Vivienne Westwood speaks out about destruction of Rectory Gardens housing co-op

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood speaks to Spectacle from her south London studio

Vivienne Westwood is known for her outspoken attitude, both in her fashion and activism. Sticking to trend, today she spoke out about the destruction of long-standing housing co-ops in her home borough of Lambeth, lending her support to the documentary Spectacle are making about the fate of Rectory Gardens and its residents who currently face eviction by the council.
 
This sort of short-termist policy is “incredibly stupid, shocking and horrible. It’s terrible to put people through that distress” and will simply add to the “growing list of people waiting for housing”, said Vivienne. In 2011, Lambeth recalled the properties it previously handed over to the self-forming housing co-op back in the 1970s as a response to cuts, spurred on by the now-booming London market. Vivienne spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about Rectory Gardens: “There is no traffic, so children can actually play together and knock on each others’ doors. People are all working together, it’s absolutely great.” The enforced break-up of such a community is “disgusting”, she added.
 
Vivienne moved to Clapham in the 1960s, when she recalls that London was a “dilapidated” yet “creative” and “living” city. Echoing the words of artist Maggi Hambling, who Spectacle interviewed two weeks ago, “There was always something to discover. It was full of craftspeople and artists”. Now, she says, London has been “cleaned up” and priced out through short-sighted government policy that is “killing the actual reason why people want to live here in the first place.”
 
With a deep love of London’s theatres and cultural centres, such as the National Gallery, Barbican, and particularly the Battersea Arts Centre, Vivienne argued that these sorts of enterprises tend to emerge from the ground up, through artistic communities that are allowed to grow organically, like Rectory Gardens itself. “These sorts of communities are so important to what makes London such a buzzing, active, cultural place”. But in a world dominated by concern for “profit” alone, in which “people are just treated as commodities”, she fears that all such creativity is “being obliterated and swamped”.
 

Vivienne highlighted the fact that the government is currently planning to build over 200 high-rise luxury flats in the City; an action she deemed “an absolute scandal”, since, at the same time, “the housing list is growing while council houses are being pulled down and housing co-ops are being evicted. Where are people going to live?” Arriving in London almost 50 years ago as a school teacher, Vivienne said that even at that time it was very difficult to find a flat. With her then boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, they found a place that had been squatted by “hippies” and painted entirely red on the inside – “it looked like the inside of a phonebox! It was great!”. This was the only way they were able to secure a home. “I don’t know how people manage today. It’s dreadful.”

Referring to the soaring prices of London property, Vivienne spoke of the case of Maritza Tschepp who is being threatened by eviction from her ‘short-life’ house in Stockwell to the potential tune of around £700,000 for the Council at auction. Not a penny of that would go the former resident, despite the fact that it is her invested energy and money alone that has maintained and increased the property’s market value over the 33 years she has lived in it. At those prices, suggested Vivienne, who earlier this year attended a demonstration outside another boarded-up co-op house on Lillieshall Rd to protest its sale, it’s likely only to be speculators or those after second homes that can afford to move in.
 
“The government is doing only what’s good for business and profit – they’re not thinking about people. This is bad economics and is storing up trouble for the future”, argued Vivienne fervently. A long-standing Lambeth resident, she understood that the council was facing enormous pressure from its budget being slashed in half by government austerity measures. But argued that they should be resisting and raising the alarm about the scale of cuts, rather than backing the Government in “trying to work a system that is a short-term disaster for people and a longer-term, unimaginable disaster for the planet”. She urged that people should “stick together” to protest against the “false economy” of austerity.
 
Reflecting her broad activist perspective, Vivienne was keen to stress that the story of Rectory Gardens should be seen as part of a bigger systemic problem of greedy capitalist profiteering resulting in the destruction of communities and the environment, “happening everywhere”. “We need a green economy based on collaboration, respect for people, fair distribution of money, community. A green economy is a people’s economy – it is urgent and necessary. If you protest against the acquisition of these co-op houses, you are protesting against everything that is ruining the planet.” In her own true-to-form, outspoken words, that is: “a world in which politicians’ only care is to syphon off all profit for the super rich”. 
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Local artist Maggi Hambling condemns Lambeth Council’s ‘Jack the Ripper policy’ towards urban development

Maggi Hambling deplores Lambeth’s destruction of housing co-ops in an interview from her Clapham studio

Painter, sculptor and Clapham resident, Maggi Hambling, told Spectacle that ‘Lambeth Council, rather like Jack the Ripper, seems to be ripping its way through the whole feel and importance of this area’ through its short-termist policy of selling off cooperative housing, such as that of Rectory Gardens, just round the corner from Maggi’s sunlit studio.

