By the time I arrive for last Saturday morning’s ‘guerrilla gardening’ session at 269 Leigham Court Road, Lambeth, a working party has been in full swing for two hours. Leaves are bagged up for composting and rubbish collected for removal. A couple of residents sweep up as Lambeth Housing Activists complete the bulb-planting. Family members talk intently to visitors like myself. Convenor Chris Blake tells me eighteen people have taken part. We’re here because this sheltered block, with its 45 dwellings, is threatened (like others in the borough) with closure: Lambeth Council want to realise an asset by selling off the land for development.
I introduce myself to one woman, a Scot from Banff, who has lived here for fourteen years. She shows me round and we sit for a while in the resident’s lounge. This is, she feels, a real community, with scope both to keep yourself to yourself and to link in with your neighbours. She shows me photos of the small courtyard garden that she and her late friend Jean used to maintain, and for which they won an award four years ago. She wants to remain here: when the council took her and a group of residents to show them accommodation in Stockwell, she found the flats OK but the idea of having to live in a tower block appalling. You can see why the change would be so unattractive: 269 Leigham Court Road, designed in the 1970s by architect Kate Macintosh, who is also campaigning to save it, may be a brutalist classic but it has attractive open space and gardens – there is an echo of the cloisters in its ground floor walkways. The woman I speak to tells me she feels secure, fond of the warden (‘strict but kind – she’ll tell you off, oh yes’) but keen to assert her independence – although, as the warden works a five-day week, she misses her supervisory presence at weekends.
Sheltered housing in London has been a difficult issue since the 1990s, when many poorly designed, or spatially isolated, blocks became hard to let. The basic premise, now unfashionable in policy terms, assumes residential segregation by age. Paradoxically, both changes to lettings policies and the right to buy have made some schemes more age-diverse, but this has not increased their viability. Meanwhile, the loss, or reduction, of warden services has reduced their value to those, like the woman I speak to, who value the component of safe haven sheltered housing provides. Instead councils pursue targeted, or market-led, alternatives, responding to – or constructing – a demand for both: Lambeth has ambitious plans for extra-care sheltered. The problem with this policy-led approach is that it fails to address the situation in a block which works socially and thereby represents an achievement of community. With our obsessive talk of independence such achievements have become more difficult to identify and support: ‘community’ in a block like 269 is a co-produced achievement between residents, family members, and visiting staff. It requires some on the spot leadership (of the kind the woman I spoke to identified in her warden) and good external support if it is to flourish in the longer term. It’s this achievement which, alongside opposition to the sell-off, has drawn in activists and campaigners to 269 Leigham Court Road. I spoke to one supporter who thought it awful that nothing is done to sustain ‘communities that actually work’, which is also the passionately held belief of Susan Okokon, whose parents moved in recently. In the age-friendly city we will need the tools to defend ourselves against regeneration just as we need the tools to claim a share of the use-value of new development when it is complete. The monastic values and community purposes which sustain the current enthusiasm for ‘co-housing’ could apply just as well to situations like 269 Leigham Court Road, where something more provisional has evolved pragmatically and without ideological intent.
There’s perhaps a larger agenda here, too. The older populations of some of London’s 32 boroughs are shrinking. Lambeth is one of five where people over 65 now make up less than 8% of the total. It ranks fifth among the eight boroughs where the population of older people declined by more than 5% between 2001 and 2011. So this is not just an issue of the ageing population being outstripped by the in-migration of younger adults seeking work and the buzz: it represents an actual retreat, even a kind of defeat. You feel it all the time as London modernises and maladapts its creaking infrastructure to keep up with population churn while serving the rentier agenda. Look at the crowded new open plan trains which have displaced the old tube stock and swept the board on the Overground, where on the busiest lines it is almost impossible to sit down, while the limited civilities that once operated around the old seating systems on the tube are eroding. If you’ve been fortunate enough to live near a good transport link you can pretty much guarantee that a developer seeking to exploit the fact is proposing to tear up your neighbourhood. I’ve been preoccupied with these issues since Tony Warnes gave a paper on the push and pull factors affecting older people’s residential choices at the BSG Plymouth conference in 2011. Whether we sell up to release the equity in a mushrooming asset, move out to escape the pressure, indulge in ‘white flight’ (is this the factor which explains Barking and Dagenham topping the shrinkage league?), or follow the classic immigrant success route to the suburbs and outlying towns, we’re giving up the city and making it more difficult for the next cohort of elders to succeed us. Choice and solidarity are always in conflict.
So it’s deeply worrying to find local authorities exacerbating this trend, and serving the developers’ property-led agenda under the pretence of meeting housing need. The result will be that established communities of older residents are not just exposed to the population churn around them, but compelled to take part in it themselves. There may be no explicit cleansing agenda but is there not a subliminal gerontophobia in the silence of those paying no attention to our diminishing presence, one sustained by our own reticence? Despite the support it’s received from architects – I went down to 269 because Chris Phillipson, who’s also visited, contacted me after an event at RIBA – these protests do not yet have a high profile. The local press reports but doesn’t actively follow the campaign, while the websites don’t suggest close links between opposition councillors and activists like the group whose efforts I joined in with on Saturday. Moreover, as such campaigns are rarely led by residents themselves, they tend neither to meet idealistic expectations of elders, nor get the attention that more charismatic activists, like the Focus E15 mothers, can sometimes attract. The attritional drip-drip by which austerity presses down on the older population is further obscured.
All this represents a challenge for social gerontology. So much research and theorising has been focused on changing service delivery or on new policy strategies in recent decades that we lack an understanding of the longer-term social and cultural consequences of policy for everyday life. While older folk may need more support with age we can’t allow research to focus so much on the actions and intentions of those supporters that the recipient side of the bargain goes unrecorded. The mixed methods, or ethnographic, studies needed to address this stuff remain sadly lacking. These stock transfers of public housing sweeping across London represent an abstention of responsibility which is not erased when counter-policies, even partially successful ones, are interposed. An age-friendly city will be one that actively reduces churn, and slows down change that has no use value – Lefebvre’s right to the city is not much help if we can’t live there. Like Michael Hunt’s naturally occurring retirement communities, mature functioning sheltered housing should be a feature of such resistance, obstructing the rentier exploitation of land values, and inconveniencing the aspirational consumer culture whereby every London village seeks to clone itself as Shoreditch. An aged population not only requires people of all ages to coexist but must tolerate several generations of infrastructure to accomplish that. The much-touted ‘city for all ages’ will be a rich field of contradictions, not a fantasy world where contradictions have all been designed out.
As I spoke to the woman I met at 269 an irate man came into the lounge and complained because a patio door was open, making it insecure. She calmed him down, telling him she thought the door would get locked later, when ‘we finish here at 7’. She knew who had the key. I asked her what was going to happen later. She had already introduced me to an African neighbour who had recently moved in with her husband, a couple she described as ‘pastors’. Each week they hold a little prayer meeting in the lounge. That, my respondent told me was not her thing. She likes to sit in the corner of the room just to listen and then go on later to make the tea. You could hardly find a better illustration of the quiet creativity and social productivity of elders, or of the passive tolerance on which a multi-cultural city relies. Supporters can follow this vital campaign here, on a site which links to good descriptions of the place and its origins and to the coverage the campaign has attracted.
Dr John Miles 07817 424356