A personal account of the Chuka Umunna Visit, by Stephen Kearney
(This account refers to a visit by Chuka Umunna MP in January 2015. For details of the visit planned for February 2016 see here)
A place is not deemed to be discovered until people of certified importance announce it. Who discovered America? Why, Christopher Columbus, of course, in 1492 as any schoolchild can tell you. The people who were already living there for millennia didn’t count: their IF (Importance Factor) wasn’t high enough. America was, quite simply, off the map until that westward sailing, very important Genoese gentleman put it there. And St. Martins Estate was off the map too.
On the morning of Friday, January 9th, 2015 all that changed. That was the day the estate was discovered. That was the day it joined the map of nations. A famous explorer arrived. This time it wasn’t Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartholomew Diaz or Vasco da Gama. It was another famous history guy. It was Brian Johnson, Supreme Leader of Metropolitan, no less, a man with a stellar IF factor – and in 500 years time, this is the name schoolchildren will recite when asked the question.
Explorers never arrive alone, whatever the history books say. They arrive with an entourage – and so did Brian Johnson. He was surrounded by minions of various status and IF, assistants of great consequence and job titles who in turn were surrounded by people of lesser consequence and job titles and so on down and out through the ranks, finally reaching those on the very fringes, those of no consequence – or IF – at all, the sort of people who’d be traded for 500 coconuts on the beach should the need arise.
Actually the show had been publicised in advance and, it seems, was in response to the salvos of complaints about repairs, or more precisely, lack of them that had been going on for years. I had been methodically recording ‘lights out’ around the estate since July 2014, for instance, and that alone illustrated that Metropolitan had a major problem. Like an abandoned garrison, the local staff were doing their best, but it just wasn’t enough: at best it was a rearguard action – maybe they were hoping for evacuation. It wasn’t just my opinion. Back in June 2014, another estate resident, Chris Blake, decided enough was enough and, via a mini-poster campaign, put out feelers for a TRA. He got a good response – and that’s how I got involved. On my first High Trees walkabout, I counted 91 lights out. Six visits and reports later, it had gone up to 119 by early January 2015. It wasn’t just lights, though, dare I say it, they just illuminated the problem – or didn’t, if you see what I mean. There appeared to be a fundamental management malfunction: we seemed to be going around in circles. The issue eventually made its way to Councillor Marcia Cameron who accompanied a few of us around the estate one dark November evening to see (or not) for herself. She pronounced herself to be shocked at the state of the lights, observing whole areas in darkness and some blocks with not a single stairwell light functioning. As a result of her visit, she raised a Members Question. This, apparently, is the equivalent of a broadside. Someone of some IF had set off a chain reaction that had reverberated through the land, eventually getting to the CEO (Chief Executive Officer – Managing Director in old money) of Metropolitan who suddenly realised there was an undiscovered site in south London.
On my way up the hill to join the welcome party (er hem) at the Community Centre, I encountered various members of the landing party who, among others, were introduced to me as “specialist lighting contractors”. I continued up to the appointed landing place where a cluster had gathered to look at the new arrivals. In the middle stood the great explorer himself, Brian Johnson, at the helm for two years.
I closed in. I stated our case. I handed him my prepared pack which stated our case too – I suppose you say he was getting it in stereo. He got stats, maps and a guide. You often wonder at a time like this if it goes in one ear and out the other, or in one eye and out the other, depending on the required organ. I needn’t have worried. I found him friendly, open, listening and willing to acknowledge that something had gone wrong with the management culture of Metropolitan.
Due to share the landing ceremonies was another history book contender, another big IF guy, Chuka Umunna MP. We got a message that he was running late. The disparate cluster outside the community hall gradually increased as more interested parties arrived, including Councillor Mary Atkins and Margaret Jarret, director of the development trust. The mood was informal and friendly as we milled around in the open air waiting for the other star. Eventually he arrived, very smartly attired, as is his wont. After the usual handshakes, the meeting began taking a certain shape, suffering only minor interruptions as the crowd had to rearrange itself to allow for the odd passing vehicle.
I don’t know if Brian Johnson was expecting suitably awed natives, dazzled by his IF, but it’s not what he got. Oh, he got the natives alright – restless ones, in the best tradition, and some very angry ones. With smart-suited Chuka acting as impromptu stand-up chair, which he did to considerable effect, tenant after tenant poured out their tales of leaks, mould, damp, dirt, darkness, desperation and despair – and frustration at the lack of action – to the man in the more casual attire. Brian Johnson didn’t duck. This man could function under bombardment – like the Bismarck (until it sank). With an honesty that would have surprised a politician, he agreed there had been problems in Metropolitan’s management procedures but they were working to overcome them. Of course pressure can get to people. Under relentless, if undirected, broadsides from one very angry tenant who wouldn’t let him get a word in edgeways, Brian seemed to wilt. Maybe he was hoping for a total eclipse, the traditional form of rescue in these circumstances – and it would show up the faulty lights too! Chuka came to the rescue and balance was restored. He also made sure that everyone had their say before we took off on brief a pre-arranged tour of the estate’s black spots, both literal and metaphorical. Brian Johnson could not partake and had to leave for a pre-arranged appointment, probably at some peaceful lagoon.
Before and during the brief estate inspection with the rest of the entourage, men of various IF and Chuka, I had further exchanges with the participants. Chris Quince, Metropolitan’s Public Affairs Manager (note capitals for status – high IF) promised “we won’t walk by”. I promised to hold him to his promise – and I got witnesses!! Later on, Gary Bellenger, Metropolitan’s Head of Repairs (more high IF) admitted “service wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do” and promised, barring unforeseen circumstances, the bulk of the faulty lights should be fixed by “the end of January”. Chuka was well on top of his brief as regards the estate and was aware of the scandal of the youth centre, still unused two years after its construction. Soon after he had to whizz away for yet another media interview – I suppose that’s what you get with a whizz-kid.
And thus was St. Martin’s Estate eventually discovered. Everyone was quite positive about the meeting, even those traditionally doubtful about such events. I feel we have established a closer link with the management of the estate than we have hitherto enjoyed. We can only hope that St. Martin’s stays on the map this time and will never again be written off as “terra nullius”.
The Discovery of St. Martin’s Estate © Stephen Kearney 15 January 2015