Now push off you workers, by Neil Fletcher

Neil Fletcher’s article reproduced below was originally published in the Camden New Journal on Thursday 6th August, 2015.

Neil Fletcher was elected to Camden Council in 1978 along with Ken Livingstone. He served as Deputy Leader of the Council from 1982 to 1984. From 1979 he was chosen as Camden's delegate to the Inner London Education Authority.
Neil Fletcher was elected to Camden Council in 1978 along with Ken Livingstone. He served as Deputy Leader of the Council from 1982 to 1984. From 1979 he was chosen as Camden’s delegate to the Inner London Education Authority.

It is July 2035. I am wandering up Fortune Green Road with my great-grand-daughter. The sun is shining and reflecting off the shutters on the 50 or 60 blocks of apartments down the hill in West Hampstead. Queues of smart cars are crawling down to West End Lane, passing a massive tower block called Library Heights (in recognition of the council library that was sold off in 2016) and casts its shadow over the shoppers, while residents can see the Manhattan-style spread of sky-scrapers half a mile away marking the oh-so-fashionable Harrods Square at the back of the O2 Centre. After parking in the massive underground car park they will be free to enjoy fun-time, buy clothes, phones and e-junk, in-between popping into the 24-storey swish blocks of exclusive apartments for drinkies with their mates.

My great-grand-daughter asks a question that takes me back: ‘’Great grand-dad, what did West Hampstead use to be like?’’ What can I say? Resident in West Hampstead since 1970 I remember the splendid mixture of homes and businesses, scarlet skies in summer evenings as the sun fell to the west, Victorian terrace houses lining the roads, rented Council housing accommodation and a diverse range of private apartments. That was before the Camden’s Labour Council began its policy of social cleansing in the years after 2012.

“West Hampstead used to be a really diverse community” I said. “There were great schools, plenty of families, loads of jobs, openings for youngsters as well as retired folks who had lived all their lives in the area. And some good bars. Then the council began to sell off sites they owned and gave unquestioning planning permission to foreign developers looking for overnight profits from throwing up ugly, square, tasteless blocks that dwarfed and shadowed the rented accommodation where working people traditionally lived. Blind to the consequences of its love affair with developers, Quisling Labour councillors turned West Hampstead into a gated community for bankers. And the locals were forced out.”

At this point I wake up. It is still 2015, but London is being changed into a bland confection of characterless apartments. Today the Council I used to be Deputy Leader of, and which in the 70s and 80s could boast of building more council dwellings each year than any other English council (even more than large Midlands and northern city councils), has been betrayed.

My anger is not just about a solitary decision taken by a group of degraded councillors playing a perverse kind of Monopoly with our borough. It is the product of a creeping leprosy that is condemning inner London to turn itself into junk apartments for the wealthy few, at the expense of the homes and jobs that up till now have made West Hampstead a genuine, rounded community of all talents and races.

I hear rumours on the grapevine. Perhaps they are merely rumours, but where do they start? Perhaps in the city, in the bars where foreign investors meet and plan the next big deal, or among the estate agents (there are over 20 clustered along West End Lane – they must know something is happening).

The rumours devastate me. We have already seen a Labour Council trashing the Liddell Road industrial estate and the 150 jobs that went with it to allow an 11-storey tower block of apartments to be built of which only 4 units will be for social housing. Push off you workers! You are not wanted round here.

But to follow we have now seen plans for the 156 West End Lane site that will make Liddell Road seem like a workers’ paradise. An excrescence of unsightly housing reaching up to 6 or 8 stories, transforming the elegant streets currently alongside Lymington Road will put the Conservation Area into the shade – to help foreign investors looking for a quick buck.

Labour Camden may argue that it is investing the proceeds back into the council and the borough. Apart from being a hollow claim, large areas of the borough will become residential zones for young bankers and City ladies and gents. Labour is giving Camden’s existing residents the bum’s rush.

And that is not all! The Library on Dennington Park Road is already being ear-marked for closure. The council calls it a public consultation – but anyone who has been close to local government knows that you have one of those before you go ahead and do the outrageous thing you were going to do anyway. Once closed it becomes a gold-mine. The council-built housing to either side of it and the open space behind it could bring in £30million or £40million from developers who could throw up a large housing block of 12 or 14 floors. The destruction of a book shop, a bike shop, a dentist, bars and restaurants would count for nothing. The synagogue and the elegance of the roads on either side would be dwarfed by the monster. Communities would be destroyed and traditions lost for ever.

I can also see more jobs going down Blackburn Road off West End Lane, on top of the loss of 30 jobs at Travis Perkins, as the developers scramble to buy up yards of spare land along railway lines.

And where would the proceeds be spent? On facilities for residents? Play areas, drop-ins and tennis courts? No way! Any funds for investment would no doubt be directed to the south of the borough and the lifestyle of West Hampstead destroyed for good.

The piece de resistance is still to come, perhaps 4 or 5 years away. The vast parking area at the rear of the O2 centre on Finchley Road has an immense potential for the developers. A large site of 4 or 6 football pitches will be put out to developers, and we will see sky-scrapers of luxury homes, and a fashionable shopping centre boasting its links with Finchley Road stations.

I am sorry that my grand-children will have to adjust to the ruination of West Hampstead. Perhaps even more sorry that they will associate the obscenity of housing bubbles and the disposal of community assets with a Labour Council. Its not too late, though, for the local politicians of all parties to come together with the community to defeat the Builders of Blocks.

The consequences of not listening to raised voices will degrade the important principle of accountability that has defined Camden’s government for over 51 years.

Neil Fletcher

Author Bio: Neil Fletcher was born in Blackpool, taught in Leeds and moved to West Hampstead in 1971. He was a trade union officer, became a Camden councillor (Chair of Building, Works and Services, and Finance Committees, and Deputy Leader of the council) and was also a member of the Inner London Education Committee (ILEA) for 11 years. He was Chair of the Further and Higher Education Committee and then Leader for three years before it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He subsequently became Executive Director (Education, Culture, Libraries, Sport) at the Local Government Association (LGA) and now works as a consultant on education and public services in England as well as in Africa.