sat 20/04/2024

First Person: The Estate We're In | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: The Estate We're In

First Person: The Estate We're In

Introducing a powerful new documentary about the UK housing crisis

Council tenant Cindy looks out at her view on the last day in her home of over 30 years

Situated next to the beautiful Welsh Harp reservoir in North London, the West Hendon council estate was built in the 1960s to provide 680 homes to low income families. I first went there in November 2014. I had been following various housing stories around London and had heard about an estate where residents were fighting a multi-million pound regeneration which was forcing them out of their homes and where land valued at £12 million had been sold to developers for just £3.

The day I went to the estate, representatives of the private developers, the architects and the council had set up a mini-exhibition in the estate's community centre, with graphic representations of the new buildings and architects’ models showing the plans for the new development, But the centre was also full of protesting residents, angry at the way they were being treated. As a local councillor explained to me, many of them were being evicted from the estate, and the homes on display were ones that they would never be able to live in (pictured below: Barnet council are forcing Joe to sell the maisonette that he bought through right to buy).

I decided to start filming on the estate and in January 2015 I was commissioned by the BBC to make a one-hour film. At that time I envisaged making a programme that would show all sides to the regeneration story, because it's a complex one. Councils argue that while there is huge demand for new homes there is no public money to build them, which is why they have to team up with private developers.

I approached Barnet council and the development partners Barratt London and Metropolitan Housing Association to see if they would be prepared to take part in the programme. At first they seemed open to the idea, and over many months of communications, they never completely refused. But it became increasingly clear that access would be blocked by the development partners whenever I requested permission to film.

Every three months the development partners met with residents at the community centre to talk through the regeneration. We were continually refused permission to film at these meetings (in spite of the residents’ clear wishes for us to be there) and were told that no employees would appear in the programme. My suspicion that this was encouraged by those in charge was strengthened when a Barratt workman informed me that he had been told he would be sacked if he spoke to us. And so it became clear that I would be making a film that would reflect the perspective of the tenants and homeowners on the estate who had been told that they would have to leave their homes.

What struck me most in the year of filming was the chasm between the residents’ view of the estate and that of the developers and local politicians. In January this year, Barnet MP Matthew Offord appeared on the BBC's Sunday Politics and used West Hendon as a classic example of a “sink estate”, one which he claimed the police had described as a “no-go place at night”. The Conservative council leader Richard Cornelius described the buildings as “grotty” and “something ghastly for people to moulder in” (residents on the West Hendon Estate have been living surrounded by building works for 18 months, pictured below.)

In contrast, most of the residents, while acknowledging that the estate had become very run down, described living there in almost utopian terms – a wonderful place to bring up children, where they could run free surrounded by nature and with an amazing community spirit. I saw how vital support networks had been established – shopping for the elderly, looking after one another’s children and help for the vulnerable and disabled. For people on low incomes this kind of support is invaluable, and so when they are evicted from these communities they are losing much more than just their homes.

The story of West Hendon, and the demolition of the estate to make way for a multi-million pound development of luxury flats, is a microcosm of the UK housing crisis, which is forcing families out of their homes into an uncertain future. I hope that the documentary raises awareness of how these housing policies are affecting people's lives and makes us question what kind of cities we want to live in, and whether the rights of poorer families are simply being ignored.

A Barratt workman informed me that he had been told he would be sacked if he spoke to us

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