It was with great excitement that I set off to Sweets Way yesterday with photographer Nicky Kirby, but after hours of touring and talking I left with a sense of unease I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
There is without doubt a passion behind the intentions here, on the eve of the last planned eviction from Barnet’s ex-military houses. In this eerily ghost-town-like estate Liam and Anna, representing Sweets Way Resists welcome us with open arms. We are here to document their latest project. For £400 Anna, a previous resident, and her team of men have transformed a vandalised wreck of a house into a show home.
Four hundred is a significant number. Liam, a main organiser here, has calculated this is roughly the same sum of money that Annington Homes paid per house, to take over this estate from the Ministry of Defence. What was once a thriving community of family homes, Sweets Way is set to become yet another London luxury flat development.
It’s a large estate - much bigger than I had envisaged. There are wide expanses of grass and fully matured trees. if you shut your eyes hard enough, you can almost hear the squeals of children’s laughter, the ball games, and kids on their cycles. But today it is quiet, desolate, haunted.
Anna first shows us the devastation of a destroyed home. A move, demonstrated by these before and after bathroom images, that highlights just what a difference that £400, 5 days and a community spirit can make. First we see this senseless vandalism. Not stopping at eviction these houses have been smashed up by, I’m told, Annington Homes’ contractors, ensuring that no-one can easily live there. Toilets ripped out, tiles smashed, holes in walls. The feeling of hired thugs letting loose their anger is palpable.
Architect of the project, designer of the interior, and quite clearly a visionary artist, Anna shows us around the show home next door. With the labour of their own hands a small team have salvaged whatever they could – discarded sinks, outdoor taps, palette boards. Working 16 hours a day until they were almost delirious, Sweets Way Resists have turned a wreck into a shabby chic triumph of statement art.
Proudly, Anna tells me that the main bedroom was decked out for a total of £5. The kitchen worktop was formed from a slab of concrete. The only professional help, a plumber who has assisted with the toilet and bathroom. They are learning as they go. Anna apologises for the kitchen floor tiles, as the volunteer that laid them had never done anything like it before. Here we see the slate tiles rescued from a factory, and coupled with salvaged logs for seating.
Researching the project, there was very little to go on. I ask Liam about the PR. He is very upbeat and mentions the pieces by the Guardian and London Live amongst others. But it isn’t enough. It really isn’t. I certainly couldn’t spot enough. It’s as if we are all apathetic now. A nation of consumers. Concerned with the success of the individual.
An architect has declared that these houses are sound. They are rescuable. But more importantly, these houses were once homes you know, they aren’t just tatty old buildings. This was an estate with children singing, mothers hanging out washing, barbecues in the back garden. You know all that stuff that we like to do on a summer’s day. It was Christmas trees and lights. It was grandmas and grandpas, mums and dads. A place to rest a head at the end of the day. Flowers in plant pots, kids being rushed to school. Milkmen, dustbins and Amazon deliveries.
“There is no such thing as society” Margaret Thatcher said. But there is. Or at least there was, here in Sweets Way. It was a community. I know this. They would move back tomorrow if they could, Anna tells me. But they, the families, they have gone now. Scattered as far as Luton. Families displaced from their homes, children settling down in new schools.
It is hard to imagine the redevelopment is even legal in the first place. I’m told by Sweets Way Resists that Annington Homes bought this estate from the Ministry of Defence for £1.2million. Literally just across the A1000 from Sweets Way, this would not even buy you one luxury 2 bedroom penthouse flat currently listed for £1.6million. Surely this estate had a higher market value, and the public purse deserved to see that value returned. But Liam tells me they haven’t got a lawyer on side. So there’s limited threat of the legalities of the development being challenged.
If the redevelopment goes ahead, 142 affordable social houses will be replaced by around 280 luxury flats. Of those 59 are labelled affordable. An inaccurate way to describe homes that will cost up to 80% of the market rent or be part-buy-part-let schemes, neither of which are likely to be affordable by the previous demographic. Essentially Barnet has just lost 142 social homes.
Monday the 10th August is a big day. The bailiffs are due to escort the last family from Sweets Way. I ask Liam what he wants people to do to help. His main concern is to get as many people as possible at the site on the day of the planned eviction. With one family left here, it is harder for the new development to proceed ahead. “How many people do you have committed to being here?” asks my friend Kate. The answer is small, too small, and I think this is what has left me with that uneasy queasy feeling. For all the hard work, for all the passion, I wonder if this is too little too late for this particular estate.
But it is a statement. It is a straw on the camel of capitalism’s back. The straws are so light and so few but with enough placed over enough time who knows which will be the last one, the one that does it, the one that breaks the camel’s back.
Everywhere on Sweets Way there are touches of enlightenment. Carved into the show home landing floor a Ghandi quote:
"First they ignore you, then they laught at you, then they fight you, then you win."
For Sweets Way there is a bitter sweet sense of finality to the place, although Sweets Way Resists are determined to put on a battle to the end. I hope they win, but even if the battle is lost there is still a housing war to win, more straws to stack. My fingers, toes and legs are crossed; meditating on the image of a broken camel's back.
For more information on Sweets Way Resists, events and how you can help visit https://sweetswayresists.wordpress.com/
Photographs by Nicki Kirby. You can find Nicki's work and contact her through Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/vampyredragyn/
Article by Caroline Wilson