‘What I think is most extraordinary is that Lambeth calls itself the ‘Cooperative Council‘ when it has destroyed and is still destroying every cooperative around me. It’s terrible, to put it mildly’, she says. In an interview for Spectacle’s documentary about the breaking up of Rectory Gardens Housing Co-op, Maggi describes Lambeth’s ‘money-grabbing, short-sighted, and morally criminal’ behaviour towards Co-ops in the borough. In nearby Lillieshall Road, only two of 15 houses remain, while residents of Rectory Gardens are currently in the process of being evicted.

‘The creative community, as I have known it over all these years, has changed from an enormous mix of different people living together and caring about each other into this gentrified place where money, money, money, rather than any kind of feel for the community, rules. Every bit of creative spirit is being exterminated with a very heavy hand. Nothing but destruction is coming from above.’

Maggi moved to the area in the 1960s and remembers the wide variety of people who once made this their home, including artists and craftspeople. The systematic eradication of co-ops, she fears, is the product of a policy of greed that will ultimately destroy what makes this place special to live in.

‘Clapham and places around here will just become dormitories for people in the city who can afford the extortionate amounts of money they’re paying for their little bit of castle. This area is trying to turn itself into Mayfair. Something that the totally un-cooperative Council is probably very happy about to the detriment of healthy communities and anything that breathes any life.’

‘Rectory Gardens is the last bastion of the cooperatives and is hanging on by its teeth. Whatever anyone can do to save it must be done now. I would ask the Council to look at their own greed and lack of foresight and vision. Otherwise, this sort of Jack the Ripper policy is going to amount to a London that is extremely boring, to say the least.’

Despite anger, Maggi optimistically concludes that ‘it is possible to win these battles. The so-called Cooperative Council should be emphatically made to see how blind they are being and how cruel.’

But, she wonders, as many might, ‘why does everything have to be a battle?’

What you can do:

Sign the petition at Change.org: http://www.change.org/p/lambeth-the-cooperative-sic-council-stop-the-co-op-housing-evictions

Visit Lambeth United Housing Co-operative’s website: http://www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk/

Write to the Council to support the ‘Super Co-op’ solution: http://www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk/?page_id=157

Tweet, Facebook, and disseminate this and related blogs and news articles to your contacts.

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Spectacle will make a film about Rectory Gardens housing co-operative

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Spectacle has met several times with members of a housing co-operative based in Rectory Gardens, Clapham, to discuss making a film about the street and its community ahead of residents planned, impending eviction by Lambeth Council. We ran an extremely successful four day training course around the project. This served the dual purpose of giving participants the opportunity to experience working on a real commission and kick-starting filming.

We received excellent feedback from course attendees and an enthusiastic response from many Rectory Gardens residents. As a result, we have more training courses scheduled in for the Autumn and we hope to start production on the Rectory Gardens film for real in the near future. Eventually we aim to produce a short film that may help the campaign of residents who choose not to settle, and serve as a record of life on the street for those who have decided to reluctantly accept the Council’s offer of rehousing.

The Rectory Garden Housing Co-operative came into being in the 1970s, when houses on the street – an L-shaped mews attached to Rectory Grove – were compulsorily purchased by the Council and then left empty. People who moved into the empty buildings were allowed to stay on ‘short life’ tenancies – for almost 40 years in some cases. The residents made the houses habitable, tended the gardens and in many cases brought up families there. They also formed a housing co-operative, with a ‘self-help’ agenda – members exchanged skills and supported each other; they taught themselves and each other to maintain the houses – in (at least) one case learning to plaster ‘on the job’. The result is a vibrant and eclectic street, with an old bombsite for a garden and a small pack of cats to keep out the mice. In contrast to a sterile and ugly gated-community redevelopment in the mews next door the street is idyllic, a hub of community that contrasts the bleakness of many residential parts of London.

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However some residents say they have been unable to fully enjoy their homes, instead living with constant anxiety as Lambeth Council – which ironically self-describes as a ‘co-operative council’ – has sporadically put pressure on them to leave. This came to a head in 2011, when the Labour party began systematically targeting all ‘short life’ properties in the borough. Under immense pressure and facing dubious, underhand tactics – including the employment of property guardian company Camelot to help prise tenants out and stop new ones moving in – many residents have now settled and been rehoused, or are awaiting to be rehoused within the borough. Lambeth Council have offered Rectory Gardens residents priority in selectively applying for available council houses.

Many residents, however, persist in fighting to keep their homes, despite the risk of having to pay enormous legal fees if they lose.

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