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