Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

‘In 20 years Inner London may really be like Paris, a wealthy centre surrounded by racialised poverty’

Pepys estate01

What happens when entirely different lives and economies coexist on the same street?

Carl Neville’s recent novel Resolution Way takes place in a slightly near-future London, recognisable as the capital as it is today but subtly worse. Set in the historic, working-class, rapidly gentrifying riverside districts of south-east London – Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich – and in the Kent seaside towns that its residents are moved to by hook or crook – Margate, Broadstairs, Folkestone – it barely perceptibly mixes things that have and haven’t happened. 

Prefabricated, developer-built ‘pens’ house key workers such as cleaners, nurses and teachers in single-aspect microflats, as a ‘social enterprise’. A new Tube line, ‘SoftRail’, is invite-only, conveying financial services employees from their riverside housing complexes to their jobs in the City and Canary Wharf, safe from the inhabitants of a restive, riot-torn inner city. A widely used social media app allows you to explore all the contacts of complete strangers. Nightclubs purvey ‘twinning’ evenings – the ’90s as the ’60s, the 2000s as the ’70s – and retro cool hunters compete over the private mix tapes once made by now middle-aged ravers. A private security firm, a nightmarish combination of Capita and Blackwater, forcibly ‘decants’ the inhabitants of council tower blocks from their homes. Workfare programmes involve compulsory relocation from London to the coastal towns.

Other than that, the novel’s protagonists worry as they do today – how to make ends meet, how to defend their neighbours against the police, how to pitch their next novel to their agent.

‘Deptford is echt London, littered with strange pointers to its history, ‘authentic’ and wildly faked’

But what makes this book so much fun for anyone – like myself – who has lived in the areas described for most of the last two decades, is spotting the things that are real and are put into the novel unchanged. The title refers to Resolution Way, a street along a railway viaduct in Deptford, which really boasts a gallery called Enclave, where Marxist hipsters wordily plot resistance to gentrification. Genuinely around the corner is a block of luxury flats with a Poundland as its piece of ground-floor active frontage. Off the High Street, a railway carriage with a café inside really did make the area safe for another expensive apartment block, designed in reality by Rogers Stirk Harbour. The old Job Centre really has become a bar called Job Centre. Science fiction as it may partly be, what would strike anyone reading Resolution Way is a certain shock and surprise that someone has managed to register the experience of, and the typologies created by, inner London in the 21st century. This is something which has usually been addressed in terms of problems which London hasn’t actually faced for some time – spatial segregation, ‘no go areas’, ‘sink estates’, ‘social exclusion’ and a dearth of ‘aspiration’, all of which may be problems elsewhere, but are less relevant for Londoners, who face a bizarre and unnerving lack of spatial stratification, where it increasingly seems as if entirely different lives and economies coexist on the same street, in the same estates, in the same block of flats.

Riba prepys estate tony ray jones

Riba prepys estate tony ray jones

Source: Tony Ray-Jones

Pepys Estate, Deptford, London

Deptford is a well-chosen setting for Neville’s future London. I lived there for four years, from 2003 to 2007, alternately studying for a Masters degree and signing on at the aforementioned Job Centre. Deptford is echt London, littered with strange pointers to its history, ‘authentic’ and wildly faked. There was high architecture if you knew where to look – on the post-industrial wastes of Deptford Creek, Herzog & de Meuron’s Laban Centre rehoused the dance school that has been here for decades in a surprising and appropriate long and low building clad in a drizzle frosted glass; further south along the River Ravensbourne, David Adjaye’s Stephen Lawrence Centre was, aptly, more harsh, with brutal volumes, a sharp steel screen and defensive gating protecting it from tiny, square and already gentrifying early Victorian terraced houses. On the riverside, the large LCC tenement blocks – with their long access decks, washing lines and grand archways – felt almost Hanseatic, organised around extraordinary churches such as Thomas Archer’s icy, English baroque St Paul’s or the freakish St Nicholas, with its pirate-ship skull and crossbones gateposts. The High Street, then as now almost devoid of both dereliction and chain stores, gives way to a side street with a junk market, the Albany Theatre, a typically mock-organic ’80s vernacular design with a parodically rustic spreading red-tiled roof, and some similarly restrained and traditional terraces, designed when Nicholas Taylor was at the helm of housing in Lewisham in the 1970s. Naturally, I ascribe the fact that this is the only street in London where I’ve ever been mugged to the effects of their traditional design. 

‘It was hard not to assume that Herzog & de Meuron and Adjaye’s original, cranky public buildings had become unwitting Trojan horses for private property development’

In around 2000, new developments in Deptford turned their back on this dense and odd area, creating instead new spaces – first some closes of introverted semis around cul-de-sacs, then a development of tall, gated flats around a hilarious, Russian-designed statue of one-time resident Peter the Great, Tsar of all Russian peoples. Only a decade or so after this did the big bang come, with several new complexes of luxury flats, often claiming to be in Greenwich, the other side of the Creek. Some RBS-sponsored abstract volumes grew around the Laban Centre, clumsily approximating its drizzle glass; by the Stephen Lawrence Centre rose ‘OneSE8’, a gross and heavily gated development of flimsy tenements and towers; in both cases, it was hard not to assume that Herzog & de Meuron and Adjaye’s original, cranky public buildings had become unwitting Trojan horses for private property development. In Greenwich itself, a half-dozen new towers rose on the site of a demolished 1960s LCC estate, all with their percentages of ‘affordable’ housing but with few if any social-rent tenants. Along Resolution Way, this all got closer and closer to the High Street and the housing estates, until council tenants and residents of the likes of OneSE8 were walking the exact same streets, shopping in the same supermarkets. The council flats themselves, when they were bought, could easily be sold to the sort of young professionals that OneSE8 was marketed to; perhaps more easily, given that they were more handsome, better built, and often more spacious. 

