UCL and 'social cleansing'
On 29 November, forty students entered and occupied a room at University College London in protest against the college’s plan to build a new campus in East London. UCL Stratford will see the demolition of the Carpenters council estate to make way for a new 23-acre campus costing £1 billion. After a year’s negotiations the plans were given the green light by Newham Council in late October. All of the housing on the site will be flattened and the 700 residents ‘decanted’. Their ‘right to return’ promised in the residents’ charter published by the council ‘will remain subject to availability’.
Many of the residents have lived on the estate for decades. Douglas Ward and his wife have been there since 1971, four years after it was built. ‘We’re getting on in life and we’ve got nowhere else to go,’ he told me last week. Some younger and more mobile residents have left in the last few years – many of the houses are boarded up and the three high-rise tower blocks are mostly empty – but residents claim that neglect of the housing stock is a deliberate council tactic in the push for regeneration, first mooted in 2001. Some former residents have been given new and less secure tenancy agreements in nearby social housing; others have left the borough completely. The council claims that the blocks – three of the largest in Newham – are unfit for habitation, but the top five floors of one of them were renovated for the BBC to use during the Olympics. Newham has a social housing waiting list of 31,000 people, the longest of any borough in the capital, but under UCL’s plans a maximum of 21 per cent of the new build will be given over to social housing. There’s no indication of the minimum.
The council Tenants Management Organisation has hired bouncers to keep residents out of meetings. The residents’ former independent adviser, Paul Reeves, was fired for misconduct; residents say he was ‘too independent’ for the council’s liking. UCL has invited residents to a handful of ‘community drop-in sessions’ where they could see the university’s plans but not comment on them. At a packed meeting on the estate in September, residents made their opposition to UCL’s plans known. ‘I will fight you,’ Mary Finch, an elderly resident, told the UCL representative. Another resident asked: ‘What makes your students’ rights greater than ours?’ Andrew Grainger, the head of UCL Estates, shrugged off their views: ‘Change is gonna happen.’
UCL and Newham Council claim that the new campus will create new employment and educational opportunities for the local population. The Stratford Metropolitan Masterplan predicts that regeneration in Newham will lead to 46,000 new jobs; UCL estimates that the new campus will generate 4500 jobs, 3300 of them in Newham – no doubt including, though it doesn’t say so, many low-wage, low-skill jobs in areas such as cleaning and catering. Despite repeated promises that it soon will, UCL still doesn’t pay its cleaners the London living wage. As for education, UCL says that ‘the presence of the university could enhance awareness of and attitudes towards higher education’, which ‘coupled with outreach work’ and ‘collaboration’ with local schools and further education colleges ‘would engender a material improvement in the Newham skills base over time’.
The students' occupation was all over by last Friday evening, when the College delivered an interim High Court possession order on the space, naming three UCL students. Fearing that they would be personally liable for £40,000 in legal fees, the occupiers agreed to leave. Students are continuing their awareness campaign, however, organising protests on campus and visits to the estate.
Joe Alexander, a vocal member of Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans, has been fighting regeneration since 2005. Describing what the council is doing as ‘social cleansing’, he sees UCL as the newest partner in the mayor of Newham's plan to ‘chuck all the poor people out and put in the people with money’. John Burton, the chairman of the Stratford Renaissance Partnership and director of development at Westfield shopping centres, has said that ‘bringing one of the world's top universities to Stratford will only strengthen its offer as one of the best connected and exciting development areas anywhere in Europe,’ which means exactly what it appears to mean – the people with money are already here.