Demolition Drive

In the London towers marked for demolition and wiped from the map, residents fight to stay on

Life has become a nightmare, say apartment owners, after they were deleted from official records.

Ringed by a razor-tipped fence, the last remaining residents of a cluster of condemned London tower blocks are preparing for the final showdown in a bitter battle with their local government landlord.

A handful of apartment owners remain in towers marked for demolition on the Aylesbury estate, one of Europe’s largest social housing projects, facing a court date in May with Southwark Council to decide if they have to sell their homes.

The council announced plans in 2005 to raze the Aylesbury, home to more than 7,000 people, rather than modernise, saying redevelopment would replace poor quality housing in the sought-after central part of the city.

Most of the estate’s 2,700 homes, in grey blocks and redbrick terraces two miles from the Houses of Parliament, remain inhabited while about a quarter of the estate is being emptied.

But about five apartment owners remain in a huddle of shuttered towers earmarked as the first phase of demolition and have accused Southwark of dirty tactics to get them out, including letting their addresses be wiped from official records.

“All we want is to not be bullied out of the community where we live,” said Beverley Robinson, who has lived in her tower block apartment for 28 years.

“We’re thinking are we going to be able to stay in the area with our friends, family, and community, or are we going to be pushed outside London?”

Broken windows and crumbling exteriors of one of the condemned buildings inside the
Broken windows and crumbling exteriors of one of the condemned buildings inside the "order land" - the shuttered corner of the Aylesbury Estate, slated to be the first phase of the the demolition of the giant housing estate - in South London on Feb 28, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claudio Accheri

Southwark is one of many London councils redeveloping 1960s estates and building new apartments to meet relentless demand for housing but facing resistance from long-term residents who fear they will be priced out of their communities.

Across London, average property prices have risen 90% in the past decade, with a report last month by London Mayor Sadiq Khan saying a lack of affordable housing is increasingly depriving Londoners of the security of home ownership.

The Aylesbury battle is seen as typical of tensions arising from inner-city regeneration schemes accused of forcing out low-income residents to build upmarket homes to sell to newcomers.

Danger zone

The estate dating back to the 1960s has had its problems.

Crime and neglect in the 1990s led to the estate being labeled “Hell’s Waiting Room” by Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper but residents and the council agree this is in the past and the Aylesbury is now in a highly sought after part of London.

Southwark Council started moving rental occupants off the estate in 2011 to pave the way for a 1.5 billion pound two-decade redevelopment to build 3,575 new flats, schools and a health centre.

But many homeowners, who bought from councils under “right to buy” schemes introduced by the government in 1985, said they were not offered enough to let them stay in this part of London.

While the average price of a flat in the area is 470,000 pounds, Robinson said she was offered 225,000 pounds and the holdout residents want a chance to negotiate openly and fairly.

Locked in a stalemate, residents said the council has let the once-friendly park-side community become a danger zone with crumbling stairways, piles of rubbish, mice infestations, and heating blackouts nearly every week over winter.

Residents also blame council negligence for allowing them to be “wiped from the map”, after it shuttered the buildings while they remained inside, and failed to alert Royal Mail, who deleted their addresses from the official record.

The estate has been a good community, says resident Beverley Robinson, but buildings have recently been
The estate has been a good community, says resident Beverley Robinson, but buildings have recently been "wrecked"

Royal Mail spokesperson Sally Hopkins said councils across London were responsible for notifying them if they plan to shutter buildings with residents inside but no notice was given.

Robinson and neighbour Agnes Kabuto, who are both in their fifties, said the erasure of their address in 2015 led to bank accounts being frozen and blocked welfare payments.

The council denied addresses had been erased. But Freedom of Information requests by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed they were deleted in April 2015 and not re-instated until October that year.

“It’s like living in a nightmare,” said Robinson, a former postal worker whose homely flat lined with potted plants opens onto a deserted corridor.

Fire Dangers

A spokeswoman from Southwark Council said maintenance at the Aylesbury estate had become an issue as buildings emptied but denied officials had used underhand tactics to move people.

She said structural flaws in buildings had contributed to the decay and reconfirmed that those who moved out would be offered temporary accommodation off-site.

Mark Williams, Southwark’s head of regeneration, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the council had done everything it could to be “open, honest and fair with all the leaseholders throughout the regeneration process”.

Southwark attempted to end the deadlock by applying for a compulsory purchase order in 2015 to force homeowners to sell remaining apartments on the fenced-off portion of the estate. Ruling against the order in September, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said it would violate the human rights of residents from ethnic minority backgrounds who would likely be cut off from support networks built in the area.

He also said the council had failed to engage homeowners in adequate negotiations.

The judicial review, which begins at London’s High Court on May 9, will decide homeowners’ fate.

The Aylesbury Estate is seen in southeast London, Britain October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
The Aylesbury Estate is seen in southeast London, Britain October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

During a court hearing in January, the judge said Southwark should take immediate steps to “ameliorate the leaseholders’ situation” during the process.

Robinson and four others leaseholders interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said for more than five years the council had neglected its duties as landlord.

During the past six months, Robinson said she had been hospitalised after a gas leak, trapped in a dilapidated lift, and locked out by security guards who control the entrances.

Loretta Lees, professor of human geography at the University of Leicester, said Southwark and other council landlords often relied on “aggressive” tactics to make residents sell.

Lees, who has studied the estate’s regeneration since 2008, said councils’ have mimicked the strategies of the notorious slum landlords of the 1960s London, famed for exploiting tenants and forcing out unwanted residents by intimidation.

“You think that your democratically elected public bodies don’t do that kind of thing in the UK, in the 21st century, but it’s happening, and that’s been really shocking,” said Lees.

Kabuto and Robinson said they feared blocked fire escapes and faulty fire doors could lead to disaster.

Last month Southwark Council pleaded guilty for failing to address fire risks before a blaze in 2009 that killed six people at a 14-storey tower block less than a mile away.

After an inspection in September 2015, Royal Mail banned postmen from entering the condemned area due to fire hazards but a Southwark spokesperson said the council disagreed with this and worked with fire brigade to assess Aylesbury as fire-safe.

Until the court date, at least, the last remaining residents will continue to live behind the barricade.

“If I didn’t have my grandchildren to look forward to seeing, maybe I would have done something silly – I could have jumped out that balcony...These people are playing with our lives,” said Kabuto in the living room of her neat flat.

This article first appeared on Thomas Reuters Foundation News.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.