little legal protection for the tenant.  The owners of the property sell the estate, and the new owners have the legal and financial right to do as they wish.  It’s surprising The New Era Estate has managed to hold onto its ethical roots for as long as it has.

Tenants in private sector renting are being increasingly exploited by the property boom in London in two ways: firstly, the ludicrous rise in house prices means that most people are priced out of the market for good and have no choice but to rent, and secondly because the greed that is central to London’s forced economic growth is sucking and swallowing up social housing in areas that used to be for poor people and are now increasingly populated by the wealthy.  EC1, where the New Era Estate sits, is a prime example.  Private tenants increasingly come up against a range of problems regarding exploitative and negligent landlords, and discover their own legal protections are nil.  Social housing provided by the public sector has a promise of obligation to house people in suitable, safe, damp-free accommodation.  Urban poverty and neglect is manifest within the private sector.

This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced its report into the changing picture of UK Poverty (you can see it at http://www.jrf.org.uk/media-centre/young-working-and-renting-uk-poverty-65931) which highlighted two worrying trends.  Firstly, more people are living in working households in poverty than before, and secondly, there are as many households in poverty in Council / social housing as there are in the private rental sector.  The crisis enveloping The New Era Estate is a choice example of all of the issues currently blighting the London social housing scene – key workers (for whom the flats were originally built in the 1930s by the Lever family), crude, greedy foreign investors, prospect of trebling of rental incomes, and the idea that the tenants who are not obliged to be rehoused by the Hackney Council, will have to leave London altogether.   But it’s easy to look at The New Era Estate as a black and white affair between the poor tenant and the greedy landowner.  Have things for the estate got worse or better in the last few weeks?  Press pressure forced Edward Benyon to sell his 10% stake in the estate – and the result of that was that the two year rent freeze that Benyon promised is now no longer in place.  Lobbyists have called for London’s various housing associations to purchase the property instead, but how can you purchase something that is not for sale?  Also, with housing associations dealing with government cuts in funding, they are going to have to glean their profit more and more from tenant based resources to survive.  Will the residents of the New Era be any better off?

It is worth bearing in mind that only a dozen of the 93 properties at New Era are protected by the 1977 Rent Act.  Private tenancies are swiftly turning into the Rachmanesque scandal of early twenty first century London.  The truth is, as we all know, we simply do not have enough social housing.  Perhaps we never did, even before the Right to Buy Act was implemented in the early 1980s, but what does one City do when its key workers have not actually got anywhere to live within the city walls?  Most private tenants have something called an assured shorthold tenancy.  Landlords can charge a market rent for properties of this type and there is little the resident can do.  There is also no protection from eviction from an assured shorthold tenancy contract.  Whilst the responsibility of protecting council tenants rests with local government legislation and the council, why should a tenant’s domestic security rest on the fragile shoulders of one philanthropic landlord?  It is the law that must be interrogated, because it is the same legal system that has so spectacularly failed to implement Acts to protect  the private individual that the residents of the New Era should be angry towards.

The London Bluebird is a blog that is updated every two weeks.  So, please come back for our next update on Thursday 4th December.  Thank you for reading!  The London Bluebird. xxx

Is Paddington only fit for the basin?

Last week, The Londonist challenged its readers to come up with alternative names for our underground stations, principally names which actually make sense.   To be honest, I’m not sure the result really helps those that aren’t familiar with what is above ground in certain places.  Olympia is renamed Exhibition (“Exhibition of what?”  the tourist may ask), and Piccadilly Circus is renamed Anteros, which sounds like a venereal disease.  Anteros isn’t even a name that makes sense – I get the “Eros” but who / what is the “Ant”?  And if there’s one station that doesn’t need further accurate clarification for where it is it is Piccadilly Circus which stands in the middle of the area called Piccadilly Circus.  And I’m not sure how helpful it is to call Lambeth North simply “Bedlam”.

