Pros and cons of the high life

It's a tale of two east London tower blocks. In one, some residents are trying to stay put, while in the other most are dying to get out. David Hall reports
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The Independent Culture
"When taxi drivers drop me outside here, they say it looks like Sarajevo. `How can you live here?' they ask."

Vicky Hawkins, 47, looks down from her 13th-floor window on to the scrubland below. "But I'd say to everyone that they ought to try it. I've never been happier: it's clean and quiet, it's home." She shuts the door. Rich, coloured hangings and cushions make her flat seem smaller than it is. "It's well designed. All the rooms are spacious and my own staircase makes it feels like a house."

Vicky has to move from her maisonette by July or "possession proceedings will be taken at the appropriate time". So says an eviction notice on the ground floor. Latham House has been bought by a consortium of housing associations on a 10-year lease. It has to have vacant possession or the deal will fall through, hence the evictions. In housing jargon this process is called "decanting". Fewer than one in three tenants of the "new" Latham will be local residents. The only alternative to this plan, the council says, is demolition.

They have known something was up at Latham House since 1989, when the council stopped letting the flats to new tenants. Scaffolding went up two years later, covered with green gauze that flaps in the wind at night, keeping everyone awake. Officially it is for asbestos removal - but the asbestos has taken a long time to take away. Now there are only nine flats occupied.

Four tower blocks are already scheduled for demolition this year in Tower Hamlets in east London and at least eight in neighbouring Hackney; two were destroyed on the Clapton Park Estate last month. The Hulme Estate's notorious Crescent in Manchester, a barracks-style design of Seventies deck-access blocks, was demolished last year to make way for mixed-use, low-rise buildings. It is back to the future there: an old road that was pulled up to create the estate is being restored.

But Tower Hamlets has the largest number of tower blocks, more than 10 storeys of any borough council and therefore one of the biggest problems.

Virtually every post-war housing experiment is represented in these few square miles. Sir Denys Lasdun's cluster blocks in Bethnal Green, dating from the Fifties, including the only residential tower block listed of exceptional merit by English Heritage, are scattered among more brutalist Sixties visions in Whitechapel further south. You can navigate your way around the borough best by keeping an eye on the blocks.

Latham, which dates from the Macmillan era, displays an unexpected attention to detail with attractive mosaics - falling off the wall now - in the entrance hall. Maisonettes that seem like houses when you go inside add to the attraction and the wall-to-wall windows in each give a sense of space and light.

In Latham House the unthinkable has happened: some residents have fallen in love with the planner's visions. Rosemary Bell, a retired insurance clerk, lives across the landing from Vicky. She celebrates her 25th anniversary in the block this month.

"A neighbour panicked last autumn with all the pressure being put on by the council, moved down to a low-rise and now feels depressed," she says. "She keeps looking up to the 15th floor and thinking, `That's my home up there.' When Labour got in last year, they said we could stay; now they say we can't. I'm dreading the day we have to go, I really am."

Rosie likes her freedom up in the sky. "It seemed like a paradise to me. It still does. My old place was two rooms at the top of a house, a toilet in the back yard, no bathroom. I had to bring up my son there and was on the waiting list for 10 years. Here I've got my balcony. In the summer I sit and look at the sunsets."

Rosie also knows everything about the block and everyone in it. She counts through every floor on her fingers. "Cheri on the 15th, I think she wants to leave. Then there's that chap with the bike, keeps himself to himself, he doesn't want to go. Nancy on the fifth, she doesn't want to either. The third floor are the only ones here who still really want to leave."

She introduces Stan next door. Inside his quiet, carpeted flat, he talks of moving in the day it opened: "Great day for the neighbourhood, like a whole new life. It wasn't perfect; I had cracks in my bathroom and in some window panes from day one. They should have done it up years ago. If they let it become a slum, people treat it like a slum, don't they? That's what began to happen - until a few years ago, when the worst left."

Vicky says it is better now: "They don't put many families and children up on these higher floors so it's quiet. I know all the neighbours and although we've had a few problems with squatters, some of them have been nicer and cleaner than the council's legal tenants. I keep in touch with a few."

A few hundred yards away, in a block exactly the same as Latham, Norman Sampson sits in a red vest in his maisonette. "We're infested with mice, the place is cracking apart, we're on emergency decant," he splutters. "It's so awful." His hand-painted banner, "Condemn the block not the people", hangs over the balcony between the abandoned satellite dishes of the neighbouring flats. Only a quarter of the tenants remain, fearful as well as angry after four recent burglaries.

Norman is a mortgaged leaseholder. Unlike the people in Latham, he bought into the Government's dream of home ownership. "I only did it to get out. I wanted to let the place appreciate in value and buy a house. I'm 60 now and I wanted a garden for my retirement. I was sold a pig in a poke."

Norman paid £50,000. The council now values it at £2,000 but has offered £20,000. But Norman is not budging. "It's a mess," says a spokesman from the council. "We don't know what's going to happen there."

Norman's action group is plotting how to get moved as Latham's group plans how to stay put. The fortnightly meeting at Latham attracts about a dozen subdued people who are a mixture of those wanting out, those resigned to moving and looking for the best possible accommodation and those discussing sit-ins. There is tension between these factions. But all agree that they are not being offered enough money to move.

One woman says: "That housing officer isn't going to know what's hit him if he tries to move us out. He pops round offering us this and that and `wouldn't you like to live here?' He's got no idea of our concerns, but he's going to get an idea."

Tower Hamlets' housing problems are not just concerned with blocks: 60 per cent of its total housing stock is in need of repair, the bill comes to £500m. "We sympathise with those who want to stay, but we haven't got the cash to keep up the repairs," says a Tower Hamlets spokesman.

Rosie looks from her kitchen. A ruddy sun is setting behind the city skyline, the Lloyd's building glows an icy neon blue and the dome of St Paul's shimmers slightly in the heat: "The worst of it is, the council says I can't have another block because there's a shortage. I'd have to pay thousands for this view in the Barbican. They're doing exactly the same to us as they did to the slums 40 years ago - destroying communities. Why can't they just let us live in our homes?"

As for Norman, his riposte to those who want to stay is blunt: "They're either old or completely mad. Me? I'd rather die."

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