Sprunt brochure view from aragon

Sprunt brochure view from aragon

Source: Sprunt architects’ brochure

The view from the Pepys Estate’s Aragon Tower after its privatisation, as advertised in Sprunt architects’ brochure

It is at the nearby Pepys Estate where Deptford’s housing complexities become almost obscene. A once highly praised GLC estate combining three tower blocks, several jaggedly articulated maisonette blocks and a few rehabilitated Georgian buildings, it was ‘regenerated’ in the early 2000s through selective demolition, new speculative and Housing Association blocks built into the allegedly ‘useless’ open spaces of the estate, and the total clearance of the riverside facing Aragon Tower, refurbished and opened to private tenants at silly money for a one-bedroom flat. At the time, I was living on the High Street in a bedsit, paying out to a private landlord for a rodent-infested room, and sharing with, at one time or another, two security guards, two dance students, a small Polish family, a Slovak security guard, a German-Nigerian couple and a Liverpudlian pensioner, what the latter called ‘the smallest kitchen in Christendom’ and a single tiny bathroom. Naturally, I applied for a council tenancy. The local Housing Office was on the Pepys Estate. At the interview, the officer told me that if it was their choice, I’d get on the priority list, but rules were rules, and I could expect it to be many years before a flat would be available. As I looked up at the reclad, decanted, regenerated and socially cleansed Aragon Tower, it was hard not to think ‘no shit’.

‘It is possible that in 20 or 30 years inner London really will be like Paris, a wealthy centre of two million comfortable people surrounded by the racialised poverty of the eight-million-strong outskirts.’

It is places like this that are the future of London housing, the fulfilment of the idea, supported by everyone from Richard Rogers to Boris Johnson to Ken Livingstone to Sadiq Khan, that new housing is best left to developers, from whom we can extract a trickle of affordable flats via the planning system. Councils might disagree, but are forced to play the game – some are setting up shell companies to build housing, and like the Housing Associations, are building new private flats to offset the price of building new social ones – on the sites of demolished estates, of course. Much attention has been paid to the picturesque paraphernalia of this system, like the marketing of new blocks to overseas investors, ‘poor doors’ to demarcate ‘affordable’ and market parts of the same building, and spikes to discourage rough sleepers, but these have been here for years, and were inherent to this idea almost from the beginning. Here in south-east London, we have one of the first of these schemes, the late Ralph Erskine’s 1999 Greenwich Millennium Village, now in 2016 almost complete, though with some liberties taken to the original plan. Its dedicated residents’ website is largely devoted to complaints on the part of those who have paid the full whack against the fact that they have to share their primary school, riverside walk, park and nature reserve with ‘chavs’ and their families. The Housing Association flats were placed further from the river, but at least Erskine didn’t provide them with poor doors.

Aragon tower david dixon

Aragon tower david dixon

Source: David Dixon

Aragon Tower was sold in 2002, reclad and transformed into luxury flats

Much of what is welcome about Resolution Way is the fact that it doesn’t present this as some sort of dystopia, where total social collapse ensues from the tensions between the extremely poor and the very comfortable literally sharing the same space. Tensions there most certainly are, but except for the brief explosion of August 2011, everyone plays by the rules of non-interference, and to some degree there is even some minor solidarity in the shared spaces, shared experiences of poor infrastructure, precarious work and the currently fashionable dog-whistling aimed at the ‘multicultural’ ‘metropolitan’ elite. It is not the London described by the likes of Iain Sinclair, where the only thinking beings are documentary film-makers and experimental poets and everyone else is either a feral tracksuited troglodyte or a sinister yuppie. One of the strangest things about contemporary London is its apparent political unity, despite its profound inequalities, as the thumping, landslide victories for Sadiq Khan in the Mayoral election and for the ‘Remain’ position in the EU referendum made clear. 

While stratification may seem more an aim than an actually achieved fact, with the majority of people in areas such as Deptford or Woolwich (if not Greenwich) still firmly working class under any sane definition, there’s little doubt that’s the aim. The destruction of the Heygate and, soon, Aylesbury Estates in SE1 make this very clear, and it is possible that in 20 or 30 years inner London really will be like Paris, a wealthy centre of two million comfortable people surrounded by the racialised poverty of the eight-million-strong outskirts. Right now, however, the worlds coexist. And whereas the architecture of the boom years aimed at exacerbating that difference, with an ‘aspirational’ array of cladding materials, shapes and colours, the architecture of the last few years – all those good, sturdy, robust schemes by Maccreanor Lavington, Glenn Howells, Karakusevic Carson, et al – is anything but stratified in its design. Created both by a shift in taste after the collapse of the Blair-Brown boom and the ministrations of Boris Johnson’s design guide, these towers and terraces of brick-clad, austere, regular, flat volumes, are actually mandated to have neither poor doors nor gates, with single entrances onto the street and urban good manners. 

That doesn’t have much effect on their role in pushing up rents, putting pressure on areas of social housing and increasing inequality. But it does make all that appear so much neater. As I look out of my window, in an ex-council flat in Woolwich, I can see cranes constructing sober brick-clad tenements, and green spaces just itching to be built on.

Soon enough, it’ll be an area of ‘high value’, and the council will be legally pressured to sell the land. The place will look much the same – some of the council flats are even listable, and the Twentieth Century Society might get interested – but it will have been finally transformed, without even the need for a dystopian secret police force to have forced us into it.

Lead Image: Pepys Estate in Deptford, completed by the Greater London Council in 1973 and photographed by Tony Ray-Jones for the AR’s ‘Manplan’ issue on housing in 1970