The Londonist’s map really comes into its own when you step beyond Zone 2.  West End Lane / Shoot Up Hill and Walm Lane replace West Hampstead, Kilburn and Willesden Green with great sense on the Jubilee Line, whilst Woodberry Grove, Ducketts Common an Spouters Common sound far pleasanter than Manor House, Turnpike Lane and Wood Green.  But why is East Finchley called Cherry Tree Wood, when it hath no cherries and has only a bovine pedestrian crossing where cars go to have near misses by a gastropub?  My favourite is Joe Meek, who gets a whole Road named after him (Holloway Road).  Sherlock Holmes shares that honour with Baker Street.  But I’m astonished that anyone would go back 2,000 years into our history and rename Kings Cross as Battle Bridge.  This was the site of a massive Roman massacre about a trillion years ago.  I’m not sure how many people would associate Battle Bridge underground with the soya lattes and Helvetica font of the new, media enterprises of King Cross media fuckwittery above ground.   All-in-all though, it’s fairly enterprising.  What do you think?  http://londonist.com/2014/11/all-270-tube-stations-renamed.php  It’s caused quite a stir.  Already the bastion of North London culture, The Kentish Towner,  is asking its readers whether it ought to be renamed “Camden North”.

The Londonist has a strong tradition in veering off the straight and narrow with their tube maps.  They frequently come up with skewed versions of our metropolitan transport system, from geographically accurate maps of the tube to mapping ghost stations, from showing the entire tube as a map of the best independent coffee shops in each area, to a fun version based entirely on fashion puns.  My favourite is the Synaesthesia Tube Map which bases itself on what the individual tube stations may or may not taste like.  Swiss Cottage is “Jam Sponge and Minced Beef”, Kentish Town is a “Fish Finger Sandwich”, Edgware Road is “Sausage Sandwich”,  Covent Garden is “Chocolate Digestives” and Bond Street, alarmingly, apparently tastes of “Hair spray” :  http://http://londonist.com/2013/08/a-synaesthesia-tube-map.php  It’s all rather fun, but we can never change the names we have here.  We are really stuck with them.  And we can’t call Mornington Crescent “Camden South” because then a surrealist radio panel game would make no sense, capisce?

Of course, if Paddington Station was a foodstuff, it would be Paddington’s “Marmalade”.  However, I imagine Paddington wants to rename itself though, following the nasty furore that has blown up amongst people raised in the 1970s, regarding the new Paddington film.  Paddington, that connoisseur of Oxford marmalade, that bear starer of Portobello, appears to have become a nasty, nose-picking, house-flooding bastard, voiced by Ben Wishaw.  That is presumably because the casting request asked for the least bear-like, mannish man in Equity to voice him.  But I saw the trailer for this film and I became incensed, and it takes a lot these days to make me become incensed – it takes a good argument with my bank, or a cretinous stream of correspondence from HMRC, it takes top state figures to wind me up.  But that new Paddington is a little shit.  And he must be stopped.  You see, Paddington is a mentsch.  Paddington has chutzpah, yes, but he is something of a sweet dude.  He goes to see Mr Gruber in the Portobello Road and discusses his worries over cocoa.  He is indignant in the face of injustice, rudeness and people who don’t like the fact he is a bear.  The bear stare is the very lowest of insults that can be projected upon you.    He is inclusive and progressive (I remember his first visit to a supermarket in Ladbroke Grove in the 1970s, it was, to Paddington, a delightful taste of the future).  He carries a suitcase and a spare sandwich under his hat.  But the Twitterati are agog and aghast and aggrieved by the new Paddington, and all of these people are born between the first Ted Heath government and the first Margaret Thatcher one.  Paddington is our childhood.  And they’ve fucked with it.  Utterly.

So as a response, we just have to rename Paddington Bear or Paddington Station.  Clearly the bear is more culturally important.  So the station has to get the chop, kids.  Eastern Little Venice?  North Queensway?  East Edgware Road?  Or perhaps for ultimate bear revenge, Darkest Peru?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this, unless you are the producer of the new Paddington Bear film, in which you probably won’t want to come back.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on November 20th.  Many thanks for reading, and if you like what you see here, please tell others.