March 9, 2017 / 11:41 AM / 5 months ago

FEATURE-In the London towers that vanished from the map, residents fight to stay on

LONDON, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ringed by a razor-tipped fence, the last remaining residents of cluster of condemned London tower blocks are preparing for the final showdown in a bitter battle with their local government landlord.

A handful of apartment owners remain in towers marked for demolition on the Aylesbury estate, one of Europe's largest social housing projects, facing a court date in May with Southwark Council to decide if they have to sell their homes.

The council announced plans in 2005 to raze the Aylesbury, home to more than 7,000 people, rather than modernise, saying redevelopment would replace poor quality housing in the sought-after central part of the city.

Most of the estate's 2,700 homes, in grey blocks and redbrick terraces two miles from the Houses of Parliament, remain inhabited while about a quarter of the estate is being emptied.

But about five apartment owners remain in a huddle of shuttered towers earmarked as the first phase of demolition and have accused Southwark of dirty tactics to get them out, including letting their addresses be wiped from official records.

"All we want is to not be bullied out of the community where we live," said Beverley Robinson, who has lived in her tower block apartment for 28 years.

"We're thinking are we going to be able to stay in the area with our friends, family, and community, or are we going to be pushed outside London?"

Southwark is one of many London councils redeveloping 1960s estates and building new apartments to meet relentless demand for housing but facing resistance from long-term residents who fear they will be priced out of their communities.

Across London average property prices have risen 90 percent in the past decade, with a report last month by London Mayor Sadiq Khan saying a lack of affordable housing is increasingly depriving Londoners of the security of home ownership.

The Aylesbury battle is seen as typical of tensions arising from inner-city regeneration schemes accused of forcing out low-income residents to build upmarket homes to sell to newcomers.

"DANGER ZONE"

The estate dating back to the 1960s has had its problems.

Crime and neglect in the 1990s led to the estate being labeled "Hell's Waiting Room" by Britain's Daily Mail newspaper but residents and the council agree this is in the past and the Aylesbury is now in a highly sought after part of London.

Southwark Council started moving rental occupants off the estate in 2011 to pave the way for a 1.5 billion pound ($1.8 billion) two-decade redevelopment to build 3,575 new flats, schools and a health centre.

But many homeowners, who bought from councils under "right to buy" schemes introduced by the government in 1985, said they were not offered enough to let them stay in this part of London.

While the average price of a flat in the area is 470,000 pounds, Robinson said she was offered 225,000 pounds and the holdout residents want a chance to negotiate openly and fairly.

Locked in a stalemate, residents said the council has let the once-friendly park-side community become a danger zone with crumbling stairways, piles of rubbish, mice infestations, and heating blackouts nearly every week over winter.

Residents also blame council negligence for allowing them to be "wiped from the map", after it shuttered the buildings while they remained inside, and failed to alert Royal Mail, who deleted their addresses from the official record.

Royal Mail spokesperson Sally Hopkins said councils across London were responsible for notifying them if they plan to shutter buildings with residents inside but no notice was given.

Robinson and neighbour Agnes Kabuto, who are both in their fifties, said the erasure of their address in 2015 led to bank accounts being frozen and blocked welfare payments.

The council denied addresses had been erased. But Freedom of Information requests by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the UK's Office of National Statistics showed they were deleted in April 2015 and not re-instated until October that year.

"It's like living in a nightmare," said Robinson, a former postal worker whose homely flat lined with potted plants opens onto a deserted corridor.

FIRE DANGERS

A spokeswoman from Southwark Council said maintenance at the Aylesbury estate had become an issue as buildings emptied but denied officials had used underhand tactics to move people.

She said structural flaws in buildings had contributed to the decay and reconfirmed that those who moved out would be offered temporary accommodation off-site.

Mark Williams, Southwark's head of regeneration, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the council had done everything it could to be "open, honest and fair with all the leaseholders throughout the regeneration process".

Southwark attempted to end the deadlock by applying for a compulsory purchase order in 2015 to force homeowners to sell remaining apartments on the fenced-off portion of the estate. Ruling against the order in September, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said it would violate the human rights of residents from ethnic minority backgrounds who would likely be cut off from support networks built in the area.

He also said the council had failed to engage homeowners in adequate negotiations.

The judicial review, which begins at London's High Court on May 9, will decide homeowners' fate.

During a court hearing in January, the judge said Southwark should take immediate steps to "ameliorate the leaseholders' situation" during the process.

Robinson and four others leaseholders interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said for more than five years the council had neglected its duties as landlord.

During the past six months, Robinson said she had been hospitalised after a gas leak, trapped in a dilapidated lift, and locked out by security guards who control the entrances.

Loretta Lees, professor of human geography at the University of Leicester, said Southwark and other council landlords often relied on "aggressive" tactics to make residents sell.

Lees, who has studied the estate's regeneration since 2008, said councils' have mimicked the strategies of the notorious slum landlords of the 1960s London, famed for exploiting tenants and forcing out unwanted residents by intimidation.

"You think that your democratically elected public bodies don't do that kind of thing in the UK, in the 21st century, but it's happening, and that's been really shocking," said Lees.

Kabuto and Robinson said they feared blocked fire escapes and faulty fire doors could lead to disaster.

Last month Southwark Council pleaded guilty for failing to address fire risks before a blaze in 2009 that killed six people at a 14-storey tower block less than a mile away.

After an inspection in September 2015, Royal Mail banned postmen from entering the condemned area due to fire hazards but a Southwark spokesperson said the council disagreed with this and worked with fire brigade to assess Aylesbury as fire-safe.

Until the court date, at least, the last remaining residents will continue to live behind the barricade.

"If I didn't have my grandchildren to look forward to seeing, maybe I would have done something silly - I could have jumped out that balcony ... These people are playing with our lives," said Kabuto in the living room of her neat flat.

US$1= 0.8179 pounds Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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