I apologise, the quality of these photographs is awful, but then so is the subject matter. This is the Ocean Estate in Stepney East London. In 2001 Tony Blair visited here to launch a £56million regeneration scheme that promised to transform one of Britain’s worst estates. Built between 1949 and 1975 it is made up of about 40 blocks and some 1700 flats all of which were due to come down to be replaced by a bright new mixed tenure community. But it wasn’t long before things started go wrong. By 2004 costs had spiralled, and several of the organisations involved were facing accusations of fraud.
Eight years on, what has happened? I visited recently. What I saw shocked me. No bright new community, no new buildings, and no demolition. Eight blocks, emptied out at the beginning of the decade remain empty. Amongst them were a handful of squatters and a few forgotten leaseholders who had the terrible misfortune to buy their flats before Tower Hamlets announced the regeneration plans. A vanload of heavies with pit bulls in the car park turned out to be council contractors securing (unsuccessfully it turns out) the estate against squatting.
I was invited in to see the work of some other council contractors. A newly vacated flat had just had the anti-squatting treatment. This it turns out involves taking a sledgehammer to all the windows and doors, smashing all light and electric sockets, pouring concrete down the toilet, then smashing that and the basin too. Finally the walls are sprayed with non drying paint. It doesn’t work, squatters have time and ingenuity on their hands and they move in anyway and repair the damage. Allegedly sometimes assisted by council contractors who have lost faith in the futility of their task.
If this were an isolated example it would be bad enough, but this is what I am seeing across the country. The Ferrier Estate in Greenwich, Woodberry down in Hackney, Wood End in Coventry to say nothing of the many stalled regeneration plans involving privately owned homes in the nine pathfinder regions in the north of England. Houses being smashed up to prevent them being used whilst waiting for regeneration schemes that are looking increasingly unlikely to come off. Something is very wrong. These grainy images were all my cameraphone could pick up, but they do perhaps pick up the darkness of what is going on here.